Wine and the Comforts of Home

by Dwight Furrow

Burgundy regionAccording to some theories of art, for something to be a work of art it must have meaning. It must be about something and represent what it is about. Last month, on this blog, I argued that some culinary preparations are works of art when they perform this representational function, much to the consternation of some of my Facebook friends who are convinced that something as humble as food should never be associated with the pretensions of the art world. Yet, it is the very humbleness of food that, in part, qualifies it as art. Food can be about many things, but one thing it surely is about is the home. Some foods provoke our memories and imaginations as a representation of domestic life. We call such food “comfort food” because its filling, uncomplicated features haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home. Exemplifications of the taste of home are only one way in which food serves this representational function but are nevertheless central to its significance.

What about wine? Can wine have meaning just as a work of art has meaning? Specifically, does wine evoke feelings of “homeyness”–security, nourishment and being cared for? For most Americans, probably not. Few Americans grow up with wine as a crucial component of their meals. But cultural norms are quite different in, for instance, France, where traditionally wine is served with most meals and children are occasionally encouraged to have a taste. However, most children (thankfully) do not really acquire a taste for it until later in life, so I doubt that it quite has the resonance that familiar foods have. Nevertheless, if we think of “home” more broadly, not as a domicile, but as the bit of geography that constitutes the center of one's world, where one's roots are planted and physical and psychological sustenance is gathered, wine can evoke “homeyness” at least in those parts of the world where generations have struggled to squeeze magic from grapes and where the notion of “terroir” is taken very seriously–France, Italy, and Germany, among many others. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to the vinous arts but even here many wine communities are beginning to develop self-conscious traditions based on the features of their soil and climate and their influence on flavor, the understanding of which is handed down through generations.

The much debated word “terroir” refers to everything that contributes to the distinctiveness of a vineyard. The climate, soil composition, aspect to the sun, local yeasts and other organisms, and elevation influence the flavor characteristics of the grapes. If the winemaker is concerned to preserve those distinctive characteristics, the flavor, aroma, and texture of the wine will reflect what wine writer Matt Kramer calls “somewhereness”, the fact that it is a product of a particular vineyard site.

Thus, for locations where the wine culture is preoccupied with preserving terroir, such as in the Burgundy region of France, many wines will exhibit the distinctive characteristics of the vineyards in which they were grown. They exhibit the taste of home for people who live there. It might be a matter of their flavor profile or texture. It is not necessarily related to quality. Even relatively simple wines can reflect terroir, assuming they were not over-cropped or manipulated in the winery.

Along with the influence of microclimate and soil composition, the taste of wine is also the product of a community's history and customs. Terroir can be discovered and preserved only if the community sustains the practices and the values that give terroir meaning. Wine is a natural product that must be cared for in a very focused and precise way in order to properly express the properties of terroir. It requires time, effort, love, and commitment. Thus, such wines express the values, attitudes and moral ideals of the people who make it. If we have sufficient background knowledge to understand these relationships, the taste of wine tells us something about the world of the people who grow the grapes, make the wine, and support their industry. These are not just associations in which the qualities of the wine are contingently juxtaposed with qualities of the life of that micro-region. The life surrounding the vineyard helps to explain the taste of the wine and, therefore, the wine expresses and symbolizes that life.

The philosophical problem is to explain how the taste of the wine represents the home in a way that lines up with how artworks represent their subjects. True, the taste of the wine is a product of the soil, climate, and social norms of a particular region. But if wine is an art, the aesthetic properties of the work must be about something. In what sense is the flavor of the wine about the region or a representation of the region? How do the flavors and textures mean “homeyness”? The mere fact that the climate, soil, and characteristics of the people cause the flavor to exist is not sufficient. A light switch causes a light to glow, but the glowing light is not a representation of the switch.

One possible answer would be that the flavors in the wine are an imitation of some aspect of the soil–we can literally taste the soil in the wine. Some people claim this about particular wines, but it is unlikely to be true. The science doesn't support the view that flavors of the soil are directly transferred to the wine, and this idea has been largely debunked in recent years. But, in any case, imitation was never an adequate answer to how pictures represent their subjects either.

Part of the answer to this question about the nature of representation is that the people who work a particular vineyard and make the wine have chosen to interpret particular flavors as representing their home. They have decided that their lives are profoundly structured around these flavors and that the flavors mean something to them. Symbols in other contexts are similarly a product of collective decision, i.e. convention. For instance, Americans decided that the American flag represents their country and there is a history and a set of institutions to support that decision. But the flag also highlights certain features of American history–the stars represent the number of states in the union, the stripes the original thirteen colonies–which gives plausibility to the decision. Similarly, Edvard Munch and his critics decided that, in his famous painting “The Scream”, lurid, irregular bands of orange, yellow, and blue stand for emotional turmoil. But the decision was not arbitrary. The vividness, sharply-etched contrasts, and irregular bands highlight the vividness and wild fluctuations of emotional turmoil–which gives plausibility to the decision.

The decisions by Burgundians to treat the flavors of their wines as symbols of home are similarly based on good reasons. The flavors of aesthetically successful Burgundian wines exhibit fineness of conception and precision of execution which in turn highlight the care, attention, and moral ideals that make those flavors possible. Fineness of conception and precision of execution are properties of the wine. They can be tasted or smelled. Furthermore, the flavors and textures represent a shared sensibility, not only referring to that sensibility but exemplifying it, just as the aesthetic properties of paintings exemplify what they represent. The flavors and textures of the wines exemplify what they mean. They show what they are saying just as the colors, lines, and textures of paintings show what they say.

But there is further dimension of this approach to winemaking that reinforces these references to home. These wines express difference. As wine writer Matt Kramer notes:

“The greatness of French wines in general-and Burgundy in particular-can be traced to the fact that the French do not ask of one site that it replicate the qualities of another site. They prize distinction.” (This is true of French philosophy as well as French wine I might add.)

That expression of difference is in part why wine expresses “homeyness”. The home too is a place that puts a premium on difference. The home is not just a place that feels familiar, comfortable, or nurturing. Lots of places might exhibit these characteristics. But they are not “home” because they don't feel uniquely mine. They don't reflect the distinctive personality and character of an individual or group. Home is the one place that is not like anywhere else. That same kind of distinction is the aim of a winemaker concerned with preserving terroir. It is this character of distinctiveness related to place that is fundamental to the meaning that (at least some) wine has. It is a search for distinctiveness. I doubt that there is another agricultural product that is capable of expressing such distinctiveness. For some of the wine producers in Burgundy, the distinctiveness of their wine just is the distinctiveness of home. Thus, it cannot be argued that wine tells us nothing about ourselves or the world. For people engaged in a particular kind of winemaking, wine is an expression of their form of life, with some of the same connotations of home that we attribute to comfort food.

It is perhaps unfortunate that most wine production does not have this close tie to the home. To the extent wine is viewed as a commodity, these connections to the home are severed. But we can be thankful for the Burgundians and the other wine producers scattered throughout the world who hold tightly to the idea that wine is comfort food.

For more ruminations of the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.