Wine and the Metaphysics of Time

by Dwight Furrow

Old wine storageWine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.

Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform–objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.

When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.

Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.

The patient savoring of wine demands that we acknowledge and live within the constraints of the constant and insurmountable rhythm of the seasons, the vagaries of climate and weather, and other threats that make farming hazardous and uncertain. The resistance of the world is inscribed in the flavors that reflect the unique qualities of geographical locations (terroir), the impact of weather on ripeness, and influence of climate and soil on the savory kaleidoscope of flavors, all factors over which we had very limited control until the advent of modern technology. Yet because of human technology and skill, wine can also be so refined that nature is but a trace succumbing to the vision of the winemaker and thoroughly mediated by culture. Wine sits on the border of nature and culture and can be taken in either direction.

However for me it is the aging process of wine that is most intriguing. Of course aged wines are gorgeous when properly cared for. Wines that contain lots of flavor precursors, and the tannin and acidity to protect that flavor from oxidation, undergo chemical processes that produce a stunning array of entrancing perfume; and as the tannins soften and bond with other components, the texture becomes velvety soft with all components perfectly integrated. The result is always interesting and often transcendently exquisite—paradise in a glass.

Only a few wines will improve with age. Premium California Cabernet, Bordeaux Blends, Italian Borolo, Spanish Rioja, and Syrah from the Northern Rhone are among the wines that will age well. Some white wines—Chenin Blanc, well-made Chardonnay and Riesling—will also improve in the bottle. But it takes time, 5-30 years, for wines to reach maturity and knowing when a bottle is at its peak is an utter crapshoot. Storage conditions must be perfect or you risk opening an expensive bottle of vinegar; and bottles of wine develop as individuals with substantial bottle variation even when the wine is from the same producer and vintage. In other words, you never know what you will get when the cork is pulled. The greatest virtue of a wine lover is patience; the second is the ability to suffer disappointment with grace. The sage who said hedonists lack virtue was not a wine lover.

But beyond flavor, the temporality of old wines is even more intriguing. All wine as it begins to age in the bottle loses some of its original flavor components. It will never taste young and fresh again and as the years go by, its original flavor becomes more distant, never to be tasted again as each bottle takes on its own character and develops in unpredictable ways.

It is common practice among wine lovers to purchase a wine showing the vintage of a child's birth year—a commemoration of a singular event. Indeed, an aged wine does reveal something about the year the grapes were grown—weather conditions and winemaking style contribute to the flavor of the final product. But 10, 20 or 30 years later when a wine is opened, what is alluded to is really a process of development and decay. It is time passing that is revealed, not a singular moment in the past. Drinking aged wines is not about nostalgia for a past moment but an appreciation of lost time, a celebration of decline, for what is revealed is the result of oxygen, the polymerization of anthocyanins, aroma esters collapsing and reforming, color molecules becoming sediment, the cumulative result of these changes becoming an individual no longer firmly linked to its origins.

However, we experience none of that. A bottle from a past vintage alludes to the utter recalcitrance of the past, its never-to-be-retrieved. It is a metaphor for what philosopher Emmanual Levinas calls the immemorial, not just what is forgotten, but what has never been remembered, time irretrievably lost and available only as a sensation of flavor and texture. For we have no idea what happened in that bottle over the intervening years. It sat mutely in the cellar for decades never revealing its narrative, locked away in glass, giving away almost nothing to our awareness. Only when it is opened does it reveal itself as flavor and texture, but never as memory.

Thus wine is different from other treasured objects that we keep around us that serve as memory enhancers. Most treasured objects mark episodes and become part of one's narrative. When I pick up an old book I recall when it was purchased. The marks on the cover remind me of the backpack it resided in during a trek across country. The margins contain scribble notes that recall patterns of thought, provoke rueful memories of bad reasoning, the dog eared pages marking the end of a day, the random scraps of paper found between the pages, the shopping lists, receipts, etc. all elements of a story that can be retold. The ideas contained therein recall moments in my intellectual history and allow a revisiting of ideas long forgotten. They are all elements in a narrative that can be woven with a received history and become again part of memory. Old wine can never be so assimilated to memory. Opening a bottle is always a confrontation with the unknowable.

Furthermore, unlike family heirlooms and other treasured objects that we can pass down through generations, all wine is destined to be utterly and completely lost. Once the bottles are consumed or stored so long they turn to vinegar, nothing remains of that unique and singular work. On Saturday, January 24, 2015 at approximately 6:00 P.M. the very last bottle of a fine Eyrie Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was poured. I claim to know this because the winery asserts it was their last bottle. Perhaps in some dusty cellar there rests another copy but that would be mere speculation. We must face facts, something remarkable had left the world at that moment. It is not often one attends the death of a wine, especially such a glorious finale. When poets write of a “good death” they surely had this in mind. Leafy at first, with mushroom essence, gradually like a trickling tide, leather and meat emerge woven with hints of brown sugar, only to give way to lovely floral notes as it sits in the glass. Graceful yet almost weightless on the palate, dried fruits wrapped in still vibrant acidity usher in a generous mineral-inflected finish that provokes and then fades like a memory. There is so much quiet energy restrained yet riveting, it went gentle into that good night but with all its integrity on full display.

Perhaps I cannot write a proper eulogy of this wine: I was not present at its birth, never witnessed the awkward stage before finding its voice; I missed the full flowering of youthful energy and the gathering of patinated wisdom. As noted, it is immemorial time that is celebrated when we open a bottle. But perhaps that doesn't matter. I strongly suspect this wine's best moments were its last. Aristotle thought that one could only assess the goodness of a life when it nears its end—only then is the fullness of its goal revealed, the end point at which all things aim. Surely this moment was the telos of Pinot Noir. For all things that aspire to firmness of character to its last moments, this wine was an inspiration. The song has ended; only a dim memory of flavor lives on.

We will give Lord Byron the last word:

Oh snatch'd away in beauty's bloom!

On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;

But on thy turf shall roses rear

Their leaves the earliest of the year

And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom.

It is these glimpses of the sacred in the everyday, a tissue of little things that really make life meaningful. By transforming the commonplace, a pile of grapes, into vinous art we reinforce the sacred in the profane and suffuse life with an aura of mystery visible only when the useless becomes bewitching.

Sadly, this most pleasurable aspect of wine is unknown to most consumers. 95% of all wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed within one week after purchase. Contemporary consumers lack the patience, fortitude, or storage space to squirrel away expensive bottles for many years with an uncertain outcome, and thus they miss much of what wine has to offer. As a result, contemporary winemakers, taking their cue from the market, increasingly make wine designed to be consumed soon after bottling. It used to be that wines made for aging were tough and awkward when young. But thanks to vast improvements in the technology of winemaking, most wines today are enjoyable with just a little bottle age. As a consequence, a great debate has begun among wine experts about whether wines made today will age as well as the stalwarts from the past. Time will tell.