Wine Appreciation as an Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.

Thus, wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding, allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade everyday life.

But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation or food consumption is discouraged as would be the case at a concert hall or museum.

Of course, the “everydayness” of wine will vary depending on the kind of wine tasting activity in which one is engaged. Enjoying a glass after work or with dinner; with family and friends at social gatherings; or visiting a charming winery on the weekend—these are fully embedded in a commonplace context. For wine professionals and connoisseurs, even focused, analytic tasting may be an everyday affair. Pulling a special bottle out of your cellar to celebrate a special occasion or to have a rare and remarkable experience is less routine. In these cases the experience begins to acquire some of the exclusiveness and autonomy of art appreciation. But even in these cases the venue and companions are likely to be familiar and the occasion a multifaceted affair where other activities accompany the wine tasting.

In order to make sense of wine appreciation we need a conception of aesthetic experience that can accommodate wine as an everyday object within multifaceted contexts. Conceptions of aesthetic experience drawn from the fine arts may not be appropriate.

There are many things that people do with wine. We drink it to get drunk, drink it distractedly at a social gathering because everyone else is doing so or because it generally contributes to the atmosphere of good cheer. We can drink wine to impress someone with the weight of our bank account. We use wine to quench thirst on a hot day, provide warming sensations on a cold evening, or wash down food. I mention these together because they all share a common feature—you can engage in these activities without paying attention to the wine. While these activities may be part of a larger, holistic aesthetic experience, to the extent they don’t involve paying attention to the wine, they are not aesthetic experiences of the wine. They don’t have the wine as an intentional object.

By contrast we can engage in a variety of activities that do involve paying attention to the wine. They generally fall under four categories—description, identification, evaluation, and most importantly, appreciation. Yet focused attention on the wine is not sufficient to mark the experience as aesthetic. A WSET (Wine and Spirits Educational Trust) student sitting for an exam must describe a wine (or several wines) in order to pass the exam. If she is tasting blind and must draw inferences about the origins of the wine, she is engaged in identification. If she is required to assess the quality level of the wines she is engaged in evaluation. A winemaker tasting a barrel sample to see if it’s developing volatile acidity or a wine merchant deciding which wine to stock are also engaged in evaluation, as is a taster assessing whether a Riesling from Mosel is typical of that region. What is peculiar about these activities is that, although they require focused attention on the wine, they don’t always or necessarily depend on the taster having an aesthetic experience. They can sometimes be competently performed without the experience being aesthetic. The reason for this is that they may be so focused on a specific characteristic of the wine, and have such a purely utilitarian purpose, that they lack the broad-based focus on many qualities and the contemplative attitude that we associate with aesthetic experience.

The broader point I want to make here is that the kind of tasting activity or practice one is engage in does not by itself constitute an experience as aesthetic.

Appreciation however is another matter. When a wine tasting activity involves the appreciation of a wine as a whole, it is always at least a candidate for an aesthetic experience. The reference to “wine as a whole” is important—that is one symptom that one’s experience is aesthetic. This is why describing, identifying or evaluating a wine is compatible with appreciation. We can describe, identify, or evaluate a wine while appreciating it as well. But appreciation is distinct from these activities. Appreciation is of course the most widely practiced wine tasting activity. It is what most wine lovers do when they drink wine with friends, enjoy a wine with dinner or attend a wine tasting, assuming of course that they are paying attention to the wine.

The puzzle is to nail down what it is that makes appreciation an aesthetic experience. How does it differ from identifying, describing or evaluating a wine when these are not part of an aesthetic experience? In trying to answer this question, it might make sense to begin with the view of Burnham and  Skilleås in their book, The Aesthetics of Wine. This is the most comprehensive treatment of the topic available. However, I think it is fundamentally misguided since it appears to exclude from the realm of aesthetic experience the kinds of everyday appreciation of wine that I argued are essential to the nature of wine.

Burnham and  Skilleås usefully refer to various tasting practices as distinct projects. Analytic tasters trying to identify a wine in a blind tasting, a wine critic describing a wine to her readers, or a sommelier pairing a wine with a particular dish are each involved in different projects because they have different aims that require quite different competencies. Most importantly, according to Burnham and  Skilleås, they are each focused on different aspects of the wine and thus each project has a different intentional object. However, they argue that none of these folks—neither the analytic taster, the critic, nor the sommelier–are having an aesthetic experience. This is curious because, as I noted above, it seems apparent that these tasting projects might involve some degree of aesthetic appreciation, and necessarily so at least in some contexts.

Aesthetic experience for Burnham and  Skilleås is a function of engaging in an aesthetic project and this involves acquiring the competencies to recognize distinctly aesthetic properties such as elegance, harmony, complexity and intensity. And one does so by participating in a variety of practices—choosing the proper glass, deciding on a tasting order, decanting, etc.—which are designed to highlight those aesthetic properties. Their point is that tasters separately interested in identifying a wine, describing it, evaluating its typicity or pairing it with food need not attend to these aesthetic properties, going so far as to assert that tasters engaged in these projects with wine from the same bottle are tasting different wines.

The absurdity of this latter point is an indicator that something has gone wrong. In fact I would dispute their claim that the project of identifying the origin of a wine, describing it, judging its typicity or pairing it with food need not focus on aesthetic properties. I doubt that these activities can always be successful without some apprehension of aesthetic properties.  For instance, it’s perfectly appropriate when blind tasting a medium body, high acid wine with distinct dried cherry and earth notes to argue it’s likely Chianti rather than Brunello di Montalcino because it lacks elegance or complexity. Anyone describing a notably complex wine who doesn’t mention or imply that it’s complex is simply not accurately describing the wine. Food pairings will also sometimes depend on features such as complexity or intensity. People engaged in such activities may not be having an aesthetic experience, if their aim is purely utilitarian, but at least sometimes they must be attending to aesthetic properties.

My point is that the kind of activity or practice a taster is engaged in or the type of property apprehended are not sufficient for identifying an experience as aesthetic. An aesthetic experience can be the result of a wide variety of different tasting activities and it makes little sense to isolate an aesthetic project in a way that excludes this variety.

Furthermore, their way of defining aesthetic experience in terms of a project rules out the everydayness of wine which I have argued is crucial to understanding wine aesthetics. They are quite explicit that a necessary condition of aesthetic experience is having a variety of the competencies that define an aesthetic project including the capacity to describe and evaluate a wine using the vocabulary and tasting skills similar to those possessed by professional wine tasters. This rules out casual yet attentive drinkers from having an aesthetic experience and implies that a whole range of everyday experiences that one might think are aesthetic are not. The kinds of experiences that wine lovers often refer to as an “aha” experience—that moment when a novice wine drinker recognizes the consummate beauty of wine and its potential for further engagement—are deemed merely “proto-aesthetic” because the people who have such experiences often lack the fully developed competencies of professional wine tasters or connoisseurs. The vast majority of appreciative experiences of wine will not count as aesthetic according to Burnham and Skilleås.

However, it isn’t at all obvious that basic aesthetic properties such as intensity or elegance cannot be recognized by people who may lack the vocabulary or developed competencies of the connoisseur. After all, people who report on their “aha” experience are not simply claiming to enjoy the wine—they find it thrilling, awe-inspiring, uniquely impressive, etc. Clearly they are tasting something out of the ordinary beyond mere liking. Burnham and  Skilleås are right that the apprehension of aesthetic  properties is not a simple perception but involves holistic judgments about relations among properties of the wine. But elegance or intensity are not so difficult to discern that attentive drinkers with modest levels of experience must miss them. After all, music lovers can be deeply moved by a piece of music without the capability of following the score or articulating genre characteristics. No doubt having such competencies enhances the aesthetic experience but their absence doesn’t preclude the experience from being aesthetic.

This idea of an aesthetic project that requires various competencies and practices is useful for articulating the structured, reflective nature of wine appreciation. Burnham and  Skilleås deploy it successfully to show that the casual dismissal of wine as a serious aesthetic object is misguided. But we can’t use this notion of a project to define aesthetic experience because it orphans too many apparently aesthetic experiences.

The moral of this story is that we can’t define aesthetic experience in terms of the properties apprehended, the practice or activity engaged in, or the competencies required to discern subtle qualities. And whatever an aesthetic experience is, it is will be a matter of degree, and can be blended with or accompany a variety of everyday experiences that may or may not be aesthetic. All of this suggests that an aesthetic experience of wine can best be understood as a kind of attention—focused yet attentive to a wide variety of a wine’s properties, an account of aesthetic experience that I will develop in a future post.

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