How Wine Expresses Vitality

by Dwight Furrow

Although frequently lampooned as over-the-top, there is a history of describing wines as if they expressed personality traits or emotions, despite the fact that wine is not a psychological agent and could not literally have these characteristics—wines are described as aggressive, sensual, fierce, languorous, angry, dignified, brooding, joyful, bombastic, tense or calm, etc. Is there a foundation to these descriptions or are they just arbitrary flights of fancy?

Last month on this blog I argued that recent work in psychology that employs “vitality forms” helps us understand how music expresses emotion. Will vitality forms help us understand how wine could express feeling states or personality characteristics?

Vitality forms are “the flow pattern” of human experience, “the subjectively experienced shifts in the internal states” that characterize sensations, thoughts, actions, emotions, and other feeling states. Discovered by Daniel Stern and described in his 2010 book Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psychology, the Arts, Psychotherapy, and Development, vitality forms constitute the temporal structure of experience, the duration, acceleration and intensity of an experience. Importantly, vitality forms are not tied to a specific sense modality. All five senses as well as thoughts and feelings exhibit vitality forms. “A thought can rush onto the mental stage and swell, or it can quietly just appear and then fade”, as Stern notes.  So can sounds, visual experiences, tactile impressions or emotions—anger can explode or emerge as a slow burn. In short, a vitality form is how any conscious experience emerges and changes over time.

Any apprehension of motion or movement will have a temporal contour consisting of its duration, acceleration and shifts in intensity that make up its vitality form that are the foundation for judgments of vitality, feelings of sympathy or empathy, and our capacity to link our actions to the actions of others and coordinate behaviors.  The concept has been useful in psychology in explaining how our arousal system works.

Stern argued that the time-based arts, especially music, draw on these “flow patterns” producing elaborations and variations on them to provide new aesthetic experiences. Thus, when listening to music attentively we don’t necessarily experience a full blown emotion such as sadness when the music is sad, but we experience the vitality forms that are recruited by the emotion of sadness. We feel the force and contour of sadness, of which there are many variations, even though there is nothing in our environment to make us feel sad.

Can vitality forms help explain why we experience wines as aggressive, brooding, tense or calm? It seems to me the answer is “yes” if these descriptions refer to our experience of a wine’s movement on the palate. It’s important to reinforce the point that vitality forms are about subjective experience. Although there is some literal movement of wine in the mouth as we ingest and swallow it, the subjective sense of movement is much more robust. Wine is experienced as moving through phases, which for simplicity’s sake can be referred to as the beginning, midpalate, and finish. Beginning with an initial impression, in most modern wine styles, of juicy fruit stimulating the tongue with an impression of weight and shape, the structural components of the wine then emerge over time, as the prickly, angular mouth feel and tart flavor sensations of acidity make an appearance gradually becoming co-mingled with the impression of breadth and the drying sensation of tannins as the wine moves through the mid-palate toward the finish, which then his its own distinct characteristics of length and development. Our experience of wine unfolds over time and this unfolding is a crucial part of the experience.

Stern provides a partial list of words describing motion that indicate the presence of a vitality form some of which clearly apply to the experience of wine as it moves through these phases: exploding, swelling, drawn out, forceful, cresting, crescendo and decrescendo, rushing, relaxing, fluttering, tense, gliding, holding still, surging, bursting, disappearing, gentle, languorous, tentative, weak, fading, and many more. However, according to Stern, such words describe not only the motion of feeling states but also our experience of the expressive behaviors of other persons, in light of which we make judgments about their level of vitality. When we judge a person as animated or depressed it is because their behavior exhibits vitality forms that enable the judgment. That is the key to attributing personality traits to wine.

My hypothesis is that when wines are described as brooding, angry, lively, languorous, or dignified we are picking up on a vitality form exhibited by the movement of the wine as experienced on the palate that is commonly associated with either a feeling state or the behavioral expression of a personality trait. But this will have explanatory power only if the apprehension of vitality forms is fine-grained enough to account for subtle differences in feeling states or expressive behaviors. For instance, “brooding”, “languorous”, and “dignified” all share a temporal contour that would involve slow, deliberate, continuous motion without sharp accelerations or rapid changes in intensity, over an extended period of time. Yet, as behavior patterns or psychological states these examples differ significantly. Are these differences captured by differences in vitality forms?

Stern argues rightly that our perceptions of vitality forms are gestalts. They are holistic judgments that summarize a wealth of complex information that are more than the sum of their parts. But he provides five elements that contribute to a vitality form—movement, force, time, space, and intention or direction. Movement unfolds over time, takes place in space, is experienced as the result of a force with a certain level of intensity, and has a direction or an intention. Since these are components of vitality forms they should help us see how vitality forms are individuated.

While brooding and languorous might share deliberate motion without sharp acceleration, over an extended period of time, they differ in intensity (force) and the amount of psychic “space” they occupy. Brooding is a more intense and all consuming feeling state than is languor. Furthermore, brooding differs from languor in its intentional focus. Someone who broods is inward looking and the self is experienced as having depths to be explored—both depth and inwardness are spatial concepts. Yet someone who broods has a relatively fixed, narrow focus on a problem or memory which is drawing their attention. Languor, by contrast, reveals neither depth nor an inward focus and attention is usually dispersed and unfocused. Yet another fundamental difference between brooding and languor is one of hedonic tone. Brooding is a darker mood headed in the direction of a depressive state whereas languor is more neutral or mildly pleasant. My sense is Stern would argue tone is more a function of the content of the feeling state rather than its form although one can brood or be languorous about nothing in particular. But enough brooding over the nature of “brooding”. For my purposes, hedonic tone quality will be an essential element in assessing the expressiveness of wine.

What sort of wine can be described as “brooding”. Highly concentrated, dark fruited, red wines, with intensity coming from just a few focused aromas, with depth that comes from multiple, nearly indiscernible flavor notes that require exploration, with low acidity to generate a deliberate sense of movement, an impression of weight on the palate, and broad tannins with some grip to add to the sense of massive force exerted by the wine.

A languorous wine could be white or red, fruity enough in tone to be modestly hedonistic but without much complexity, with some weight to suggest torpor, and deliberate, low-intensity textural changes between beginning, mid-palate and finish, with nothing that would jump out and grab your attention, yet with fluttering, inconstant flavor and aroma notes to suggest a lack of focus.

As is evident in these descriptions, vitality forms supply ample raw material for describing the experience of wine in terms of feeling states or personality traits. Such descriptions are neither arbitrary nor factitious, but are grounded in the same psychological phenomena that allow us to recognize and describe emotions and personality traits in persons, film or music. Identification of a vitality form is thus a literal description of the temporal form of an experience. The attributions of emotion or personality traits based on the vitality form are therefore only metaphorical in part. One is literally in a psychological state designated by the vitality form which is partly constitutive of an emotion or behavioral pattern. But the vitality form constitutes only the temporal form, not the representational content of the emotion. The representational content of the emotion or behavior pattern, what it is about, is then metaphorically attributed to the experience in virtue of the vitality form. Wine is therefore an expressive medium akin to music or other time-based arts.

However, I think there are two important and fundamental differences between the expressiveness of wine and the expressiveness of music, differences that are likely quite closely related. In music when we experience vitality forms, they activate the motor centers of the brain. There is ample research showing that even when seated and relaxed music influences the motor cortex of the brain. I doubt that wine has that effect. If wine makes you feel like dancing, I suspect it’s the alcohol, not the vitality form supplying the motivation. The second difference might be related to the first. Vitality forms in music are more powerfully felt while vitality forms in wine are more perceptual. When listening to a sad song, one doesn’t typically feel sad, but one can feel a kind of weak lethargy, a modest dispiritedness that can be felt by the whole body, although it’s not strong enough to be unpleasant as genuine sadness would be but is experienced as stirring and invigorating. There is a physical component to experiencing the vitality form in music. Wine does not produce that level of bodily sensation. The vitality form associated with lethargy and dispiritedness might be perceived in a wine, and be recognized as the flow of experience, but without the bodily effects produced by music. (The bodily effects produced by the alcohol are another matter) Of all the arts, music is especially effective at inducing bodily sensations which is why it is so expressive.

One might wonder why do this. Why attribute feeling states or personality traits to wine? The most important answer is that it enhances the aesthetic experience of wine since it expands the aesthetic properties that wine exhibits and anchors them in structural features of the wine. But I suspect there is a connection between wine quality and vitality forms, one that we’ve long recognized although perhaps not as explicitly as is warranted. What is important in experiencing a wine is not identifying specific vitality forms but rather noting vitality in general as an important feature of wine quality. We enjoy wines with “personality”. Wines that get the best scores and attract the most attention from consumers are those wines that have distinctive “personalities” which are grounded in vitality forms. Instead of treating wine as a static object with fixed characteristics we should pay more attention to the experience of wine as a process. Perhaps “vitality” should be acknowledged along with intensity, complexity and balance as an indicator of wine quality.

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