Wine, Beauty, Mystery

by Dwight Furrow

Among the best books I’ve read about wine are the two by wine importer Terry Theise. Reading Between the Wines is a thoroughly enjoyable account of his life in wine and a passionate defense of artisanality. But it’s his most recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking: In Praise of the Sublime that really gets my philosophical juices flowing.

Long celebrated for his portfolio of mostly German and Austrian wines as well as grower Champagne, in these two books he articulates a sophisticated, yet non-theoretical philosophy of wine and introduces a badly needed corrective to our fatally constrained and often vulgar approach to wine that confuses marketing with aesthetics. But like any work of philosophy, this book raises profound questions. Here are a few quotes that I think raise the most important questions we need to answer.

Great wine can induce reverie; I imagine most of us would concur. But the cultivation of reverie is also the best approach to understanding fine wine.

What is it about us and what is it about wine that induces a dream-like state, that sets the imagination in motion? Why does wine’s capacity to induce reverie help us understand fine wine?

If wine had turned out to be merely sensual I think for me its joys would have been transitory. I’d have done the “wine thing” for a certain number of years and gone on to something else. What continued to drive me, and what drives many of us, is curiosity, pleasure in surprise, and those elusive, incandescent moments of meaning—the sense that some truth, normally obscure, was being revealed.

How can a beverage reveal truths? What kind of truth is this and how would we know we have it?

About particular wines, there are certain questions we should pose, according to Theise:

Is it charming, imperious, hyperactive, pensive? What sort of texture does it offer? Is it crisp or creamy, nubby or sumptuous? Is it contemplative, energetic, clever, profound? I feel it terribly sad that such language is often debased as inauthentic because it tells us much more about a wine than the prevailing geek-speak.

How could a beverage have personality characteristics? What licenses such a judgment? And why is important that we attribute personality characteristics to wine?

Some wines such as a wine called Souches Meres…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling.

Once again, how does wine stimulate the imagination? We know that painting and literature provoke thought and mental imagery. But wine doesn’t really depict anything; it does not form an image. How is taste connected to the imagination?

My own palate, such as it is, does well at interpreting how a wine behaves, the kind of temperament it seems to have, the shape and torque of its motion and ways its various acts are organized—”acts” in the sense of dramatic arcs such as exposition, development, denouement.

Wine does change as it moves on the palate. But how can those changes acquire a narrative arc?  [Note: I try to answer this question in this post.]

When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct—when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever)—it seems to bypass the analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination and from there you climb about the fugue state directly to your soul…In terms of wine we seem to infer the presence of soul when a wine is redolent, when it has atmospheres of nonwine things, when it echoes, peals, plays overtones. And again in terms of wine qua wine we usually sense the presence of soul in wines with a lot of tertiary elements—that is, things other than the clear flavors of grapes. That’s natural; soul is usually more inferential than literal….Drinking a very old wine can be a soulful experience—and at least for me—it is almost always an experience of love, gratefulness, and sadness. Soul indeed seems in some way to adhere to sadness. Not that it is sad, but it rides on the back of sadness like a little kid on his Dad’s shoulders….Wine, I find, can offer soulful moments …but it is also a vector to mystical (or peak) experience.”

In summary, for Theise wine has the kind of meaning we reserve for the most profound works of art, speaking to our deepest values and most profound commitments. Why does wine move the mind and the heart? How does it do so; what are the mechanisms through which wine moves us? Which suggests a third question: Why do so few people in the wine world acknowledge wine’s power to move us? Are these dimensions discussed in the Master of Wine program or in WSET classes? At UC Davis in the oenology program? The answer to that would be no. Why not?

I think the initial experience that brings about these “incandescent moments of meaning” and induces moments of reverie is a failure of recognition. Here is what I mean by that. When experienced wine tasters taste wine, in the typical case, we use habits built up over many years, our background knowledge regarding varietals, regions, and winemaking methods, and our capacity for retrieving explicit  memories to bring order to and make sense out of what we taste and smell. As we bring all of that to bear on an analysis of the wine in front of us, we deploy conceptual categories that enable us to organize that experience. Aroma descriptors, judgments about balance, intensity or length, etc. are not merely sensations but also invoke concepts. We report that the wine is tart, bold or lush. We might say it’s a good example of Marsannay or the Sonoma Coast or alternatively mention that as a Pinot Noir it is out of balance and showing too much alcohol. These are all judgments that require having well-formed, conceptual categories that help us recognize what we’re tasting. We use our recognition skills to “wrestle the wine to the ground”, as Theise says, by passing our sensations of the wine through a battery of analytic categories. It is these analytic categories that we learn in wine tasting classes.

The tasting experiences that Theise extolls, by contrast, are tasting experiences where recognition fails. He might know that the wine he’s tasting is a Riesling from a particular producer along Germany’s Mosel River and from a particular vintage. However, placing the wine within those categories doesn’t bring closure. There is something about the wine that escapes these conceptual categories because none of them capture the sensations he experiences. In other words, there appears to be no way to assimilate these sensations to previous experience in a way that feels complete with no residue. He’s confronted with a unique individual for which there are no ready-made ways of understanding it.

He writes: “When a fragrance is evocative yet indistinct—when it doesn’t specify its cognate (such as lemons or peaches or salami or whatever)—it seems to bypass the analytical faculty and go straight to your imagination and from there you climb about the fugue state directly to your soul…”

That is a failure of recognition. And I think it is not limited to wine but is at the heart of all aesthetic experience. There are two important points to draw from Theise’s account of his experiences with wine, and both apply to aesthetic experience in general.

We are moved by aesthetic objects without fully perceiving them or grasping them conceptually. We feel their effects tentatively as an intimation or via allusion or metaphor, effects that are often just below or barely crossing the threshold of conscious perception. Thus, the experience lacks fully constituted phenomenological intentionality. This sense of mystery is characteristic of aesthetic experience generally and is what is distinctive about it. We sense that something is beautiful even before we recognize what it is that makes it beautiful. Think of the experience of wandering through an art gallery and being attracted to a work without being able to put your finger on why.

And secondly, this experience of recognitional failure is partly constitutive of our experience of beauty. The experience of beauty is an overflowing of sensation through which we experience the inadequacy of our concepts to capture it. The object stimulates thinking but cannot be expressed by any particular thought. No concept will be adequate to it because it’s a radical particular, not a summation of general properties. [Kant, it should be noted, termed this an experience of the sublime, which to my way of thinking, is part of beauty not opposed to it.]

At this point of recognitional failure, what does the mind do? Some people, most people perhaps, just say “wow” and leave it at that. But that would be to miss an opportunity. Because that failure of recognition is at the very heart of creativity. For someone like Theise in his pursuit of beauty, when recognition fails, he switches to a kind of interrogative attention that sends the mind cascading through a series of possibilities. That sense of je ne sais quoi poses a problem—the mind must create the connection or category that will make sense of the experience and solve the problem.

But the wine will remain beautiful only as long as the problem solving fails and mystery persists.  What we are experiencing is our faculties of cognition, imagination, and sensibility taxed to their limit without resolution. What is radically particular and incapable of conceptualization forces itself on us as that which must be perceived, an affective resonance that demands we pay attention because it cannot be conceptualized. This is the truth that aesthetic experience reveals—a truth about radical particulars.

Beauty fades when mysteries are solved.

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