The Community of Lush: Wine, Alcohol, and the Social Bond

by Dwight Furrow

Wine taster

Food begins as a necessity and we tame it so it becomes a civilized want that can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. But wine is a different matter. Wine is not a necessity. Many people neither drink wine nor any sort of alcohol, and for most people who do indulge, it doesn't play the organizing role in life that food does. (Unless of course you write about wine) Yet, the relationship between wine and sociality seems obvious. People get drunk or at least tipsy from drinking alcohol, which loosens tongues, sheds inhibitions, and functions as a social lubricant. Although much day-to-day wine writing seldom acknowledges this, some of the more thoughtful discussions of wine take the relation between drunkenness and sociality as a brutal truth: As Adam Gopnik writes:

“Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including Parker's, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food….Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. It's the ritual context that civilizes the simple need.” (From Gopnik, The Table Comes First)

Since we do not need wine for nutritional purposes, the “need” Gopnik references is the need for a substance to smooth the rough edges of socializing. However, alcohol in general and wine in particular are among many substances that accomplish this. Rituals surrounding tea for instance play this role in many societies. Thus, it isn't obvious why alcohol must play this role. Furthermore, even if alcohol is “necessary” to grease the social wheels, there are many more efficient, less expensive ways of getting drunk than drinking wine. Thus, we must ask how plausible Gopnik's thesis is. Is getting drunk the main reason we drink wine? Does that explain why wine in particular would be associated with sociality?

In fact when we look at how wine is consumed, inebriation plays only a secondary, supportive role in explaining its connection to our social lives.

A great deal of wine is consumed at wine tastings including wine festivals, visits to wineries, or events at wine bars, restaurants, art galleries, private parties, etc. In all of these contexts, the rituals of wine tasting cast participants as tasters rather than mere drinkers by following norms that draw a sharp contrast to other forms of public drinking. Ordinary public drinking imposes few restrictions on how much alcohol one drinks, the techniques one uses for drinking or the kind of talk engaged in while drinking. At wine tastings, however, all of these factors are highly regulated. Wines are carefully listed with the qualities of each wine described in some detail. Pouring procedures include giving each participant a very small quantity in a particular order that facilitates comparisons, and participants are expected to swirl the wine in the glass to release aroma notes, sip and savor the wine, and in general approach it thoughtfully so one becomes acutely aware of the object–the wine and its aesthetic properties. The taster is then expected to express an evaluative judgment of the qualities of the wine, discuss it among companions and with the pourer, and ask the pourer questions about the wine and its production. The pourer is expected to possess knowledge of the production process and the people behind the scenes as well as to be able to provide her own more sophisticated analysis of the sensory properties of the wine to help guide the taster through the experience.

In these contexts, it is seldom appropriate to ask for more wine. The amount is carefully regulated to give each person just enough to gain an impression of the wine. And at a festival, it is wholly inappropriate to gulp and dash to the next wine as if the point was to consume as much as possible.

Thus, the wine is framed more like an art object than an alcoholic beverage and tasters are treated as art patrons. By introducing the wine, the server heightens its artistic potential by helping the taster make sense of what are often fleeting, ephemeral aesthetic sensations, providing them with taste vocabularies to help them understand the experience. Furthermore, it is typical of these events that presenters tell stories about the background of the wine producer, and if the winemaker is present details of the process are related in a way that reveals the human context behind the wine. Wine education is a central part of the event.

Thus, it would seem that inebriation is not really the goal here. The set-up in fact seems designed to limit consumption and direct attention to aesthetics.

I suppose one could still insist, as Gopnik does, that this is all a big ruse. An elaborate form of self-deception designed to provide wine drinkers with socially acceptable reasons to get drunk. But in fact drunkenness at these events is not the norm and so much of the ritual involves behavior incompatible with excessive alcohol consumption, that Gopnik's conclusion seems less than plausible. Perhaps the idea is that by getting people to focus on taste, drinking is regulated sufficiently that social relations are enhanced. Thus, tasting plays an instrumental role in managing behavior. It is a way of civilizing drunkenness so genuine human communication can take place. But that would not explain why tasters seem to be engaged in the task of tasting for its own sake-genuinely focused on the wine, with socializing playing a subsidiary role.

So I think there is something else going on. My hypothesis would be this: As a result of the norms and rituals of wine tasting the private taste experience is brought into a public space in a way analogous to art criticism where everyone present can participate in creating widely shared sensations and judgments. There is indeed a community being formed at such events around the idea of a shared sensibility that is worthy of celebration and articulation. The intentional focus on articulating personal, privately-held sensations becomes the mechanism through which we create social bonds around the aesthetic properties of the wine. And the social bond then feeds back on individuals and becomes the mechanism through which people make sense of their own experience. By discussing their sensations, tasters express their own aesthetic sensibilities and attitudes while learning to make sense of the wine presented for tasting. Thus, the participants create as well as consume aesthetic meaning. Wine tasting is “creative culture-making”-a peculiar, contemporary form of culture that is temporary, easy to enter and exit, set off from other cultures, and based on nothing but the creative product itself.

Just as a picture frame allows aesthetic enjoyment of paintings to take place by enclosing the act of viewing, the rituals of wine tasting enclose our taste sensations, walling off the experience from the rest of life so it becomes an autonomous, aesthetic experience. The sensations themselves are held in common in this temporary, autonomous community and these sensations are the glue that hold it together.

All of this, of course, is a kind of performance, rituals enacted that fit participants into various roles. But it is not merely a habitual acting out of high culture. It is not merely a form of conspicuous consumption that signals high status. Of course, people have a variety of motives for participating. The argument isn't that no one is getting drunk or engaged in conspicuous consumption. But the aim of the event is neither.

Is the alcohol then just an irrelevant byproduct? No. Not at all. The smells, flavors, and tactile sensations of (good) wine are arresting in the sense that they capture and hold your attention, fill the mouth, nose and throat with rousing, exhilarating, constantly shifting sensations that provoke the imagination. The mild intoxication of moderate alcohol consumption amplifies these sensations making them even more vibrant and captivating. Furthermore, wine tasting is an imaginative activity that is inherently social-the conversation around wine enhances the tasting experience. Thus, the mild buzz induced by the modest amounts of alcohol helps that conversation flow with sociability, humor, and grace. The effects of alcohol are an enhancement, not the goal of the activity. They help enable the sense of community formed around the lush, aesthetic sensations of wine.

But those aesthetic sensations–of harmony, sensuality, complexity, finesse, and the patterns of smells and textures–stand on their own and need no further aim. Beauty is it own reward and doesn't need an excuse.

For more rumination on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts