In the following series of posts I will be exploring the question of wine aesthetics. Can wine be appreciated as an aesthetic object, and if so, what does that mean exactly? What do we mean when we talk about aesthetic value or an aesthetic experience, and above all, how does that relate to wine?
It would be nearly impossible to separate the concept of beauty from that of aesthetics as aesthetics is the philosophic study of beauty and art. However, not all art is beautiful and not all beautiful things are art, so they are not one in the same. Without diving too deep into the ontology of both concepts, it is suffice to say beauty is a fundamental part of aesthetics but not its singular, defining feature. There are also other concepts to consider such as pleasure, emotion and intrinsic value, which may overlap with the concept of beauty but can also stand alone in their own right. Nor is beauty so easy to define or comprehend in relation to its effect on us. And yet, beauty has captured our attention since the beginning of time.
“Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference: beauty demands to be noticed; it speaks to us directly like the voice of an intimate friend. If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it.”– Roger Scruton, “Beauty, A Very Short Introduction”
In “Beauty, A Very Short Introduction”, renowned British philosopher Roger Scruton explores the concept of Beauty, questioning its universality and meaning in our lives. It is a thought-provoking and thorough analysis which approaches the topic from many angles- from the judgement of beauty to its expression in humans, the everyday, art and nature. Around the time that aesthetics took on the meaning we use today, philosophers and artists turned their attention to nature. The natural beauty of landscapes, views and living organisms held the promise of universality. It was available to everyone, regardless of class, and it spoke to us on a very fundamental level as living beings in the world. It evoked awe, reverence and consoling solidarity. Its aesthetic appeal not only inspired a new style of painting, landscape, it sparked scientific investigation into the inner workings of our world.
But Scruton proposes that there is another way in which natural beauty is meaningful to us. The aesthetic appeal of things found in nature is very different from that of art. It is not intentionally placed before us, presented in the vision of an artist, and there are no rules dictating how one should appreciate it. Something unexpectedly catches our attention and our interest in it exists at a phenomenological level. It is an encounter between the object and ourselves which at once makes us aware of our otherness, through seeing something else as intricately designed as us, while also reaffirming our own existence in and of the world. We internalise the outer world through our experience of it, fuelling an aesthetic experience.
Wine in many ways is like a work of art, a landscape painting of its raw material. We know that its source is natural, but we are also aware that it has been crafted by human hands. Furthermore, there are set rules for how one should go about appreciating it. On the other hand, it is a phenomenological encounter. We experience it outwardly as an object of natural beauty, a testimony to the soil, the grape and the sun rays and rain drops which have accompanied its growth, resulting in a symphony of aromas, flavours and textures. Our senses are inticed by its complexity, reaffirming the existence of beautiful things in a beautiful world. When we swallow the wine it becomes part of us, and we become part of a beautiful world.
However universal natural beauty may be as an expression of our commonality with all things, there is still a certain caveat to consider in the concept “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. This common saying suggests that not only is beauty subjective, but also that things become beautiful because we notice them. It is a quality that belongs to our experience and not to the object. And yet it would be difficult to deny that certain objects are intentionally designed in such a way as to be beautiful. If so, who is deciding what is beautiful and what is not, and how?
As Bence Nanay, in the book “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”, points out, we do in fact have some very clear ideas about what is beautiful and what is not, especially in people. One only has to look at cosmetic surgery, or cosmetics in general, to see that there is an entire industry dedicated to making one’s appearance more aesthetically pleasing. Though fashions and styles change, millions of women (and men) depend on this industry to hide or remove the ugly bits and to make them more beautiful. Beauty, it seems, is also in the hands of the beautician.
In some sense, there are certain wine makers who take, what Nanay refers to as, a “beauty-salon approach”. They follow trends in the industry, crafting their wines to have just the right balance of qualities that the market is looking for, and even investing in their brand image to appeal to a specific demographic. Superficial, manufactured, unauthentic, maybe- and a far cry from terrior-driven wines from wine regions steeped in history, tradition and pride, not to mention natural wines- and yet, some people still enjoy these “beauty-salon” wines. Who has the right to tell them they shouldn’t? According to Nanay, the aesthetic value of an object has little to do with whether or not it is “beautiful” or to whom, and everything to do with how our experience of that beauty captures our attention and sustains our engagement with it.
“…anything can appear beautiful and aesthetics is exactly about these beautiful experiences. But what makes an experience aesthetic is not that the thing we experience is beautiful, but that we experience it in a certain way (we experience whatever we experience as beautiful). It’s not what we experience but rather the way we experience.”-Bence Nanay, “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”
Anyone can appreciate the natural beauty of a vineyard without needing to understand it or why it is beautiful, and therein lies its universality and spontaneity. We are free to explore, discover and take delight in it, and it is this contemplative gaze which puts us in relation to it and defines our experience of it. The same could be said about a glass of wine, that at least on a phenomenological level it appeals to our senses and inspires contemplation. However, wine also holds an aesthetic appeal similar to that of a work of art. It is often presented with the set purpose of contemplation as if in a frame on the wall of a museum. It represents a place, a time, a tradition and a culture, and these are all factors which play into our understanding of the wine. While natural beauty can be enjoyed freely and openly, artistic beauty requires one to decipher its message and understand its expression. Cosmetic beauty, on the other hand, sets out directly to make something beautiful by following the conventions of the time. A “beauty-salon” wine with this approach does not ask you to discover or understand its beauty, it only expects you to reaffirm it. It is perhaps more universal in its accessibility than artistic beauty but is only skin-deep and no where near as spontaneous and authentic as natural beauty by definition.
That being said, whether the beauty we encounter is natural, artistic or cosmetic, universal or subjective, it has an effect on us, and this effect we can call an aesthetic experience. To experience the beauty of a glass of wine is to engage with it aesthetically, and it is the quality of that experience which will determine its aesthetic value to us.
Nanay, Bence, “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, 2019.
Scruton, Roger, “Beauty, A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, 2009.