In Vino Veritas: What Truth Might That Be?

by Dwight Furrow

Wine is a living, dynamically changing, energetic organism. Although it doesn’t quite satisfy strict biological criteria for life, wine exhibits constant, unpredictable variation. It has a developmental trajectory of its own that resists human intentions and an internal structure that facilitates exchange with the external environment thus maintaining a process similar to homeostasis. Organisms are disposed to respond to changes in the environment in ways that do not threaten their integrity. Winemakers build this capacity for vitality in the wines they make.

Vitality, in a related sense, is also an organoleptic property of a wine—it can be tasted. When we taste them, quality wines exhibit constant variation, dynamic development, and a felt potency, a sensation of expansion, contraction, and velocity that contribute to a wine’s distinctive personality. These features are much prized among contemporary wine lovers who seek freshness and tension in their wines. Thus, wine expresses vitality both as an ontological condition and as a collection of aesthetic properties.

However, this expression of vitality in both senses is fading in aged wines. In aged wines, freshness and dynamism can be tasted but only as vestigial as the fruit dries out and recedes behind leather, nut and earthy aromas. Appreciation of aged wines (at least those wines worthy of being aged) requires that we see delicacy, shyness, restraint, composure, equanimity, imperfection, and the ephemeral as normative.

These textural and aromatic changes in properly aged wines are pleasing but they carry a larger meaning. In aged wines we witness the other side of life. Not the blossoming into good health and explosive dynamism of youth but the resistance to degradation and the gradual, inevitable weakening of that resistance, the slow emergence of pathos, as the ancient Greeks understood it. The word “pathos” today usually refers to a form of persuasion that appeals to the emotions of a listener or audience. However, a secondary meaning, one emphasized by the ancient Greeks, is of pathos as what befalls one, the experience of suffering. The aging of wines highlights an appreciation of pathos as a central part of life.

For living organisms, dynamic growth and the expansion of energy are not persistently normative. As the French philosopher Georges Canguilhem argues in his many writings on the philosophy of biology, the constant struggle to invent suboptimal norms of health and vitality is a pervasive part of life. Organisms interact with their environment by engaging in a defensive struggle to maintain integrity, continually searching for solutions to problems of diminished normativity—sickness, injury, and aging—which entails experimentation, trial-and-error and an openness to an unknown future. To continue the processes of life an organism must assert itself in relation to an environment that may be orderly or disorderly, and what they must do to maintain integrity cannot be specified in advance. Organisms take a perspective on their environment by extracting certain elements that aid in this struggle, pulling the elements into the organism and modifying them as needed, but always with the constant threat of error and the near certainty that a return to health will be partial and incomplete. This is not a choice but a fate to be endured. From this naturalistic viewpoint the purpose of life is to keep going and is fraught with wandering irresolution and contingent environmental exchange with the outcome always in doubt.

Winemakers build this capacity for the maintenance of sub-optimal normativity into the wines they make. One of the most important decisions a winemaker makes is when to introduce oxygen and in what dosage. When grapes are harvested, oxygen is an immediate threat as it begins to break down the flavor and aroma compounds which ultimately determine wine quality. Exposure to too much oxygen will make a wine taste flat and convert the alcohol into acetaldehyde which smells like vinegar. However, If the environment is too bereft of oxygen, a condition called reduction, odd, unwanted flavors and aromas can develop and the wine may be tight and lack expressiveness. The right amount of oxygen introduced at the right time in the winemaking process can unlock an array of flavors, soften the texture of the wine and build resistance to degradation. How a winemaker strikes this balance between too much oxygen and too little goes a long way in defining their winemaking style. Furthermore, for red wines, if oxygen is introduced slowly it makes the colloids more reactive increasing the capacity of the tannin polymers to bond which protects the wine from premature oxidation later. The more long-chain polymers you have the longer the wine will age. All components react to each other connecting, separating and reconnecting under the influence of oxygen. This is one reason wine is often aged in oak barrels that facilitate the slow absorption of oxygen. Tannins also bond with other aromatic chemicals helping to keep them from evaporation thus preserving structure and aromatic intensity while the oxidation of some of the acids helps to create those earthy, nutty aromas that are prized by connoisseurs. But keep in mind that all of this is happening while the oxygen is slowly turning the wine to vinegar. It will happen eventually as surely as death and taxes.

Does wine invent sub-optimal norms as Canguilhem argues organisms do? Indeed, it does. The aging process is not fully directed by the winemaker who can only encourage it to take a developmental path if the wine is disposed to do so and without any guarantees that the development will proceed as intended. Once in the bottle the aging process is entirely out of human hands except for the need to store the wine properly and each bottle ages differently. Wines differ regarding how much oxygen they can absorb and what the effects of that absorption will be. It is entirely unpredictable and changes as the temperature and availability of oxygen in the environment changes. As the wine suffers diminishment from the gradual exposure to oxygen, the sub-optimal norm each wine settles on is a matter of negotiation with the environment. The winemaker is a physician not by healing the sick but by encouraging the modification of the internal structure of a wine so it will persist and reveal the effects of its normative diminishment. The intimation of that inner strength, diminishing but still expressive, resistance at a different normative level is aesthetically appealing. The fading of strength and power introduces new perspectives, a weakening that reveals nuance and finesse but also a sense of the beauty of vulnerability, of time passing inexorably and without recovery. The aesthetic appeal of this vulnerability to time is of course not limited to wine. We feel something similar as autumn brings summer to a close. The Japanese tradition of wabi sabi has made imperfection and vulnerability to time an aesthetic touchstone.

Unlike life, however, wine has a determinate purpose, to provide an aesthetic experience. But how it gets there is as wandering and indeterminate as life is. And, of course, both wine and life will ultimately fail in the invention of sub-optimal norms. As the mistress of pathos Lana Del Rey intones, we’re born to die; so is wine.

Perhaps here is where the analogy between wine and life breaks down. Wine is an object about which we celebrate its fragility and pathos. But we modern humans have not yet reliably learned to celebrate fragility and what befalls us. From wine we learn the truth, not that death is beautiful, but that dying has moments of strength and glory.

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