Wine Appreciation, Irony, and a Game of Striving

by Dwight Furrow

For many wine lovers, understanding wine is hard work. We study maps of wine regions and their climates, learn about grape varietals and their characteristics, and delve into various techniques for making wine, trying to understand their influence on the final product. Then we learn a complex but arcane vocabulary for describing what we’re tasting and go to the trouble of decanting, choosing the right glass, and organizing a tasting procedure, all before getting down to the business of tasting. This business of tasting is also difficult. We sip, swish, and spit trying to extract every nuance of the wine and then puzzle over the whys and wherefores, all while comparing what we drink to other similar wines. Some of us even take copious notes to help us remember, for future reference, what this tasting experience was like.

In the meantime, we argue with each other on Twitter fighting over whether a wine is terroir-driven or a technological abomination, typical or atypical, over-oaked or under ripe. We scour Wine Spectator‘s Annual Top 100 looking for who’s up and who’s down and complain about inflated wine scores and overblown wine language.

In other words, we really seem to care about getting it right, identifying a wine’s essence and properly locating it in the wine firmament. We want our judgments to conform to the actual properties of a wine and its relations.

But this hard-won understanding is in tension with another norm of the wine community. We are supposed to make our own judgements about wine quality. We must taste the wine ourselves and make judgments about a wine’s features based on our own experience and expertise. We might consult expert opinion when deciding what to buy but our judgment about wine quality should reflect our autonomous assessment and not rest solely on the testimony of others.

The desire to get a wine right and the value of making our own judgments are in tension. Typically, when getting to the truth about something really matters we consult experts and defer to their judgment. We listen to doctors about our health, engineers when building a bridge, and the electrician when the lights go out. If discovering the real features of a wine matters, why not just let the experts decide?

One might argue that wine tasting is subjective so of course we rely on our own judgment since no one else can know our preferences or share our taste experience. But that doesn’t resolve the dilemma. If wine tasting is subjective why do we go to so much trouble to get it right? Our tasting practices, as well as wine making practices, presuppose that a wine has characteristics that are independent of our subjective impressions to which our judgments should conform.

This dilemma is raised and analyzed in a recent article by C. Thi Nguyen entitled “Art is a Game.” (The article is based on a recently released book entitled Games: Agency as Art.) Nguyen does not discuss wine tasting; his subject is art appreciation. But the parallels between art appreciation and wine appreciation are sufficient to make his analysis relevant to the people of the grape. Nguyen writes:

In science, we care about actually getting the right answers. But with art appreciation, we care most about engaging in the activity of trying to get it right—about going through the whole process of looking and searching and imagining and interpreting. This is why we don’t defer to experts. Correct judgements are the goal, but not the purpose, of art appreciation. The value of art appreciation lies in the activity of trying to get correct judgements, rather than actually having made correct judgements.

If we extend Nguyen’s analysis to wine, we must conclude that we don’t study wine and endlessly converse about it because understanding or “getting it right” is our ultimate goal. Rather we try to understand it so we can have these conversations and a reason to study it. We appreciate wine because careful attention, the weighing of complex considerations, and the discovery of something new are themselves pleasurable. And wine is the perfect vehicle for engaging in this kind of careful attention because it is subtle, difficult to predict, and maddeningly elusive.

For Nguyen, art appreciation (and by extension wine appreciation) should be understood as a kind of game, specifically what he calls a “striving game.”

There are, then, two very different motivational structures that can be involved with playing games. First, one could be engaged in ‘achievement play’—playing a game for the value of winning itself (or something that follows from the win, like money). Second, one could be engaged in ‘striving play’—playing a game for the value of the struggle (or something that follows from that struggle, like fitness or relaxation). Notice that, for a striving player to have that desirable struggle, they have to actually try to win. But winning isn’t the point for them; playing is.

Thus, the person who studies a work of art (or a bottle of wine) is interested in getting to the truth about the work, but only because that striving serves the larger goal of engaging in the struggle to understand, which is itself enjoyable. This helps resolve the dilemma between truth and autonomy because in order to benefit from playing the game you have to play. Deferring to experts would be a kind of cheating—trying to win rather than going through the struggle to learn.

So why not just relax and enjoy the sensuous experience of the wine without the striving to get it right? Why not be content with whatever your imagination can dream up about the features of the wine whether true of the wine or not. Because that would not involve the careful attention and practiced attunement to the features of the wine that we find enjoyable. It would miss the whole point of the exercise. Like other striving games, wine appreciation is calibrated to be just the kind of struggle we want to be captured by. We adopt getting it right as a goal while requiring we do the work ourselves in order to pursue careful, engaged attention, which must be fine-tuned for each wine we encounter. And we enjoy the wines that require that kind of attention to detail.

Thus, it’s the joy of discovery, not just the end product of getting it right, that we seek. We could “get it right” by following experts. We pursue the game because it’s important that we go through the process that discovers the features of the wine as best as we can discern them. Thus, the norm that we make independent judgments rather than rely on experts is not just to ensure our experience is properly subjective. The norm exists because to benefit from the game of discovery you have to play the game yourself according to the rules that set the game up as a struggle that engages our capacities.

I think Nguyen’s account of a striving game does capture the motivations that drive the pursuit of wine knowledge. The problem with it, however, is that it appears to undersell the importance of aesthetic experience. This is especially the case when applied to wine, but I think it likely applies to art appreciation as well, at least of those works that involve sensory pleasure. No doubt we take joy in the process of understanding wine and the task of developing our ability to taste. But that understanding also aims at a goal that has value in itself—the hedonic, sensory experience of the wine. Obviously, part of what is attractive about wine is the way it tastes and smells. I’m not sure that Nguyen’s view captures that or at least he doesn’t clarify the role of the game of striving in sensory experience.

There are two cases to consider in order to clarify the implications of his view on our understanding of the sensory experience of wine.

In one case, gaining wine knowledge and tasting ability helps us to fully appreciate the nuances of an individual wine and relate them to other wines. Thus, the sensory experience causally depends on playing the game well and “getting it right.” Without some degree of skill development, the full sensory experience of a wine is likely unavailable. Yet the sensory experience itself has value independently of the means we use to achieve it. If this is the right way to understand Nguyen’s view, it would weaken the relevance of his argument for wine tasting since the notion of a “striving game” would not fully capture the value of wine tasting. The outcome—the sensory experience—would matter just as much as the process of striving.

However, it may be the case that getting it right is non-instrumentally essential to the sensory experience. That is to say that correctly identifying the features of a wine, in part, constitutes the sensory experience. This would be a stronger case for understanding wine tasting as a game. The game, and the cognitive powers one acquires by playing, would not only be causally necessary for the sensory experience but would in part constitute the sensory experience.

One can of course enjoy the aromas and textures of a wine without worrying about how to understand them or where they fit. Once one acquires the skills of sensory discrimination, we can leave the cognitive dimension behind and revel in the sensations.

However, I would argue that is a diminished form of aesthetic experience.

Part of the aesthetic, sensory experience of at least some wines is that they surprise us. They violate the conventions of what we can expect the wine to taste like, and none of the categories and classifications we use to describe wine, or can conjure from memory, are adequate to the experience. This is why wine strikes some of us as mysterious. Such wines produce wonder, fascination, and amazement all of which has a sensory/affective dimension and a cognitive dimension. There is always more to such wines than what we know and can immediately discern and that sense of “something more” is part of the sensory/affective response we have to a wine. I call this experience the “failure of representation” and discuss it in more detail in Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.

This idea that a failure of representation is a form of aesthetic experience is not a new insight. Kant recognized the experience of being awed by limitless power or magnitude, which ordinary reason cannot grasp, as distinctly aesthetic, although he seemed to think the pleasure was from reason’s ability to conjure concepts of the absolute that moderate the awesome limitlessness and bring it under control.

My view of the sublime is less grand. The mystery of small, vulnerable things is no less a mystery and the irony of reason grasping its own limitations, with respect to them, equally puzzling.

In any case, this sense of the inadequacy of our categories of representation requires the game of analysis and the striving game of getting it right as a constitutive element. We can experience the inadequacy of a representation only if we have a prior belief in its success.

This experience of “something more” accompanied by a sense of wonder and fascination is in part constituted by the striving to get it right that fails. The “mattering” of the experience is very much dependent on the game and the irony of a cognitive grasp of the failure of cognition. Only if the game is part of the experience will the palpable sense of wonder arise. The sense that reason betrays us, the felt hesitation of “what is this?” and “how should I understand it?” constitutes the sense of unfamiliarity, defeat, and fascination that is part of the content of the sensory experience.

Thus, “the striving game” is not merely instrumental. Wine appreciation—and by hypothesis art appreciation as well—at its highest level is a striving game but one bathed in irony and pathos.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.