Wine and Epiphany

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard 2Almost everyone connected to the world of wine has a story about their “aha” experience, the precise moment when they discovered there was something extraordinary about wine. For some that moment is a sudden, unexpected wave of emotion that overcomes them as they drink a wine that seems utterly superior to anything they had consumed in the past. For others it's the culmination of many lesser experiences that overtime gather and build to a crescendo when they recognize that these disparate paths all lead to a consummate experience that should be a constant presence in their lives going forward.

For me it was the former. As a casual and occasional consumer of ordinary wine for many years, I had my first taste of quality Pinot Noir in a fine Asian “tapas” restaurant. I was blown away by the finesse with which the spice notes in the food seemed to resonate with similar flavors in the wine. The wine, I now know, was an ordinary mid-priced Pinot Noir from Carneros; Artesa was the producer. But to me in that moment, it was extraordinarily beautiful and I resolved to make that experience a regular part of life.

A simple Google search will turn up any number of these stories. The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague interviewed several wine lovers about their “aha” moment. One became intrigued by wine while an art student in Italy, another when he discovered he had a discerning palate, many report childhood experiences of being impressed by the serious conversations about wine among the adults in their lives, others were intrigued by wine's complexity or the sense of adventure and risk involved in the winemaking process. Teague herself reports the wine talk of her study-abroad family in Ireland as the catalyst that launched her career as a wine writer.

These stories have two things in common. In each case the experiences are motivating. Like all experiences of beauty we don't passively have them and move on. The recognition of genuine beauty inspires us to want more.

As philosopher Alexander Nehamas writes comparing our response to beautiful persons with our response to art:

A work we admire, a work we love, a work we find, in a word, beautiful sparks within us the same need to rush to converse with it, the same sense that it has more to offer, the same willingness to submit to it, the same desire to make it part of our life. (Only a Promise of Happiness, 205)

The second feature of these stories is that the “aha” moment happens only after the stage has been set. A novice with little prior experience with wine or engagement with wine culture will not have the discernment to have an “aha” moment. It is fundamentally an experience of difference which can have an impact only if a storehouse of ordinary has already been established. Only after we build an intuitive sense of what wine should taste like and what quality means can the conditions for an “aha” moment be present. Some of the above reports are of people who experienced their epiphany when very young, but in these cases they had been exposed to wine and wine talk over a significant period of time and were already thoroughly absorbed in wine culture.

These two features, the motivational dimension and the need for stage-setting suggests that the “aha” experience is more than just an experience of pleasure. It is falling in love.

To the uninitiated this probably sounds peculiar. Wine talk is often criticized for being pretentious and without substance and wine lovers can be the subject of derision when their obsession is on display. Shouldn't the word “love” be confined to our feelings for persons, pets, or spiritual beings? For those who have not yet swooned perhaps wine seems too insignificant to be a proper object of loving attention.

To see why this dismissive attitude is mistaken we need to explore the nature of love.

As I argued more extensively in an earlier essay, love is a response to the perception of value. We love something when we discover consummate value in it. But we don't love something because we have reasons to do so. Love isn't primarily an intellectual apprehension like assenting to the conclusion of an argument. It's a matter of emotion, a feeling of strong attraction, but based on perception and sensibility. When we love something we sense that it is pregnant with possibility. This is especially true of wine since our experience of it is rooted in sensation.

Even ordinary, everyday perceptions are infused with implicit value judgments that are related to possibilities and our expectations about them. I don't simply see the bus hurtling down the street, but judge its trajectory as benign or threatening, as normal or abnormal, and these value judgments are as much a part of our perceptions as sensing a color, shape, or flavor. This is especially true of what we ingest. When we taste something we immediately make a value judgment– we like it or we don't, it's familiar or unfamiliar, apparently safe or potentially dangerous.

But these judgments we make as part of our perceptual sensibilities are not judgments of something static. The things we perceive are disposed to change. A glass bowl is disposed to break even when sitting comfortably on a shelf, a disposition that becomes more evident when the shelf tilts. This expectation of change, the intuition that objects exist on a trajectory of ordered transformation related to an object's possibilities, is built into our perceptual judgments and we therefore, without deliberation, reach out to prevent the bowl from falling. Part of our perceptual sensibility is recognizing the potential of a situation, and often this is nothing more than a pervasive feeling of rightness or wrongness that motivates us to take action.

And so it is with love. The initial affinities that ultimately become full blown love emerge from this pervasive quality that things have as we encounter them in experience. The example above of a generic bowl sitting on a generic shelf was of a simple object with a limited set of dispositions that issue in routine expectations. It isn't pregnant with unfolding possibilities—it most likely will just continue to sit there, mutely and obscurely doing its thing. It is unlikely to be loved without some very special circumstances that allow it to acquire more potential. But many persons, objects, or practices that we encounter have deep and diverse potential based on the recognition of developing but incomplete patterns in their nature some of which our actions can help complete. We see in them, the potential for further involvement, not as a plan or policy but as a felt richness when they seem tailor-made for our engagement.

Wine offers this kind of engagement. In wine once we have some knowledge and experience with it, we sense many dimensions influenced by a vast array of unpredictable factors. It is only fermented grape juice but it displays a seemingly infinite array of different ways of being delicious, all of them reflecting significant geographical variations across much of the globe, deeply embedded cultural traditions, as well as the imaginations of dedicated winemakers all in symbiotic relation to the foods we eat, and all in constant change. This potential is what immersion in wine culture enables us to sense.

This is the real meaning of “quality”—a set of dispositional properties that promise more than superficial engagement because they have great variety, intensity or provide a deep contrast with static, familiar, completed patterns. This felt potential for further engagement is a natural lure, an attractant that demands our active engagement.

What we sense in that aha moment then is a world opening up that seems to have no boundaries yet draws all of life together. In this respect, wine is no different from other things we love. Everything we encounter in experience is an opportunity for a continuing transaction, whether through attraction or repulsion. The things we love—our children, romantic partners, friends, activities or objects such as wine, music, sports, books, etc.—have an initial grip on us because we sense that they are redolent with possibilities. Sensation has a holistic, agential quality; the restless energy of curiosity commandeers our sensory mechanisms employing them as probes seeking intensity, qualitative contrast, and potential patterns to be completed by further actions. The value judgments we make about objects, activities, or persons begin as this affective “standing out” against a background of normalcy.

The precondition of love is this recognition of quality. We sense that some objects, persons, or practices are pregnant with potential because they afford us opportunities for engagement. Of course whether we fall in love or not depends on how that engagement proceeds, but the initial impetus toward love is aesthetic. The “aha” moment is possible only when we have enough acquaintance with wine to sense all of this.

The love of wine, then, is not just a passive, pleasurable response to a stimulus. It is shot through with expectations and judgments. And like anything else we love it involves mystery. The “aha” moment is a moment in which you taste something you have never tasted before. It's an experience of depth and a recognition that there is more here than one might expect, that the wine and the wine world have more to give, that my engagement hasn't reached its full potential. Beauty draws us in because the patterns we sense are incomplete.

Is wine uniquely capable of producing this experience, at least among beverages? Far be it from me to argue with beer or scotch fans but only wine seems to have the strong connection to place, traversing the boundary between nature and culture that becomes more fascinating the more “nature” disappears. That something so cultured and refined is subject to the vagaries of geography, and utterly dependent on farming, is one of the enduring mysteries of wine, a transformation to which bearing witness deserves to be called epiphany.

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