Wine, Love and Spirituality

by Dwight Furrow

This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs…. (211 c-d, Plato's Symposium)

Dionysus,_God_of_WineWe throw the word “love” around without really meaning it. We “love” ice cream, sunsets, or the latest soon-to-be-forgotten pop song. But such “love” requires no commitment and hardly seems worthy of being in the same category as the love of one's child or spouse. Yet, some objects or activities are worthy objects of love because they solicit our sustained attention and care—a great work of art, a career, baseball, a religion. For some people wine seems to fall into this latter category of worthy objects of love. Many people abandon lucrative, stable careers for the uncertainties and struggles of winemaking; others spend a lifetime of hard intellectual labor to understand its intricacies; still others circle the globe seeking to sample rare and unusual bottles. Wine seems to have an attraction that goes beyond mere “liking”—a spiritual dimension that requires explanation.

The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression, and wine was thought to encourage that transformation . The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations. The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and gets a number of mentions in the Bible. Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations.

Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of “spiritual” some more debased than others.

What makes wine an appropriate object of love? Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn't only because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn't have it. It is not because it tastes good. Lots of beverages or foods taste good, but they lack wine's power to move us.

Spirituality is about inward transformation. Dionysus was a gender-bending, shape-shifting God who entered the soul and transformed the identity of the one afflicted. Go with Dionysus and achieve ecstasy by escaping the confines of one's identity; resist and be torn apart by conflicting passions, according to the myth. Wine too is about transformation–the grapes in the vineyard, the wine in the barrel and bottle, the drink in the glass as its volatile chemicals release an aromatic kaleidoscope of fleeting, irresolute incense. Wine changes profoundly over time. In turn, the drinker is transformed by the wine. But not merely by the alcoholic loosening of inhibitions or the ersatz identity appropriated through wine's symbolic association with status. Instead, the wine lover, at least on rare occasion, is transformed by the openness to experience she undergoes when gripped by sensations whose very beauty compels her full attention. For unlike any other drink, wine has that ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets.

In a recent essay on this site, I argued that being gripped by a sensation of genuine quality, not merely having a sensation but being moved by it, is a pre-condition of love. By “genuine quality” I mean the properties of something or someone that promise more than superficial engagement because they exhibit great variety or complexity, intensity, and provide a deep contrast with static, familiar, ordinary things. Complexity, intensity, and stark singularity have this power to move us because they indicate that the object and our relationship to it have great developmental potential. They extend the promise that further involvement will take us on a journey where new paths are forged and new connections made. There is mystery about the object and how it unfolds over time that sparks the imagination. This felt potential for further engagement is a natural lure that makes something “loveable”, that demands we care about it.

The people we fall in love with have this mystery engendered by complexity, intensity, and stark contrast with the ordinary. The wines we fall in love with have it as well. It is the essence of the “aha” moment that most wine lovers experience and strive to rediscover. It is not merely sensory quality that matters but the potential for further engagement signaled by the sensory quality that matters, a promise of things to come that sparks the imagination. Ice cream, sunsets, and mere acquaintances don't provide that spark. Of course whether we fall in love or not depends on how that engagement proceeds, but the initial impetus toward love is aesthetic and seems akin to a sculptor seeing potential in a block of stone. Love begins as a promise of adventure dragging us toward an indeterminate end.

When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the self. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music—a moment of ecstasy. So it is with wine. No other beverage has the depth, complexity, and textural refinement to create that momentary mutation of the self.

But what is it about wine that can deliver on this sense of mystery and adventure? Is wine just a pretty face promising something that in the end remains superficial, incapable of sustaining mystery? Sensuality is only the beginning of love; a beloved must reward sustained attention, it must really have the depth of meaning the sensory surface promises, otherwise we lose interest. And, indeed, attraction to wine does not remain purely sensual. Most people who get in to it do more than drink it. They want to learn about it or produce it or seek it out embarking on a path of discovery. All wine lovers are moved by a sense of discovery.

Beyond the sensory features, the key feature of wine that makes it an object of love is that it reflects its origins. Wine when properly made exhibits the features of the vineyard and climate in which the grapes are grown, the decisions of the winemaker when contemplating her approach to a vintage, the craft and skill of the crew that makes the wine, and the taste of the community that has nurtured a style of winemaking for decades if not centuries. It is that fascination with origins that sustains the pursuit. But why should this evocation of origins be so important?

Psychologist Paul Bloom has been arguing that fascination with origins is baked into human experience.

…we respond to what we believe are objects' deeper properties, including their histories. Sensory properties are relevant and so is signaling, but the pleasure we get from the right sort of history explains much of the lure of luxury items—and of more mundane consumer items as well…. We are not empiricists, obsessed with appearance. Rather, the surfaces of things are significant largely because they reflect an object's deeper nature.

According to Bloom a genuine Armani suit or Rolex watch is worth more than an identical knock-off because we care about their origins. We value objects more if we own them, chose them or had to work hard to get them. We value objects that have been touched by celebrities or if they have some special story behind them, including of course objects that have something to do with our own past. What all these examples have in common is an evocative history.

In his book How Pleasure Works, Bloom assembles compelling empirical evidence that this focus on history is universal and emerges early in childhood.

Bloom's analysis seems especially appropriate for wine because the wine world has traditionally been organized to reflect the importance of history and place of origin. Connoisseurs spend thousands for a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild, a storied chateau in Bordeaux, the most famous wine region in the word, even though there are wines equally compelling at a fraction of the cost. Classic wine regions have for centuries marketed wines based on location rather than varietal because consumers value this connection to place. Wine lovers fall head over heels for wines from obscure regions or that are distinctive because they reflect the unique characteristics of a vineyard even though perfectly acceptable industrial wines are available at the supermarket. Wine tourists are willing to spend $40 for a bottle at the winery that might be worth $10 on the supermarket shelf, especially if they meet the winemaker and tour the facility where the wine is made and thus are able to connect the wine to its origin. Wine is a beverage uniquely able to reflect its origins via flavors, aromas, and textures, and classic wine regions have spent centuries cultivating those characteristics that make them distinctive. Newer wine regions are hard at work trying to discover what sets them apart because having a compelling story about origins will connect them to wine lovers.

Bloom is wrong to discount the importance of sensory properties. After all, if a wine lacks distinctive sensory properties we won't care about its origins and will quickly lose interest. Love begins with sensation but the beloved must promise more—in the case of wine it is the allure of location and the human qualities that feed its production that engender love because these have the depth to carry us on a journey of discovery and connection.

This is why artisanal winemaking methods and an ideology that resists industrial winemaking methods that cover up or distort the influence of the vineyard are so important in preserving wine's status as an object of love. Without that connection to place and history, wine risks becoming just another commodity, pleasant and enjoyable to be sure, but without the depth of meaning that wine lovers crave and thus incapable of fulfilling (with apologies to Plato) the Dionysian promise to climb love's ladder.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and Cultural Revolution.