It seems as if everyone in the wine industry proclaims that wine tasting is subjective. Wine educators encourage consumers to trust their own palates. “There is no right or wrong when tasting wine,” I heard a salesperson say recently. “Don’t put much stock in what the critics say,” said a prominent winemaker to a large audience when discussing the aromas to be found in a wine. The point is endlessly promoted by wine writers. Wine tasting is wholly subjective. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards of correctness for judging wine quality.
But no one in the wine industry actually believes this. Everyone from consumers and retail salespersons to wine critics andwinemakers must distinguish good wine from bad wine and communicate that distinction to others. Ask any winemaker why she controls fermentation temperatures, and she will respond that doing so makes better wine. If wine quality were wholly subjective, there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron; quality control an exercise in futility; wine criticism just empty talk; price differentials based on nothing but marketing.
So what’s going on here? Why the self-deceptive denials and sotto voce acceptance that wine quality is a meaningful concept. We could speculate about why we’re so enamored with subjectivity—freedom from constraint in matters of taste I suppose. But it’s been going on since the 16th century, if we can blame Descartes. Read more »
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough, A flask of wine, a book of verse—and Thou Beside me singing in the wilderness— And Wilderness is Paradise enow. [Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam]
On second thoughts, Omar, forget the loaf and thou. Just leave the flask.
“You can trust me with your life, My King.” “But not with my wine, obviously. Give it back.” [The King of Attolia, by Megan Whalen Turner]
The 17th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote: “Of all things known to mortals, wine is the most powerful and effectual for exciting and inflaming the passions of mankind, being common fuel to them all.” Emerging statistics from the recent pandemic suggest plenty of exciting and inflaming has been going on around the globe. Times of trouble now play out to a background of popping corks, as do times of celebration. Not that this is new, far from it. In the ninth century BC, King Ashurnasirpal of Assyria threw a mighty wine-drenched party to celebrate the foundation of his new capital city, Nimrud. In Mesopotamia and Assyria, the everyday drink was beer, a beverage whose origins lurk in the dawn of human history.
“What was most impressive and most significant was the Assyrian king’s choice of drink,” Tom Standage wrote in his bestselling A History of the World in Six Glasses. “Despite his Mesopotamian heritage, Ashurnasirpal did not give pride of place at his feast to the Mesopotamians’ usual beverage. Carved stone reliefs at the palace do not show him sipping beer through a straw; instead, he is elegantly balancing a shallow bowl, probably gold, on the tips of the fingers of his right hand so that it is level with his face. This bowl contained wine.” Records of the feast in carved cuneiform tablets report the king served equal quantities of beer and wine to his thousands of guests. But it was the wine that displayed his wealth and the extent of his power — some of the wines came from remote regions of Ashurnasirpal’s empire. Wine was in fashion, but it was still mainly the drink of the elites, being too expensive and probably not to the taste of the beer-drinking masses. But wine was not new and its origins remain almost as obscure as those of beer. Read more »
Wine and music pairing is becoming increasingly popular, and the effectiveness of using music to enhance a wine tasting experience has received substantial empirical confirmation. (I summarized this data and the aesthetic significance of wine and music pairing last month on this site.) But to my knowledge there is no guide to how one should go about wine and music pairing. Are there pairing rules similar to the rules for pairing food and wine? Is there expertise involved that requires practice and experience?
In fact, there are no rules for pairing food and wine. Every so-called rule is subject to so many exceptions, it is misleading to think of these guidelines as rules. Yes, white wine often goes well with seafood but not always, and there are some red wines that are enjoyable with seafood. The same is true when pairing music with wine. There are general guidelines with many exceptions. Thus, like food and wine pairing, experience is important, and some expertise can be helpful. Below I describe my own process for generating wine and music pairings and the generalizations that can be drawn from it. Read more »
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 »
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 »
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.
Actress Cameron Diaz and her business partner, the entrepreneur Katherine Power, have been all over various media promoting their new product Avaline, a white wine and a rosé, which they bill as “clean wine”. This has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. Here is how they describe this very sanitary liquid:
Winemakers are legally required to disclose very little about their wines. Those disclosures only reveal information such as growing and bottling locations, whether the wine contains sulfites, and the percentage of alcohol. There’s no obligation to tell you how their grapes are grown or to name any of the more than 70 additives that are used in the winemaking process to alter the taste, color, and mouthfeel of what is in your glass.
We believe in holding our wine to a higher standard. Here’s to a new class of beverage: delicious taste, clean ingredients, bold transparency.
Wine writer Alder Yarrow calls this a “commercial scam” and most serious wine enthusiasts are treating this notion of “clean wine” with a good deal of skepticism.
So what is all this controversy about and should anyone care? Read more »
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 »
I’m sitting in front of my window on the world sipping a disappointing Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and thinking about travel plans for next summer and fall. I’m proceeding as if everything were normal knowing full well they won’t be, especially not with our “leadership”. Every time I try to write something insightful about wine, these lyrics from the bard of Duluth run through my mind:
Here comes the blind commissioner They’ve got him in a trance One hand is tied to the tightrope walker The other is in his pants And the riot squad they’re restless They need somewhere to go As Lady and I look out tonight From Desolation Row
—Bob Dylan, Desolation Row
There are many tragedies unfolding as Covid-19 ravages the planet. With the massive loss of life and livelihood, the fate of the wine and restaurant industry is not among the worst outcomes, but it nevertheless saddens me when I think about it. Small, artisan wineries, independent restaurants and their employees are going to take a big hit. That’s a lot of skill, creativity, imagination and determination gone to waste. The chains and mammoth, commercial wine companies will survive by doing what well- financed firms with market power and lobbyists do. But it will be hard for the little guy to survive in a business as tough as the restaurant business or the artisan winery business. (I’m writing from the perspective of the U.S. but I imagine the situation is similar worldwide.) These small businesses are the heart and soul of the wine and restaurant industries and they face an uncertain future. Read more »
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 »
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 »
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 »
It’s the holiday season and time to think about presents for the budding wine lover in your life. Of course, any season is the right time to think about that. You should always support your local wine lover. One place to begin is this compelling book by long-time food critic Jon Palmer Claridge entitled Drink More Wine! A Simple Guide to Peak Experiences Now. Most books on wine are meant to inform. This book is no exception, but it is also meant to inspire. It performs both tasks admirably and raises a philosophical issue to ponder as well.
Claridge delivers essential information about varietals and wine regions in easily digestible, bit-sized morsels along with helpful advice on topics such as how to read a wine label, wine and food pairings, setting up wine tastings, storing and serving wines. He covers just enough grape varietals and regions to pique the interest of people new to wine without weighing things down with too much information. (There are, thankfully, no dissertations on soil types or yeast strains.) He manages an authoritative voice without sounding like a snob and most of this information is disseminated via charming, personal vignettes from his extensive travel and entertainment experiences. Most helpful are his recommendations for wines that are affordable and available at even modestly well-stocked wine stores thus avoiding the common complaint that wine writers focus on wines that ordinary consumers can’t find. His advice about buying budget wine in the supermarket is particularly helpful. (Tip: Beware the bait and switch. Stores will use high scores from one superior vintage to sell that wine from a different vintage). Read more »
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 »
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 »
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 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 »
It is fashionable to say that great wine is made in the vineyard. There is a lot of truth to that slogan but in fact wine is made by a complex assemblage with various factors influencing the final product. Last month I argued that the wine quality revolution in the U.S. was a result of a fascination with the French image of wine, new technology, a focus on varietal expression, and the benefits of California sun that enabled grapes to ripen more consistently. However, an additional factor influencing wine quality is the feedback from wine critics who influence consumer tastes as well as production styles. How much do critics influence wine styles and how is that influence transmitted?
Any discussion of the influence of wine critics must start with the iconic Robert Parker who is widely credited with rousting wine production from its complacent slumber in the early 1980’s. Yet, he is also widely blamed, rightly or wrongly, for making wine more homogeneous and less interesting by (1) encouraging more alcoholic, riper wines that lacked nuance while (2) introducing a scoring system for wine judging that made wine more accessible to consumers by suppressing its complexity. Regardless of which side of this fence you’re on, Parker was no doubt extraordinarily influential, and it’s worth looking at the sources of that influence to better understand how wine styles change. Read more »
The wine world is an interesting amalgam of stability and variation. As I noted last month, agency in the wine community is dispersed with many independent actors having some influence on wine quality. This dispersed community is held together by conventions and traditions that foster the reproduction of wine styles and maintain quality standards. Most major wine styles are embedded in traditions that go back hundreds of years and are still vibrant today. Although the genetic instability of grapes and their sensitivity to minor changes in weather, soil and topography are agents of change, most of these changes are minor variations within a context of stability. We create new varietals, discover new wine regions, and develop new technologies and methods but these produce minor deviations from a core concept that sometimes seems immune to radical change. There are, after all, only so many ways to ferment grape juice. Red and white still wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine have been around for centuries and are still the main wine styles on offer. Every wine we drink is a modification of those major themes.
Nevertheless, sometimes wine styles change, often massively. In a community so bound by tradition how does that change take place? One example of a massive change in taste took place in the U.S. in the decades following WWII, where in the course of about twenty years American wine consumers changed their preference from sweet wine to dry. How did such a revolution in taste occur in such a relatively short period of time? Read more »
Discussions of the factors that go into wine production tend to circulate around two poles. In recent years, the focus has been on grapes and their growing conditions—weather, climate, and soil—as the main inputs to wine quality. The reigning ideology of artisanal wine production has winemakers copping to only a modest role as caretaker of the grapes, making sure they don’t do anything in the winery to screw up what nature has worked so hard to achieve. To a degree, this is a misleading ideology. After all, those healthy, vibrant grapes with distinctive flavors and aromas have to be grown. A “hands off” approach in the winey just transfers the action to the vineyard where care must be taken to preserve vineyard conditions, adjust to changes in weather, plant and prune effectively and strategically, adjust the canopy and trellising methods when necessary, watch for disease, and pick at the right time.
Such modesty about winery interventions has not always been the norm. For a brief moment in time, beginning in the 1970’s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century, the winemaker as auteur, a wizard at winery tricks, was ascendant. During this time, new winemaking technologies, viticultural methods, and remarkable advances in wine science were introduced into a formerly artisan practice. Only the wealthy, educated, and connected had access to these advances so the flying winemaker, a globetrotting consultant who made his knowledge and expertise available to the wider community, was common. Grapes were a blank slate upon which the winemaker’s vision could be implemented. This too was misleading; despite new technologies you cannot make good wine from bad grapes. Read more »