Wines of Anger and Joy (Part 1)

by Dwight Furrow

Emotion and wineCan we make sense of the idea that wines express emotion?

No doubt wine can trigger feelings. Notoriously, at a party, wine triggers feelings of conviviality via the effects of alcohol. But the wine isn't expressing anything in that case. It's the people via their mannerisms and interaction encouraged by the wine that are expressing feelings of conviviality. The wine is a causal mechanism, not itself an expression of these feelings.

The concept of expression need not be restricted to feelings. To express is to externalize an inward state. In a very straightforward sense some wines express the nature of the grapes in a particular vintage and the soils and climate of the vineyard. But for better or worse, in aesthetics, we tend to be more interested in the expression of psychological agents rather than pieces of fruit. Perhaps that is a mere prejudice, but one we are unlikely to dispense with given the importance of human emotions to our sensibility. If wines are expressive in the sense that is of interest in aesthetics, it will be because they express some human quality.

Of course a wine expresses the winemaker's idea of what the grapes of a particular vintage and location should taste like. But that is an idea, not a feeling or emotion, and at least historically, the concept of expression in aesthetics has focused on feelings as the central case. Thus, although wine expresses ideas and nature, it will be via emotion that it earns any expressivist credentials.

The most discussed expression theory was formulated by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and we can begin to unravel the sense in which wine expresses feelings by considering his theory. While implausible as a general theory of artistic expression, Tolstoy's "transmission" theory has the virtue of being an intuitively plausible account of how some works of art express emotion, and I think it directly applies to at least some wines.

According to Tolstoy, a work of art expresses emotion when an artist feels an emotion and embodies that emotion in a work of art in a way that successfully transmits that emotion to the audience who then feel the same emotion as the artist. Thus, for example, a composer might intend to express sadness via her music using a minor key and lugubrious rhythm. If the audience then feels sad as a result of hearing the composition, the work is successful as an expression of sadness, according to Tolstoy's theory.

Some winemakers are trying to capture for their clientele their own feelings of awe and wonder experienced when they first discovered the beauty of wine. Many winemakers talk about being inspired by a trip to France or Italy where they encountered a particular flavor experience to which they had an emotional response, and they seek to transmit that feeling to their clientele via their own wines. Just as a smile expresses the presence of joy, or a piece of music in a minor key expresses sadness as intended by a composer, a winemaker can intend that her wines evoke an emotive response of awe and wonder.

Tolstoy's theory has its problems as a general theory of emotional expression in the arts. The requirement that the artist feel the same emotion she is transmitting is too strong as is the claim that a successful sad composition must make the audience feel sad. Counter-examples abound. But as an account of one way in which emotional expression occurs, it is a useful theory and illuminates one way in which wine can express emotion.

However, Tolstoy's idea of "transmission" does not exhaust the ways in which an object might express an emotion. "Expression" sometimes refers to how something looks or sounds without their being anyone in the emotional state expressed by the work. Consider for instance the sense in which a fog-shrouded lake is gloomy or a melody is ominous. We attribute gloom to the lake because of the way it looks regardless of whether it makes us feel gloomy; a melody is ominous because of the way it sounds without the audience feeling a sense of impending doom.

We seem to have a natural, perhaps unavoidable, tendency to attribute human feeling states to non-sentient objects. In the case of the fog-shrouded lake there is no artist imbuing the lake with gloomy features. Rather the perceiver is projecting gloominess onto the lake. In the case of the ominous melody it was of course the composer or songwriter who conceived the melody, but we might still project an ominous feeling onto the melody independently of whether the composer intended that and without the listener herself feeling gloomy.

With regard to wine, perhaps the most universally projected feelings have to do with romance. Throughout its history, wine has not only been a symbol of romance, but a symbol with the power to induce feelings and express them as well. Voluptuous fruit, seductive aromas, silky textures, and a languid evolution can induce feelings and heightened sensory awareness akin to the felt allure of a romantic encounter. It is both a cause of those feelings and an expression of them since the wine exemplifies the properties it is symbolizing. It's not just the alcohol having this effect since other alcoholic beverages lack that association with romance. I argued above that wine through its alcoholic effects induces feelings of conviviality. But in doing so it acquires symbolic significance, exemplifying sociability and good cheer, and thus becomes an expression of conviviality as well.

If wine were able to express only feelings of conviviality and romance, its range as an expressive medium would be rather limited. Can wine legitimately express a wider range of feelings? Although it has fallen out of favor in recent years as wine language has become more technical and analytic, if you look at tasting notes from the not too distant past, there is some basis for attributing a wider range of emotional expressiveness to wines. Wines can be lively, dark, austere, fun, aggressive, sensual, luxuriant, fierce, muddled or unfocused, grandiose, angry, dignified, brooding, explosive, amiable, joyful, bombastic, calm, languid, carefree, feral, provocative, reflective, somber, tender, tense, or visceral. All of these suggest the taster perceives feeling or mood states in the wine via some kind of projection. And of course we can project personality or behavioral traits onto wine as well such as shy, reserved, or ebullient.

Is there a rational basis for these attributions? And should they be a central element in descriptions of wine? Or Is such projection subjective fantasy having little to do with the wine itself? With regard to gloomy landscapes and ominous melodies, if subjects were exposed to them and we were to take a poll, I suspect there would be widespread agreement about the appropriateness of these descriptors. Furthermore, it is widely assumed, with some limited evidence, that horizontal lines in a painting evoke feelings of serenity while vertical lines suggest striving and aspiration. Certain colors are thought to have emotional significance as well, with red associated with aggression, and yellow the color of happiness. Might the features of wine have similar associations?

Wine is a vague object, its features not as clearly discernible as fog over a lake or the contours of a melody. The features that make a wine angry might be thick, aggressive tannins, high alcohol, and searing acidity supporting bold, dark fruit—some Cabernet Sauvignon is best described as angry, especially if it hasn't had time to age in the bottle. Without some understanding of what counts as aggressive acidity and grainy tannins the perception of anger might not be available. But the fact that perception requires training or familiarity does not preclude it being a genuine expression.

No doubt perceiving emotion in non-psychological objects is an imaginative process. I suppose we can project anything onto anything. Someone could view a fog-shrouded lake as cheerful or that ominous melody as lighthearted. But that projection is unlikely to be successful either as a description for others to enjoy or as a repeatable projection that would seem appropriate again and again. For such a projection to be sustainable there must be some relationship between the way something looks or sounds and the feeling state being projected. Thus, although the attribution is a projection of a subject it is constrained by the features the object is perceived to possess.

But this brings us to one of the knottier issues in aesthetics: What is the relationship between the perceived emotion and the features of an object (music, a painting, or wine) that anchor the projection? This issue is usually addressed in the philosophy of music because similar issues arise in describing a piece of music as, for instance, sad despite the fact that the music need not induce sadness in anyone. What justifies attributing sadness to the music? Our understanding of wine and emotion would profit from a comparison with the current state of this debate in music.

The main theories on offer are:

  1. The aforementioned arousal theory which has contemporary versions more sophisticated than Tolstoy's discussed above. The basic idea is that there are basic, non-cognitive feeling states in the listener caused by the music that anchor and make appropriate our more complex attributions of emotions such as anger or sadness;

  2. Resemblance theories which assert some resemblance between music's dynamic character and the dynamic character of people experiencing emotions such as their vocal expression or the contour of their bodily behavior; and

  3. Theories of metaphor which assert that projections of emotion onto music are a matter of mapping relations from one domain (experienced emotions) onto relations in another domain (the experience of music).

My view regarding music is that all three are correct. All identify a phenomenologically plausible account of how music expresses emotion and we deploy all three when experiencing the rich connections between music and emotion. But do they apply to wine as well? Wine is less obviously expressive of emotion than music. Almost everyone experiences music as emotionally expressive; most people drink wine without ever making the connection to emotion. That suggests a more tenuous relation between wine and emotion although as I noted above seeing the connection may require training or perhaps the emergence of a social convention and practice devoted to it.

But settling this question would require a careful mapping of features of wine and features of emotion, a task strangely inhibited by this decidedly tranquil bottle of Cabernet sitting before me persuading me to put off the analysis until next month.

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