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. Read more »

Review of “Epistenology: Wine as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

by Dwight Furrow

Epistenology: Wine as Experience is a peculiar name for a peculiar book, although its peculiarities make it worth reading. Coined by the author, Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at University of Gastronomic Science near Bra, Italy, the term “Epistenology” is a portmanteau blending enology, the study of wine, with epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge. The book is hard to categorize, which is precisely its point. Although a philosophy book about wine, it is not so much about wine as it is an attempt to think with wine, using wine as a catalyst for making connections to persons, atmospheres, and imaginative play within pregnant moments of immediate, lived experience. Although a serious work of philosophy, it only occasionally names other philosophers and refers to no previous work in the philosophy of wine or aesthetics, while advancing an intriguing alternative to professional wine evaluation and conventional wine education. It is avowedly a narrative of the author’s personal journey with wine and the lessons to be drawn from it. Derrida’s idea that every philosophy is a way of “justifying our lives in the world” is the book’s guiding light. Read more »

What is the Philosophy of Wine?

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy has been an ongoing enterprise for at least 2500 years in what we now call the West and has even more ancient roots in Asia. But until the mid-2000’s you would never have encountered something called “the philosophy of wine.” Over the past 15 years there have been several monographs and a few anthologies devoted to the topic, although it is hardly a central topic in philosophy. About such a discourse, one might legitimately ask why philosophers should be discussing wine at all, and why anyone interested in wine should pay heed to what philosophers have to say.

This philosophical discourse about wine did not emerge in a vacuum. Prior to the mid-20th century, one would never have encountered “philosophy of economics,” “philosophy of law,” “philosophy of science,” “philosophy of social science,” or the “philosophy of art” either, each of which has become a standard part of the philosophical canon. Philosophers have always had much to say about these practices but not as organized into discrete sub-disciplines with their own subject matters.

The assumption behind the emergence of these sub-disciplines is that the study of philosophy brings something to them—particular skills or insights—that immersion in the disciplines themselves would struggle to employ. Thus, in trying get clear on what the philosophy of wine can contribute to the community of wine lovers, we quickly run up against the question of what distinctive skills or insights characterize philosophy. Read more »

When Words Fail

by Dwight Furrow

What did the wines that stimulated conversation in Plato’s Symposium taste like? Or the clam chowder in Moby Dick, or the “brown and yellow meats” served to Mr. Banks in To the Lighthouse? Or consider this repast from Joyce’s Ulysses:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Lovely.

But we shall never understand the peculiar attractions of this food, because sensibility is a matter of habit and habits are seldom articulated clearly. They are so familiar we don’t bother to reflect on them or explain them. But even if Bloom had engaged in “mindful eating,” I doubt that Joyce, despite his prodigious talents, had the vocabulary to capture in words the virtues of grilled mutton kidneys with the “tang of faintly scented urine.” We are just not very good at talking about taste. The history of sensibility cannot be written. Read more »

Taste Is Knowing the Tissue of Little Things

by Dwight Furrow

A life in which the pleasures of food and drink are not important is missing a crucial dimension of a good life. Food and drink are a constant presence in our lives. They can be a constant source of pleasure if we nurture our connection to them and don’t take them for granted.

Because food and drink are an easily accessible source of pleasure, barring poverty or disease, to care little for them is a moral failure with consequences not only for the self but for others around us. However, to nurture that connection to everyday pleasure requires thought and restraint. Pleasure can be dangerous when pursued without reason and self-control. Addictive pleasures damage us and everyone around us. Addicts, in fact, cannot feel pleasure as readily as the non-addicted and require increasing levels of stimulation to find satisfaction. Addictions and compulsions are pathological and are no model for the genuine pursuit of pleasure. Thus, we need to make a distinction between pleasure that we get from thoughtless, compulsive consumption, and pleasure that is freely chosen. Pleasure freely chosen is actually a good guide to what is good for us and what should matter to us.

This emphasis on freely chosen pleasure is important not only for keeping us healthy but because certain kinds of pleasures are deeply connected to our sense of control and independence. Some of the pleasures in life come from the satisfaction of needs. When we are cold, warm air feels good. When we are hungry even very ordinary food will taste good. But such enjoyment tends to be unfocused and passive. We don’t have to bring our attention or knowledge to the table to enjoy experiences that satisfy basic needs. We are hard-wired to care about them and our response is compelled.

However, many pleasures are not a response to need or deprivation.  We have to eat several times a day, but we don’t have to eat well several times a day. Pleasure freely chosen is essential to a good life because it expresses our independence from need. Read more »

Wine’s Very Own Imitation Game

by Dwight Furrow

I often hear it said that, despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, winemaking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If a wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And, of course, the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude “it’s only what’s in the glass matters” is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what is in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it is not all that matters, and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås, in their book The Aesthetics of Wine, engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed, not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point), but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Read more »

What Does Beauty Demand of Us?

by Dwight Furrow

Beauty has long been associated with moments in life that cannot easily be spoken of—what is often called “the ineffable”. When astonished or transfixed by nature, a work or art, or a bottle of wine, words even when finely voiced seem inadequate. Are words destined to fail? Can we not share anything of the experience of beauty? On the one hand, the experience of beauty is private; it is after all my experience not someone else’s. But, on the other hand, we seem to have a great need to share our experiences. Words fail but that doesn’t get us to shut up.

Perhaps communication about beauty is not hopeless; we do after all share some responses to beauty. Most everyone agrees the Mona Lisa is beautiful (if you can actually get close enough to enjoy the diminutive painting amidst the hordes at the Louvre). Most everyone agrees that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes lovely wine if you can afford a taste. Who would argue with the spectacular coastline view of Cinque Terre from Monterosso?

However, in matters of beauty, disagreements are just as common. As Alexander Nehamas argues, beauty forms communities of like-minded lovers who share an affection for certain works of art and who do find it possible to communicate their obsession. Something escapes the dark tunnels of subjectivity to survive in a clearing where others mingle. But this process excludes people who don’t get it. We are often bored to tears by something that fascinates others. Across that barrier of incomprehension words may well fail. Beauty forms communities of rivals as the scandal surrounding the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring exemplifies. The contretemps between conventional and natural wine is the latest to divide the wine world. May it not be the last because these conflicts matter and are a symptom of the fundamentally normative response which beauty demands of us. Read more »

Visual Histories: Peter de Swart and Rachelle Reichert

by Timothy Don

The current economic crisis is crushing artists, museums, and galleries everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, an exorbitant rental market made maintaining a practice difficult before this crisis hit. It’s even harder now. With 3QD’s permission, I’m going to use this column to talk about the work of some of the artists and art professionals I have met here. I ask you to support artists wherever and however you can.

Peter de Swart, works on paper: Triptych

The triptych form is associated with religious painting. It first appeared as a feature of early Christian art and became popular for altar paintings and devotionals during the Middle Ages. While Peter de Swart’s Triptych is not overtly religious, it emanates an undeniably religious or spiritual aura. It is, in a word, numinous. To encounter this painting is to witness a sacred transaction. You’d have to be a stone to look at it and not experience a yearning for the divine. Why, apart from its rearticulation of the history and symbolism of the triptych form, is that?

It must have something to do, first of all, with the simple purity of the object pictured, which appears to be a bowl of some sort. Bowls are one of those inventions (like scissors or chopsticks or the hourglass) that we got right the first time. They were perfect the moment they appeared. In the bowl, function lives harmoniously with form. Its shape is so ideal as to be almost Platonic. Furthermore, bowls are used to prepare and serve food and drink, which means that they give sustenance, enable shared meals, and consequently help to strengthen communal bonds and deepen human relationships. Finally, bowls are vessels. Like hands and pockets and ships, they hold and contain and convey things—but they are not grasping like hands, nor like pockets do they secret away their contents, and they don’t trade goods and gold like ships. Quite the opposite, in fact: Bowls are generous, open, gratuitous. They give away the things they hold.

All of these attributes (form, use value, ethos) lend bowls a quasi-spiritual redolence, but they do not make bowls sacred. If this triptych depicted a bowl no different from any other bowl, then its effect would be decorative rather than numinous. This bowl is special. Again we must ask: Why is that? Read more »

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. Read more »

Imagination and the Language of Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Research by linguists into wine metaphors have identified several source domains that help wine writers describe the faint and ephemeral features of poetry in a glass. “Wine is a building”, “wine is piece of cloth”, and especially “wine is a person” are a few of the rich diversity of potential likenesses that might uncover facets of a wine. There are after all many ways of being a body or a person with new variants continuously on offer. But how do writers identify, within these source domains, which likenesses will be compelling and how do readers come to understand what a metaphor means? Identifying source domains for wine metaphors must be supplemented by an account of how interpretation works.

Given the importance of variation and distinctiveness in wine appreciation and the need for linguistic innovation to capture these dimensions, theories of metaphor that explicitly link metaphor to the exercise of imagination will be most useful. The use of metaphor in wine language looks backward to conventional, entrenched descriptions while looking forward in order to capture the emergence of innovative taste profiles that require linguistic imagination.

To add more complexity to the mix, the use of metaphor in wine language serves two broad purposes that are sometimes opposed. On the one hand writers use metaphor to communicate an accurate description of the wine they’re tasting, especially by conveying the holistic properties such as elegance, intensity, or balance. On the other hand, metaphor expresses the remarkable experiences of a wine that wine importer Terry Theise calls “sublime”. “Some wines” he writes, “…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling”. Read more »

Fleshy with a Bad Attitude: Metaphor and Wine Tasting Notes

by Dwight Furrow

The wine community is often accused of being snobby and elitist. The language used to describe wine is one source of this innuendo. Although most people have become accustomed to the fruit descriptors used in wine reviews, when wine writers wax poetic by describing wines as “graphite mixed with pâte de fruit”, even some wine professionals get up in arms.

The general complaint is that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous. When a wine is described as “a streetwalker” or “sinewy” it’s unclear to some readers what features of the wine are being described.  The further inference drawn is that these are just attempts to make wine descriptions less monotonous or call attention to the writer’s talent for verbal calisthenics without getting at something important about the wine.

There are several things to say about these objections. Read more »

What is the Problem with Wine Metaphors?

by Dwight Furrow

Wine writers, especially those who write wine reviews, are often derided for the flowery, overly imaginative language they use to describe wines. Some of the complainants are consumers baffled by what descriptors such as “brooding” or “flamboyant” might mean. Other complainants are experts who wish wine language had the precision of scientific discourse. The Journal of Wine Economists went so far as to call wine writers “bullshit artists”. (The feeling is mutual.)

Even the sommelier-trained author of the bestselling book Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker, has reservations about the accuracy of such language. After taking writers to task for using terms such as “sinewy” and “broad-shouldered” she writes: “It seems possible that what we “taste” in a fine wine isn’t so much its flavor as the qualities of good taste that we hope it will impart to us.” She seems to be suggesting that wine writers just make stuff up to sound impressive.

The general objection is that these descriptors are metaphorical and are therefore too subjective and ambiguous to give readers an accurate, verbal portrayal of the wine. However, these complaints are tilting at windmills. Read more »

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. Read more »

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? Read more »

In Defense of Wine Critics

by Dwight Furrow

It’s fashionable to criticize wine critics for a variety of sins: they’re biased, their scores don’t mean anything, and their jargon is unintelligible according to the critics of critics. Shouldn’t we just drink what we like? Who cares what critics think? In fact, whether the object is literature, painting, film, music, or wine, criticism is important for establishing evaluative standards and maintaining a dialogue about what is worth experiencing and why. The following is an account of how wine criticism aids wine appreciation by way of providing an account of wine appreciation.

Wine critics engage in a variety of activities. They evaluate wines by saying whether they are good or bad, often in order to advise readers about which wines they should purchase or seek to experience. Via their tasting notes, they guide their reader’s perceptions of a wine getting them to taste something they otherwise might have missed. Critics explain winemaking and viticultural practices, feature winemakers and explain how their inspiration or approach to winemaking influences their wines. They discuss styles of winemaking, changes in those styles as they occur, and new developments in the wine world. They discuss the quality of vintages, the characteristics of varietals and wine regions, and describe their own reactions to a wine.

The most plausible goal that ties all these activities together is that the critic aims to help her readers appreciate the wines about which she writes. Wine criticism is not just loosely related to wine appreciation; the purpose of wine criticism is to aid appreciation and thus we need an account of what it means to appreciate a wine. Read more »

Aesthetic Attention and Fascination

by Dwight Furrow

Why do we value successful art works, symphonies, and good bottles of wine? One answer is that they give us an experience that lesser works or merely useful objects cannot provide—an aesthetic experience. But how does an aesthetic experience differ from an ordinary experience? This is one of the central questions in philosophical aesthetics but one that has resisted a clear answer.  Although we are all familiar with paradigm cases of aesthetic experience—being overwhelmed by beauty, music that thrills, waves of delight provoked by dialogue in a play, a wine that inspires awe—attempts to precisely define “aesthetic experience” by showing what all such experiences have in common have been less than successful.

The best-known definition of aesthetic experience remains Immanuel Kant’s view that a genuine, aesthetic experience requires disinterested attention, a suspension of any personal interest one might have in the aesthetic object so we might experience it free from the distractions of desire. But perhaps Kant’s view is so well known because of the fusillade of objections launched at it over the past several centuries. It is peculiar to argue that what is distinctive about aesthetic experience is the absence of any desire to find the object appealing or satisfying.

Others have tried to define aesthetic experience in terms of the kind of properties apprehended in such an experience such as beauty, elegance, or unity. But objects that lack such properties can induce an aesthetic experience. Furthermore, the apprehension of a property is not a sufficient condition for having an aesthetic experience. We can recognize beauty or unity in an object without having a moving or distinctive experience at all, especially if one is tired, bored or preoccupied with a task. In the contemporary art world, any kind of object can be a work of art. Thus, an infinitely disparate list of properties can at least potentially provoke an aesthetic experience. It is unlikely that a definition that appeals to such a list of properties would be successful. Read more »

Expressing Vitality: Wine as the Art of Life

by Dwight Furrow

If a rectangular canvas splashed with paint and lines can express freedom or joy, why not liquid poetry?

Works of art are pleasing but they are also intended to communicate or express something. Something is shown or made manifest through a work of art. In many cases what is communicated is some feeling or attitude that in some way belongs to the artist. But not all art is about self-expression. Some works are intended to reveal something about the artist’s materials when worked on in a particular way. For instance, many Impressionist works by Monet and others expressed a singular relationship between color and light, although these works also communicate something about the artist’s point of view regarding what is being expressed.  Some works reveal something about their subject matter when placed in an assemblage with other subject matters regardless of whether they reflect anything about the artist. A landscape may express the relationship between a building and an atmosphere, without expressing something important about the artist’s psychology or biography. To express is to reveal something hidden or not obvious but that need not be restricted to human psychology. Works of art invite us to feel something about them but that feeling need not be something possessed by the artist. Hamlet expresses uncertainty and ambivalence independently of any feelings Shakespeare may have had and there is no need to investigate Shakespeare’s biography to grasp what Hamlet is expressing.

Even when art is expressing some human quality, the expression reaches far beyond facts about an individual artist. The 19th Century German philosopher Hegel argued that art expresses a shared sense of “the deepest interests of mankind, the most comprehensive truths of the spirit”. Art’s role for Hegel is to express something whole cultures can share when brought to light and put on a pedestal.

What about wine? Can wine be expressive in the way works of art are expressive? I’ve argued that wine can express emotion, although only occasionally is that related to a winemaker’s feelings. But here I want to focus on other dimensions of wine’s expressiveness that go beyond the expression of an individual’s emotions or attitudes. Read more »

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. Read more »

The Production of the New: Wine Culture and Variation

by Dwight Furrow

Wine writers often observe that wine lovers today live in a world of unprecedented quality. What they usually mean by such claims is that advances in wine science and technology have made it possible to mass produce clean, consistent, flavorful wines at reasonable prices without the shoddy production practices and sharp bottle or vintage variations of the past.

This general improvement in wine quality is to be welcomed but I would argue that for wine aesthetics a more important development is the unprecedented diversity in our wine choices. What wine writer Jon on Bonné, recently referred to as “weird wine”—natural wine, orange wine, wine in cans, wine from unfamiliar locations—is an important part of the wine conversation. Wine is now made in every state in the U.S. and most of those states have their own indigenous wine cultures with distinctive varietals and unique terroirs. Throughout the world, emerging new wine regions from Great Britain to China promise to add to the stock of diverse tasting experiences. Wine grapes are increasingly grown in extreme environments—from high in the Andes, to the deserts of the Golan Heights, to the chill lake sides of Canada. Projects such as Vox Vineyards in Kansas City, Bodegas Torres in Spain, and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California are rediscovering lost or ignored varietals while the University of Minnesota develops new varietals that can survive Northern winters. If you’re willing to navigate our spotty distribution system, most of this diversity is widely available. Although the best wines from the storied vineyards of France are now available only to the super wealthy, new generations of wine drinkers are growing tired of the hamster wheel of Cabernet/Chardonnay/Merlot and are seeking something more adventurous.

This focus on variation has not always been an intrinsic part of wine culture. As I described in my column last month, in the early 1990’s the growing wine culture in the U.S. was dominated by trends that would tend to increase homogeneity. Excessive ripeness, a reductionist approach to wine science, overly narrow critical standards, and most importantly rapid growth in the wine industry were poised to transform wine into a standardized commodity like orange juice and milk, serving a function but without much aesthetic appeal.

So what happened? How did we avoid that monotonous landscape of homogeneous juice? Read more »

Homogeneity and Difference in the Wine World

by Dwight Furrow

The wine world thrives on variation. Wine grapes are notoriously sensitive to differences in climate, weather and soil. If care is taken to plant grapes in the right locations and preserve those differences, each region, each vintage, and indeed each vineyard can produce differences that wine lovers crave. If the thousands of bottles on wine shop shelves all taste the same, there is no justification for the vast number of brands and their price differentials. Yet the modern wine world is built on processes that can dampen variation and increase homogeneity. If these processes were to gain power and prominence the culture of wine would be under threat. The wine world is a battleground in which forces that promote homogeneity compete with forces that encourage variation with the aesthetics of wine as the stakes. In order to understand the nature of the threat homogeneity poses to the wine world and the reasons why thus far we’ve avoided the worst consequences of that threat we need to understand these forces. I will be telling this story from the perspective of the U.S. although the themes will resonate within wine regions throughout much of the world.

The modern wine world in the U.S. that began to emerge and solidify in the 1950’s was built on five pillars, all of which contributed to the remarkable quality revolution that transformed wine into a readily accessible symbol of refinement that graces even middle class dinner tables throughout the world. Those pillars include: the adoption of the French image of wine as a dry (i.e. not sweet), food friendly, nuanced aesthetic object; advances in wine technology that enabled clean, consistent wines and extracted more flavor; an increase in ripeness levels encouraged by that improved technology as well as the emergence of warm climate wine regions; and the adoption of independent standards of wine criticism that put pressure on complacent traditions to increase quality. All of this took place in a context of expanding demand and the resulting need to ramp up supply and develop more consumer friendly marketing. Read more »