The Difference Between Good Wine and Beautiful Wine—It’s a Mystery

by Dwight Furrow

In discourse about wine, we do not have a term that both denotes the highest quality level and indicates what that quality is that such wines possess. We often call wines “great”. But “great” refers to impact, not to the intrinsic qualities of the wine. Great wines are great because they are prestigious or highly successful—Screaming Eagle, Sassicaia, Chateau Margaux, Penfolds Grange, etc. They are made great by their celebrity, but the term doesn’t tell us what quality or qualities the wine exhibits in virtue of which they deserve their greatness. Sometimes the word “great” is just one among many generic terms—delicious, extraordinary, gorgeous, superb—we use to designate a wine that is really, really good. But these are vacuous, interchangeable and largely uninformative.

It’s a peculiarity of the wine community that when designating the highest quality, we sometimes refer to a score assigned by a critic. But that tells us how much that critic liked the wine in comparison to similar wines. It doesn’t tell us why it deserves such a rating. We have criteria to judge wine quality such as complexity, intensity, balance, and focus. But these refer to various dimensions of a wine, not an overall judgement of quality.

Although most wines provide pleasure, some wines are not merely pleasurable. They stand out from the ordinary and have a special claim on our attention. We need a way of describing the depth and meaning of that experience. In the history of aesthetics “beauty” has filled this role as an indicator of remarkable aesthetic quality. It is less frequently used today than in centuries past since many works of modern or contemporary art do not aim at aesthetic pleasure.  After the disruptions of 20th Century art, it seems most people in the art world are disillusioned by beauty as if it were a fusty old term genuflecting toward conventions left behind, something false or inflated that reflective people no longer believe in.

However, since aesthetic pleasure plays a central role in wine aesthetics, the travails of modern art need not deter us from using the term “beautiful” to describe wine of the highest quality if its usefulness can be specified. No doubt in ordinary conversation the term “beauty” has become as generic as “delicious” or “superb” and is often too narrowly associated with feminine appearance. Nevertheless, in serious discussions of wine quality there is some utility in resurrecting it for our purposes because I think we can learn something about wine quality by connecting it to the long history of debate about the nature of beauty.

Yet, the logic of the concept of beauty is peculiar. Identifying beauty is not like recognizing the stop sign is red or the wine is full bodied. It is not an ordinary property that we simply and reliably perceive, and there is no straightforward way of demonstrating “this Pinot Noir is beautiful” to someone who disagrees. No gathering of evidence will suffice.

Neither is a claim to beauty a report about whether one prefers or likes an object. To call a Puligny Montrachet beautiful is not equivalent to asserting “I like Puligny Montrachet”, which would be an unremarkable claim and entirely subjective. I am the most reliable authority on my preferences.  However, in calling an object beautiful we call attention to the object itself and its qualities and at least on some accounts, we are inviting others to see what we see (or taste what we taste) with the expectation that they might also share the experience. Claims about beauty seem to occupy a logical space perched tenuously between objectivity and subjectivity. To say something is beautiful invites a demand for evidence and argument that would not be demanded of a claim such as “I like Chardonnay”. Yet because there is no way of demonstrating such a claim by gathering empirical evidence, there is therefore plenty of room for a skeptic to doubt there is such logical space. The skeptic about beauty might well argue we don’t need the term to describe our experience. Talking about how much pleasure we get from an experience suffices in most contexts to communicate something about that experience. “I really enjoyed this sensual Pinot Noir” conveys our judgment of the wine without inviting argument or the expectation that others should enjoy it as well. What does the idea of beauty add?

Thus, to justify invoking the concept of beauty to convey something important about the aesthetic experience of wine, we need to identify the need it fulfills, especially because the claim seems to be making demands on others. Of course, we would rightly think someone was crass or nuts if they claim to care nothing for beauty. On what grounds would someone legitimately claim to be indifferent about it? Yet, it’s a peculiarity of beauty that we are supposed to care deeply about it, but no one can say quite what it is. We can point to examples of beauty but when forced to say what all the examples have in common, we come up empty thus reinforcing the skeptical belief that we’re just referring to ordinary pleasure.

However, there is reason to think that beauty is not just about pleasure. When I’m enjoying a glass of wine with dinner, no one can coherently question whether I’m having a pleasurable experience.  This is not something I can be mistaken about. I could not coherently say “I thought this wine gave me great pleasure this evening but it turns out I was mistaken about it. That wasn’t pleasure at all.” But such a claim is not absurd with regard to beauty. It is perfectly coherent to say “I thought that was beautiful but upon further scrutiny I think I was wrong.” This suggests that there is something more than just pleasure that beauty captures. Beauty is something that investigation or thought can discover or reject. Thus, it seems the skeptic is wrong that beauty is just an expression of subjective preference.  But we still have to uncover what the idea of beauty can add to a discussion about wine quality.

The stories we have told about beauty through the ages give us some clues about what the idea of beauty might add to our concept of wine quality. One of the more persistent themes associated with beauty, beginning with Plato and continuing into the present day with thinkers such as Alexander Nehamas and Elaine Scarry, is that beauty is connected to mystery. From the occult light tripping across a Turrell installation, to the pulsating color fields of Rothko, to the strange cadences of Messiaen’s unraveling of bird song, beauty emerges from the sensory surface only to then refer to something beyond what we can experience in the moment as if the object is withholding something from us. We often describe beautiful objects as enthralling or captivating, as if there were something active in the object to which the perceiver must respond with curiosity, something emerging but only dimly sensed.

Wine too has this aura of mystery about it. That moment in which you taste something you have never tasted before provokes the suspicion that there is more here than is apparent; the wine and the wine world have more to give; my engagement hasn’t reached its full potential. Beauty draws us in because the patterns we sense in beautiful objects are incomplete. The phenomenology of the experience of beauty suggests this is on the right track. When experiencing beauty, we feel drawn to the object which we engage with rapt attention because it seems to call us to further sensory exploration.

This anticipation of something more, this sensing of a surfeit of potential, means we have succumbed to an object’s enigma and is characteristic of our highest experiences with wine where the need for further exploration is more like compulsion than enjoyment. Complexity that cannot be grasped all at once gives us an intuitive sense of the wine as pregnant with possibility.

As we dig into the wine world, we discover that wine is full of surprises with new, unexpected taste experiences that seem inexplicable despite our background knowledge. Wine is inherently a vague object, its features difficult to detect even with training. Unlike the clarity of objects directly in our visual field, wine gives us only hints of flavors, scents, and textures and will not sit still for our analysis. And of course the wine will change depending on what it is served with, the weather, the music that is playing and other environmental factors. For winemakers, every vintage is different and poses new challenges that their university textbooks and theories struggle to explain. How a wine will develop in the barrel, in the bottle, or in the glass is unknown even to experts, and predictions about these matters are continually flouted. It is this mystery that drives people to make wine and study it.

A wine that has the complexity, surprise, and originality to arrest our attention, to hold us captive waiting for its next move, exuding paradoxical features, redolent of honey and wounds, has this aura of mystery. Most of the world’s celebrated wines have it but finding mystery in a wine need not cost a fortune. You might well find it at that little winery across town.

Thus, if mystery is in part what constitutes beauty it seems that on this standard some wines qualify as beautiful and the term “beauty” picks out a quality that makes a wine distinctive. However, there must be more to beauty than mystery or we could simply designate mystery as the relevant property.

There is more to say about wine and beauty—the mystery continues.

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