Liquid Kitsch: Wine, Beauty and the Obsession with Smooth

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_3018 Mar. 26 09.14It is natural to invoke beauty as the aesthetic ideal that winemakers strive to achieve and wine lovers seek to discover. Throughout much of the history of aesthetics beauty has named the highest form of aesthetic order. As Elaine Scarry writes, beauty is:

Sacred, lifesaving, having as precedent only those things which are themselves unprecedented, beauty has a fourth feature: it invites deliberation….Beauty almost without any effort of our own acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterwards one is willing to labour, struggle, wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true. (Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, 26-31)

For wine lovers scouring the globe for a glimpse of vinous perfection, Scarry's account of what beauty does surely rings true. However, although we toss the word beauty around quite freely, in the aesthetics of art it has fallen on hard times since early in the 20th Century. With the display of Duchamp's upside down urinal in a New York art studio in 1917 and the mass atrocities of WW1 and the Holocaust haunting artistic production throughout the rest of the century, the idea of beauty no longer seemed to capture what the art world was selling. The problem was that by the 20th Century beauty had been assimilated to what was "pretty", "charming", and easily accessible and had thus lost its power to enthrall or represent the more difficult aspects of human existence. Thus, the art world dumped beauty and embraced the sublime. Art became abstract, difficult, and for most of the public, inaccessible.

There are interesting parallels and cross-currents to this story about art that are beginning to unfold in the wine world today. In the past, prior to the 1980's, great wines were tough when first bottled taking years to develop in the cellar at which time they often developed aromas such as cigar box, old shoes and barnyard. Vintage variation was enormous especially in the storied vineyards of central France where unpredictable weather from the Atlantic Ocean inhibited the consistent ripening of grapes. In some years even great vineyards could produce only thin, weedy wines with harsh acidity and aggressive, under-ripe tannins prompting the addition of sugar to make the wine palatable. Furthermore, the presence of bacteria and the unpredictability of fermentations produced off flavors in the wine that contributed to a wine's character but also to a sense of adventure when opening a bottle. That was the good stuff. Vin ordinaire performed a plausible rendition of battery acid.

All of that changed when the sunshine and new technologies of the new world began to influence the wine market. Warm weather vineyards in California and Australia produced riper grapes, higher alcohol, and richer flavors with less vintage variation and wines ready to be consumed soon after bottling. As the science and technology of winemaking began to influence winemakers, fermentations were brought under precise control and it became possible to correct flaws in the wine through better filtration technology and the use of chemical additives. That is when the upstart American attorney-turned-wine-critic Robert Parker entered the scene in 1978 promoting these riper styles and challenging the clubby, sclerotic, old school mandarins of the wine world to change or be pushed to the sidelines.

This was a change that had to happen. The new world opened up new ways for wine to be; the old world had become stodgy and complacent. Fast forward to today and we are awash in technically competent wines of which the defining characteristics are fruity and smooth. With a few exceptions, wines you buy at the supermarket at a price point above $6 will have a round, soft, creamy mouth feel with rich fruit flavors, butter-like flavors in white wines, often a hint of chocolate in red wines, with fine-grained tannins barely discernible and just enough acidity to keep the wine fresh. Approximately, 90% of the domestic wines sold today in the U.S. are made by a few industrial giants who have virtually eliminated vintage variation and wine flaws. We call these wines easy drinking because they are just that. Lacking tension or anything unusual, they are as accessible as the latest painting from the Thomas Kinkade Company.

Aside from being boring, bland and homogeneous there is nothing wrong with these wines. They are a pleasant way of delivering alcohol to the brain and enlivening conversation. Smooth and fruity are pleasant qualities. For those of us with limited means they are the only way to get competent wine on the table every evening. Wine is after all an everyday affair for wine lovers, and the aesthetics of everyday life play a central role in human happiness. Objects that are pretty, charming, cute, or plush contribute immensely to our lived environments and, as the source of genuine aesthetic experiences, should not be denigrated. Thus, these wines certainly have their place. But they are the vinous equivalent of pretty pictures. They have limited expressive range.

Unfortunately some very expensive wines exhibit similar characteristics. The fat, luscious fruit bombs coming out of some new world vineyards bear an uncomfortable similarity to their commercial cousins. Richer, with more depth and complexity, they are best described as sumptuous or opulent. Although they have more fruit power and intensity than less expensive commercial wines we are nevertheless talking about "smooth" ratcheted up several notches. Taking ripeness and alcohol to the extreme, and using several processes in the winery designed to soften tannins, they have been roundly criticized for being "blowsy" and lacking distinctiveness issuing in calls for more balance. This is a distinctive style of wine and is not unpleasant unless the alcohol becomes to prominent, but again, they show limited expressive range.

Happily, for wine lovers who want something more interesting, there are plenty of wines out there that escape this homogeneity and obsession with smooth. Like the artists of the 20th century who thought "beauty" defined as "pretty" to be too confining, many winemakers are happy to leave smooth to the industrial giants and make something more compelling.

However, there is danger in this complacent accessibility that afflicts too much of the wine industry. At this point the analogy between the art world and the wine world breaks down. When the art world faced the problem that a sanitized concept of beauty limited artists' capacity for expression they dumped beauty and embraced the sublime sealing itself off from the temptations of easy accessibility. It remains an open question whether the art world lost something important when it abandoned beauty as its guiding light. I think that it did since the art world now lacks the ability to explain why art is important to ordinary people.

However the wine industry cannot take this approach. Wine is a beverage; we take it into our bodies. There are limits to the degree wine lovers can embrace the sublime or pure abstraction. Wine can never thoroughly abandon drinkability in the way modernism in the arts abandoned accessibility. In other words, the wine world cannot abandon beauty as its aim. And so the question the wine world must answer is how heterogeneity, distinctiveness, and breadth of expression can be preserved while still making a product we want to consume. In short, we need a concept of beauty in wine that can take seriously both the importance of sensual pleasure and the importance of forces that disrupt a too comfortable, too complacent, too accessible form of liquid kitsch.

The stakes in this search to define beauty in wine are more than theoretical.

In 2016 the top 30 wineries represented 90% of the domestic wine sold in the U.S and most of this wine is distributed by 3 mega distribution companies. They are perfectly happy to offer hundreds of identical wines, with smooth and fruity as their guiding light, letting their marketing departments and label designers sell the wine. Liquid kitsch is what they do and do well. But there are over 9000 wineries in the U.S. fighting over the scraps that big wine hasn't gobbled up. We don't need that many wineries selling the same product. Thankfully small importers, wine tourism and direct-to-consumer sales are keeping the experimenters and winemakers dedicated to expressing the distinctiveness of their vineyards afloat for now.

But we are an economic recession away from losing those independent wineries, at which point finding beauty in the bottle will be a practical as well as philosophical task.

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