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?
Almost everything we do is infused with emotion, even if we can’t always find the words to express it. That’s why we take a unique pleasure in listening to a beautiful song, or reading a suggestive line of poetry, or watching the unfolding of a tragic love story in a film. They make us feel something that perhaps has remained tangled and hidden deep inside us, unexpressed. By reflecting it in another form, a song, or a line of poetry, or a film, can reveal the emotional depth of our experiences, at once consoling us and at the same time triggering an aesthetic experience.
The power of art to evoke strong emotional responses has been recognised from the beginning of time, with some going as far to say it is its defining feature, such as George Kubler (1912-1996) who claimed that art is “an object made for emotional experience”. Both Plato and Aristotle spoke of the emotive power of art, albeit with different ideas about its implications. While Plato saw art as an excessive indulgence in the passions and irrational emotions which steered one away from a virtuous life, Aristotle believed that it can purify the soul through catharsis. Art can allow us to relive strong emotions in a safe environment with no direct consequence to ourselves. We can experience pain, sorrow, terror, ecstasy and extreme joy vicariously through the art object without the actual threat of danger or risk of ridicule, thus purging our souls of that unrelinquished tension and purifying our minds for rational thought. Allowing ourselves to feel a wide range of emotions in an aesthetic context contributes to a balanced, and psychologically healthy, lifestyle, according to Aristotle.
While cathartic experiences are certainly powerful, and even therapeutic, it’s not the only way our attention is engaged aesthetically in an emotionally driven way. Emotive states can be induced, evoked, aroused, heightened, expressed, shared, perceived and attributed, sometimes keenly felt by the observer, other times recognised as a feature of the art object. Perhaps the best example is music. Music is known to not only express emotion directly but also to arouse it in the listener and represent it- either through patterns of tension, release, rising and falling or through a melody that sounds sad, joyful, angry, and so on. The question is whether wine, or the experience of wine tasting, can have the same emotional resonance.
Elizabeth Telfer, author of “Food for Thought”, seems to think not…
“A cook can cook as an act of love as we have seen, or out of the joy of living. But whereas in music the emotion is somehow expressed in the product itself- the music can be sad or joyful, angry or despairing- in food the emotion is only the motive behind the producer.”
Nor does Roger Scruton, as he states in “I Drink, Therefore I Am”…
“The comparison between wine and music helps us also to understand why wine is not an art form. The notes in music are also gestures, marked by intention. In listening to them we encounter an act of communication, an intentional putting across of an imagined state of mind. We also hear a process of development, a logical argument from note to note, so that form and content advanced together, as in a sentence… However much the tastes of a great wine are the result of an intention to produce them, we don’t taste the intention in tasting the wine, as we hear the intention in music. Wine results from the mind, but it never expresses it.”
Both Telfer and Scruton focus on the inherent expressiveness of music, and perhaps they’re right, wine can not express emotion through the intentionality of an artist/producer in that way. It can express a geographical location, a climate and a season, a tradition and a history of wine making, but those are all concepts and not feelings, as Dwight Furrow points out in “Wines of Anger and Joy”. However, Furrow also points out a way in which wine is similar to music in terms of emotional response,
“Like music, wine has a temporal structure the unfolding of which we can respond with emotions such as surprise, bewilderment, relief, disappointment, satisfaction, excitement or relaxation, at least in part independently of the effects of alcohol.”
The sensations we encounter moment to moment when tasting a wine and the way we respond to them, in a way, mirror the time-bound process of any emotional response. First their is the initial sensation which leads to an initial appraisal in our minds, followed by cognition which modifies our initial impression, linking it to recognised patterns and past experiences in an effort to understand it, all of which feeds into and forms our response (Jenifer Robinson, “Deeper than Reason”). Our perception of aromas and flavours follow this sequence in order to identify what we are tasting, as do any emotions aroused by this process, be it delight, disgust or any thing in between.
If sensations can arouse emotions or induce emotional responses, they can also be a source of attributing emotional qualities to a wine. Furrow argues that one only has to look at the language used to describe wine which is often filled with adjectives such as lively, exuberant, and fun or dark, broody and austere, sometimes even personalities like dignified, reserved or bold. These words don’t describe how the wine tastes, they describe how it feels. While they are not indicators of the wine’s expressiveness in itself but rather our own projections onto the wine, it is a common feature of our experience to attach emotions to non-sentient objects.
In “The Architecture of Happiness”, Alain de Botton speaks about this tendency to project emotions and characters onto objects with the example of sculptures,
“…it doesn’t take much for us to interpret an object as a human or animal figure. A piece of stone can have no legs, eyes, ears or almost any of the features associated with a living thing; it need have only the merest hint of a maternal thigh or a babyish cheek and we will start to read it as a character. Thanks to this projective proclivity, we can end up as moved by a Hepworth sculpture as we are by a more literal picture of maternal tenderness, for to our inner eyes, there need be no difference between the expressive capacity of a representational painting and that of an arrangement of stones.”
The expressive capacity of abstract sculpture lies in its ability to resemble or represent features of human experience, and the qualities we experience in a glass of wine can have that same effect. But beyond the glass, the very act of drinking wine can be, and often is, an emotionally charged experience.
Wine drinking is infused with rituals, from conserving the bottle to opening it, pouring it and tasting it. These rituals not only direct our attention in a specific way, they heighten our awareness of the experience by making it special and giving it a sense of importance, in turn imbuing it with an emotional resonance much different from drinking or eating out of mere thirst or hunger.
Furthermore, as a social lubricant, drinking wine conjures up feelings of conviviality, good cheer and good will towards others. It lowers our inhibitions, making us more open to socialise with others. However much these feelings have to do with the effects of alcohol, they have also become a symbol of wine drinking. In this sense, it is both the cause and the expression of them through our experience. When it comes to food and wine, dining is a communal activity which both produces emotional experiences and allows us to share them in a social context.
Wine, and wine tasting, may not have the same inherent and intentional expressiveness of an art object, but we can nonetheless engage with it aesthetically through emotions, be they induced, aroused, projected or expressed through us. Wine drinking can be cathartic as it can be a communal sharing of our human experience. Our emotional responses to wine and the context we drink it in give it an aesthetic value worthy, as any art object, of an aesthetic experience.
Crash Course, “Aesthetics: Crash Course Philosophy #31”, October, 2017 (YouTube).
De Botton, Alain. “The Architecture of Happiness”. Penguin Books, 2006.
Nanay, Bence. “Aesthetics, A Very Short Introduction”. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Scruton, Roger. “I Drink, Therefore I Am”. Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009.