Wine as a Vague and Rich Object
“What is wine?” may be a question only philosophers would think of asking, but it is not our purpose here to define wine as a concept. However, in trying to understand how wine may come to be an object for aesthetic interest there are good reasons to investigate what kind or kinds of object wine might be.
In addition to aesthetic interest, wine may be the object at the center of a multitude of projects and combinations of these, such as judging aging potential, matching with a particular dish or just getting drunk. Our projects involve many kinds of objects, but we shall claim that wine can be characterized as a ‘vague object’ since it has a number of characteristics that make it particularly difficult to assess. There are, however, a set of widespread practices with wine that appear to be designed as if to overcome the vagueness of wine as an object and which may set us on the trail to understanding how critical rhetoric becomes meaningful in relation to wine. This raises the further question of whether only the liquid in the glass is relevant to understanding wine, and to help answer this inquiry we shall construct a thought experiment involving a future where all wines can be analyzed into every little constituent particle, and then replicated in factories and sold to the public at moderate prices. This latter investigation serves to substantiate the second claim in the title of this article that wine is a ‘rich object’ since wine is valued not only for the properties that inhere within it as a physical object, but for cultural, historical or social reasons as well.
Wine as a Moving Target
In our discussion of wine as an object we are, unlike The Oxford Companion to Wine , 2 going to restrict our use of the concept to fermented grape juice, and not include wine made from anything other than grapes. This, though, does not solve any of the problems in coming to terms with wine as an object. A wine is an organic liquid that is ‘alive’ in the sense that it continues to evolve even after bottling, and it is thus a kind of ‘moving target.’ A wine such as Fattoria Selvapiana’s Chianti Rufina Riserva ‘Bucerchiale’ 2004 will be composed of the same atoms at times T 1 and T 2 , but the molecules will not be the same at those two points in time. The speed with which changes – mainly chemical reactions such as oxidation and polymerization – occur will depend not only on outside influences such as temperature and agitation, but also on the properties of the liquid itself. Since the properties of wines we can sense though olfaction, taste or in other ways are not at the level of atoms, it is fair to say that the wine as an object for our senses is different at times T 1 and T 2 provided the changes are of sufficient magnitude to get noticed.
But what is a wine? Or to be more precise: What can we really consider to be one wine? The background to asking this seemingly strange question is this: In making a wine, a single cuvée, its constituent parts – be it grape varieties in the case of blends such as Bordeaux wines usually are or grapes sourced from different sites – are often vinified separately. The separate vinification also is often random: All cannot fit into one barrel or one tank, so several are chosen. When it comes to the final blend, what goes into the cuvée that becomes Selvapiana’s ‘Bucerchiale’ 2004, Château Palmer’s top cuvée in 2005 (rather than the second, ‘Alter Ego’) or Schäfer-Fröhlich’s Felseneck Riesling Grosses Gewächs 2007, which are its constituent parts? Is all that goes into the cuvée mixed in one big tank or barrel, and bottled in one go? Usually, we don’t know. Tim Frölich of Weingut Schäfer-Frölich, for instance, found that one of his barrels or tanks of Bockenauer Felseneck 2007 did not ferment all the alcohol to produce the dry wine required for Grosses Gewächse 3 and bottled it separately as a Bockenauer Felseneck Halbtrocken (half-dry) 2007. These are then considered two different wines. So far so good. However, in any wine that is not made in one barrel or tank, the constituent parts will have fermented and developed differently. 4 Most of what we have decided to call fine wine 5 is made with indigenous yeasts that contribute significantly to the sensory profile of the finished wine ,6 and the likelihood is that different yeast strains dominate in one barrel or tank but not in another. They then get different sensory profiles. 7 If the producer does not blend all in a vat before bottling, but bottles a predetermined percentage of, say, different grape varieties from different barrels or tanks as the bottling goes on, the chances are that the sensory variability between the bottles from different stages of the bottling can be considerable.
This all means that, for all we know, what we call a wine – a cuvée from a producer in a given year – is not a unitary product once bottled. And once bottled, wines change in more or less predictable ways. Rather like humans, fine wines tend to be awkward and unapproachable in adolescence, then mature, and ultimately decline and die. But within this broad tendency, there can be considerable and surprising variation. Oxygen in the liquid, above the liquid in the bottle, in the cork or even through the cork or other stoppage device is a prime agent in these changes. Until recently little was known about how much oxygen bottles of wine – and the cork – contained. New technology has made it possible to measure this precisely, and there is a surprising variation in the levels of oxygen pickup even within wines along the same bottling line on the same day. With significant variation in levels of oxygen in bottles from a single bottling, differences in storage conditions (chiefly temperature and humidity) will quite rapidly ensure wide variety within a single cuvée. Thus, given the recent measuring techniques, we may be in a position not only to affirm the old saying that “There are no great wines – only great bottles,” but also to know why. The variation between bottles of the same wine can also be assessed by trained tasters. On September 11, 2010 the 14 members of the Grand Jury Européen were gathered in Paris to taste six wines, and to write notes and give scores. 10 These were served blind in a single flight. They were all Château Léoville Poyferré 2001, but from different sources. Two were from the château cellars, and the four others from Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong and the USA. The average scores for each single bottle ranged between 87 and 91, and one of the 14 highly competent tasters wrote this in his notes: “1: Heavy [and] smokey [with] a touch of alcohol on the palate, but a good wine. 2: racy … good structure … a lot of class. 3: a wine of restraint, like the previous one, but the tannin is less refined … 4: … does not appear to have the energy of the above.” These descriptors do not sound as if this was the same wine, but it was.
In a way, then, the ‘moving target’ character of wine – and there may be other factors besides oxygen at work – makes wine a kind of nominalist’s dream in the sense that every single bottle may be qualitatively different from the next, and not only numerically different. However, whether driven mainly by time, temperature or oxygen – and all of them are likely to be involved – all variation is generally considered to be a development from a single finished cuvée, even though we have just seen that this may not always be the case. Before we get too carried away by the easy allure of nominalism here, we must recognize that it is still meaningful to talk about a wine, such as our example of the Chianti Rufina Riserva ‘Bucerchiale’ 2004, rather than just about single bottles. Variation begins from the wine as bottled, and variations are like different realizations of the possibilities within the wine, and so ‘belong’ to the cuvée and to our developing understanding of it as it evolves over its lifetime. 13 Following this development, at least from release to maturity, is a truly educational experience and a central element in the development of practical competency. While there is individual variation, there are also rather predictable developments in a wine over time – what is usually referred to as maturation. Maturation is not experienced at the sensory level as a linear process, and many wines – particularly red wines – go through a ‘dumb’ phase during which only the drying effects of the wine’s tannins can be detected. This, then, only means that wine appreciation has to take account of a range of different factors, not that speaking meaningfully about wine or developing a knowledge of wine is impossible. Knowledge of the standard patterns of maturation and the phenomenon of bottle variation is part of what we have termed cultural competency , and competent wine tasters know that they have to take account of the phenomena discussed here.
The ‘moving target’ character of wines is not restricted to their development in bottle, however. They also develop in the glass at a single sitting with the wine. The wine in your glass represents a smaller volume of liquid than the bottle, and will approach ambient temperature more quickly. Different ranges of molecules will become volatile and leave the liquid ready to be inhaled by the taster. This is not only a function of temperature, but also of time. Heavier molecules tend to take longer to become volatile, and thus ‘break free’ of the liquid. A wine opened at time T 1 will quite likely appear different to the tasters at times T 2 and T 3 . Noticable differences may occur within seconds, minutes or hours. It is quite rare that a wine will remain stubbornly ‘the same’ throughout the evening, but it happens. There is therefore a case for considering wine as a moving target even at a single sitting, and that the wine as an aesthetic object is one that unfolds over time and thus maintains the power of surprise. Far from being an epistemic impediment to objectivity, this should be considered part of its condition as an aesthetic object. The influence of experts’ tasting notes on the wine enthusiast community may have had the effect of obscuring this feature of wine appreciation, and the impressions captured in a tasting note from a big tasting, where each wine gets less than a minute of attention, are bound to be severely limited.
The prevalent image is of wine appreciation as an instant photograph – a moment frozen in a tasting note and a score – rather than the feature-length film that a quality wine will play out over an evening as the different ranges of odorants become available to the discerning tasters, thus altering the multi-sensory impact of the wine as well. The analogies with photographs and films are far from perfect ones – particularly since the single sip of the wine is likely to reveal more of the wine’s qualities than the single frame from the film will of the whole film – but the development of a wine in the glass or decanter over time is, we would claim, a sadly neglected source of aesthetic interest. This feature of the way wine behaves as an object of aesthetic interest should not be considered a problem, we think, but an aspect of its condition as aesthetic object.
Wine as a Vague Object
Olfaction, or the sense of smell, is of prime importance in wine appreciation. This can be experienced by anyone who has a massive nasal congestion by which not only the outer, or orthonasal, passages are blocked, but also the inner, or retronasal, 15 passages. Fortunately, colds as bad as these are rare, but it is quite common to experience them as if one has lost the sense of taste. One has not, however; it is just that both routes to the nasal cavity have been blocked. In wine appreciation, then, retronasal olfaction and taste are generally experienced as ‘the same.’ Our purpose in drawing these matters to notice is to emphasize the importance of olfaction of both kinds for the combined sensory impact of wines, and thus the need to examine the sense of smell in more detail in the context of a discussion of wine as an object.
In our daily lives smells often elicit an immediate response – they indicate something to avoid or approach. We may smell that the milk has gone off, for instance, or that a diaper has to be changed. Although we respond positively to some smells, it may be fair to say that odors and their recognition are not high on the agenda of most people. In Plato’s Phaedrus , Socrates states that “of all the sensations coming to us through the body, sight is the keenest,” and modern science has a quantitative measure of this. It is estimated that some 50 percent of the cerebral cortex is taken up by ‘visual’ areas. Our sense of smell, however, is not so keen it seems – certainly not when compared to other mammals such as rats and dogs – and the general view appears to be that in our evolution as a species there has been a trade-off between vision and olfaction. Mice have as many as 1,300 odor receptor genes out of which about 1,100 are functional, 18 but while humans have about 1,000 genes for odor receptors, mutations render most of them useless so that we have only 347 functional ones. 19 We may speculate that our development as a species, becoming bipeds and relying more on sight than on the sense that is most useful when closer to the ground, has had its impact on the evolution of our sense of smell. Smell, apparently, is the only sense not to have a connection through the thalamus to the neocortex 20 where our conscious processing takes place, so odors do not have a direct neuronal pathway to this area. The first cranial nerve, by which impulses from our sense of smell travel, goes directly through to the amygdala and hippocampus. These areas of the brain are heavily involved in emotion and olfactory memory 21 – to put a complex matter rather simply.
We noted that in wine appreciation olfaction is of prime importance, calling to mind the experience of having a comprehensive nasal congestion to explain its importance for what we think of as taste. Tasting and drinking wine while suffering from this kind of affliction is a bizarre experience which can be compared to listening to the performance of a symphony when everyone in the orchestra, save the percussionists, have gone home. The importance of olfaction means that a major component in our interaction with wine is with the volatile compounds formed first above the surface of the liquid in the glass you are tasting from, and secondly from those released in your oral cavity once the liquid enters and is warmed up from the heat of your mouth. Whether inhaled through the nose or released in the oral cavity, the odorants are drawn up to the olfactory bulb where the molecules interact with the mucous membranes covering the receptors at the top of the air passages of the nose. The actual receptors look like hairs, and protrude into the mucous. Knowledge about how the smelling actually happens is not certain, but scientists assume that molecules attach themselves to dedicated receptors – the hair-like protrusions called the cilia, and this connection is transmitted through the olfactory bulb via the first cranial nerve into the brain. The area in the human nose covered by receptors is not particularly large – about the size of a postage stamp for each nostril – and some mammals, notably dogs and rats, have impressively large areas covered. Even if human olfactory sensitivity is no match for rats or dogs, our sense of smell can detect one form of musk in dilutions of less then one ten millionth of a milligram per litre of air. But do these scientific facts amount to the conclusion that we humans are comparatively poor at odor detection? Do these largely physiological and numerical considerations amount to the qualitative conclusion that humans are lost when it comes to smell? The upshot of this seems to be that our brains are not particularly well constructed for processing smell impressions consciously – we are just not hard-wired for it. But size and physiology may not be all there is to the sense of smell.
There is a case for reconsidering the evidence and focusing on function rather than numbers and physiology. Bisulco and Slotnick used the usual laboratory workforce of rats, and showed that their ability to discriminate between odorants was not severely impaired by induced lesions of their active odor receptors 24 – demonstrating that the number of receptors has little impact on olfactory recognition. Mathias Laska et al .’s study of non-human primates’ olfactory detection, which showed that “between-species comparisons of neuroanatomical features are a poor predictor of olfactory performance,” 25 led Gordon Shepherd to ask for a broader consideration of the human ability to smell, and to integrate it with its full behavioral context. 26 Shepherd points out that other mammals have very convoluted and elaborate filtering systems in their orthonasal cavities which act both as natural air-conditioners and to protect the nasal cavity from infections. This is not the only effect, though, since odor molecules get absorbed into the lining of the epithelium. These animals’ higher number of olfactory receptors, therefore, at best compensates for the odorants lost through filtering. Rodents who, like humans, have less in the way of filtering mechanisms, are ridden with almost chronic rhinitis. This means that humans are not as disadvantaged in the olfactory department as the sheer number of olfactory receptors may indicate. Humans have other compensations as well, chiefly retronasal olfaction which delivers a richer repertoire of smells to humans than to other mammals, but this is also a source of confusion when it comes to what is taste and what is olfaction or somatosensation. A smell we know well as sniffed is poorly recognized in the mouth.
Our main difference from our fellow mammals, however, is our power of cognitive reasoning. One thing is detection – the physiological mechanisms of olfaction – quite another is what is done with this input. Not only do humans have more extensive areas of the brain devoted to processing olfactory input than is commonly known, when it comes to more complex tasks involving odors we use memory and thus also involve the temporal and frontal lobes. In addition to this, there come the characteristically human powers of higher association. The upshot of all this physiological information is that humans are rational animals, as Aristotle defined us, and we can draw on our cognitive abilities also with regard to discriminating odors and their importance in wine appreciation. Other mammals use olfaction to find food, determine if it is edible or not, and for mating purposes. Fairly basic ‘survival of the individual and the species’ functions, one might say. The human developments of cooking, making and composing dishes and, most relevant to us, the making of fermented drinks brought a potentially richer and more complex array of odorants and tastants to our attention. In evolutionary terms, these developments are rather recent, and they carry significance for humans beyond basic survival. It is when humans reflect, compare and start to build competency drawing on higher-order reasoning that sensory input from olfaction, taste and touch can gain aesthetic significance for us.
Among humans sensitivity to smells varies considerably, some people being about one hundred times more sensitive to certain odorants than others. However, scientific studies on sensitivity to odorants are based on detecting single molecules, and this – apart from pronouncing on defects such as cork taint (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) – is not all that relevant for judgments about wine. “In all of the studies which have assessed olfactory thresholds in wine experts and novices, no significant difference in sensitivity … has been detected.” Furthermore, wine is not a ‘single-molecule’ phenomenon, but a highly complex one involving hundreds of volatile molecules in different concentrations. What happens with our abilities of detection when the number of odors increases appears to be that we get worse at identifying any one of them. Livermore and Laing found that the ability of identifying one molecule in a mixture went down dramatically with the number of different molecules present. In a mixture of three or more odors, fewer than 15 percent of people could even identify one component, and nobody – even trained perfumers – could pick out more than four items.
Supertasters exist, and their ability consists in being able to detect certain molecules in minute dilutions. Physiologists believe that supertasters are not necessarily better at tasting wines. In fact, they often just flinch at the astringency and the heat (from alcohol), and do not find wine pleasant at all. 36 In any case, taste provides us with relatively little information compared with the sense of smell, 37 and as we have just seen there are no significant differences between experts and novices in wine with regard to sensitivity. However, selective anosmia may be more of a challenge. There are dozens of specific anosmias and each type affects up to 75 percent of the population, so while everyone has roughly 350 olfactory receptors, we do not necessarily have the same 350 as the next person. 38 It appears to be typical, therefore, to suffer from some specific anosmia, and with regard to the perception of wine, an Australian study 39 has found that a signature varietal descriptor for Syrah, Rotundone (which has a characteristic ‘peppery’ 40 aroma), is not detected by a fifth of respondents. 41 We are not sure, however, that such results should be more worrying for the aesthetics of wine than the fact that 7 percent of all males are red–green colorblind should cause alarm for the aesthetics of pictorial art. And in any case, one element out of the multitude that wines made from Syrah contain would not be enough to preclude the appreciation of these wines. If we go back to Sancho’s kinsmen in Hume’s account, 42 we will remember that they discovered different elements of taste in the wine, leather and iron respectively, but they both judged the wine to be of high quality. The detection or not of one element, even if it is a signature element, does not exclude one from the community of judgment.
Combinations of odors, and combinations of tastants, tend to produce hypoadditivity – that the intensity of one is reduced by the presence of the other 43 – and with multi-modal sensations the picture is even more complex, with enhancement and inhibition in a myriad of interrelations. 44 The point being that variation of physiological abilities explains why some people will never be competent wine tasters, but does not in turn explain why some people are.
The problem of picking out a particular smell from out of a complex package may account for why a central process in olfactory perception is pattern recognition. “This is achieved by comparing the output of the processing system … to a store of previously encountered glomerular patterns. If there is a match, then this results in a discrete olfactory percept. When there is not a match, the resulting percept is vague and ill formed.’ This processing results in loss of information about the component chemicals, rendering the differing sensitivities to single chemicals less relevant for the perception and judgment of wine. It is worth noting that to become a professional perfumer the most important skill is not to learn to sniff like one, but to think like one. They learn pattern recognition, the types of fragrance, before learning individual odors.
For all our human brain power, it still remains difficult for us to describe smells or tastes in words. Some explanation for this comes from the insight that “different smells are represented in the olfactory bulb by different patterns of olfactory glomerular activity.” 49 Smells are more or less represented as images, it transpires, and may be considered analogous to the complex patterns constituting visual images of faces. We recognize a face in a crowd in a fraction of a second, but we are hard pressed to describe it in words in a way that distinguishes it from all the other faces in the crowd. It is much the same with odors – we struggle to describe them in meaningful ways and to integrate them with what we know and have previously experienced, particularly when they are complex. Yet, this is what wine appreciation involves. From a neurophysiological point of view, then, as well as an empirical one, there is a case for considering all objects we smell as ‘vague objects,’ and wine is an object for which olfaction is of crucial importance.
A second source of vagueness regarding our interaction with wine is due to the multi-modal nature of how we sense wine. We have so far, and for good reasons, given emphasis to olfaction, but other senses are indeed involved.
While ‘taste’ or ‘flavor’ is often used as shorthand for the combined sensory input from foodstuffs and wine, ‘taste’ in its more restricted sense is smell’s companion chemical sense. We are used to thinking of ‘taste’ in this sense as being restricted to salty, bitter, sweet and sour, but there is also umami to take into consideration. The receptors for these tastes are chiefly on the tongue, but not only on the tongue – they are spread out in the oral cavity and beyond. A wine that smells great can nevertheless come to be regarded as a poor one if the ‘mouthfeel’ (chiefly tactile in nature) is not right. Several senses are involved in the total sensory impact of a wine, and together with smell and taste there are also the visual and tactile dimensions as well as the sense of ‘heat’ (from alcohol) to consider. Several inputs to one sense at the same time tend towards hypoadditivity, that is, that the intensity of one odorant or flavor is reduced by the addition of another, probably because of response compression. 54 Input to different senses can have a range of other influences too, such as input to one sense intensifying the perception of another. People can dramatically enhance their ability to detect benzaldehyde (the smell of almonds) by getting a drop of saccharin on the tongue at the same time, and flavor intensity can be enhanced for adults by the use of color. These and other interactions between the many different senses involved in the perception of wine may explain why we find it difficult to untangle our impressions and direct attention in relevant directions, and why it makes sense to talk about wine as a vague object.
So does its sheer complexity. The number of volatile compounds – those possible for us to smell in the wine – is, as we have seen, in excess of 800, and together with input from vision, taste, heat and touch the combined sensory impact on the taster is a complex matter. Humans find it difficult to name odors in the absence of any non-olfactory clue, and with so much else going on with input from a range of senses, there is every reason to think that there is a considerable risk of ‘multi-modal interference.’ In appreciating a wine, then, the combined sensory input constitutes an embarrassment of riches which alone makes it difficult to know how and where to focus one’s attention.
The multi-sensory context of a particular sensation has an enormous impact upon how or indeed whether that sensation is registered, and a competent taster would have to compensate for such contextual effects – to the extent that this can be done at all. In brief, then, the peculiarities of olfaction as a sense, its importance for our appreciation of wine and the multi-sensory character of our perception of wine all appear to confirm our view that wine is a vague object as well as a moving target. While this is obviously at least sometimes a hurdle that wine appreciation has to clear, it may also be a resource that fine wines employ to be experientially something more than just the collection of sensory features. The ‘hurdle’ aspect is dealt with below, in our discussion of the practices of wine appreciation and how they construct an object of appreciation. However, first, we must consider an argument to the effect that the construction of wine as an object of appreciation is impossible.
In “The objectivity of aesthetic judgements,” Mark W. Rowe claims that “none of the varieties of critical rhetoric … is appropriate to discussing the taste of wine or the smell of a lilac. Because they do not have parts, our experience of them cannot be patterned by the intellect, and persuasion directed to this end is redundant.” 59 The reason we can say more about a Beethoven sonata than the taste of a wine, according to Rowe, is that “the objects of the aesthetic senses have parts which are laid out on spatial, temporal, or spatiotemporal fields, and that it therefore makes sense to talk about up/down, left/right and before/after… These parts can be organized into patterns by the intellect.” 60 We want to leave lilacs alone, but we maintain that Rowe is wrong with regard to discussing the taste of wine. The practice of wine appreciation employs practices that enable wine tasters to enjoy the kind of fundamental critical rhetoric which is directed at understanding and evaluating the object as aesthetic through perceptual guidance. Let us for the moment accept Rowe ’ s claim concerning the inner link between (1) something having “parts,” (2) the possibility of patterning by the intellect, (3) the possibility of critical rhetoric and persuasion and finally (4) the possibility of coming to an aesthetic judgment. The conditions stipulated by the aesthetic practice of wine appreciation enable wine to be perceived as an object whose parts and relationships can be recognized, reproduced, evaluated and discussed aesthetically. It is only when this misapprehension about the communicability of wine appreciation has been rectified that we can discuss wine appreciation on the same footing as the aesthetic practices that have developed together with the canonical art forms like literature, art and music.
The aesthetic practice of wine appreciation seeks to maximize the aesthetic potential of wines, and to enable communication and the application of developed competencies. This practice has unwritten rules regarding decanting and aeration, but there are actually written rules – or at least codified ideas – about the shape and size of the glass used for tasting wine, and we think it is important to focus on the importance of wine glasses before going on to discuss the basic features of wine appreciation. The importance of the wine glass was recognized by the organization in charge of the French Appellations Contrôlées, INAO, which duly commissioned a tasting glass around 1970. This was designed by a group of experts, and the aim was to make wine tasters’ opinions more consistent. This glass is now, literally, a standard of its own, being recognized by ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. The reason for standardization is clear. The shape and size of the glass will crucially modulate the taste of the wine, making inter-subjective judgments possible and experiences of the same wine more similar. The reasons a wine will not taste the same from different glasses is that crucial parameters will vary: the surface area, the volume of air above the liquid and the ratio of wine to surface. General practices have developed that make sure aesthetic appreciation has an object that is recognizable, and about which judgments with inter-subjective validity can be made. These general practices have quite straightforward relationships with physical and physiological facts, such as we have discussed above, as well as the biochemistry of wines.
While the ISO standard glass is an invention to facilitate inter-subjective judgments across the range of different wines, other more recent developments go in the opposite direction – towards diversity. The Austrian glass makers Riedel have developed, in close cooperation with wine producers, a series of glasses to suit different wines, and other glass makers have followed suit. These utilize different shapes and sizes in order to optimize the desired characteristics of different wines, and even wines as similar as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino have been accorded different glasses. The work that has gone into this development must be based on an agreement on the desirable characteristics of certain kinds of wine, and then on how the shape and size of the glass can aid in accentuating these, thus privileging one set of desirable characteristics from a type of wine over any other. For instance, the glass for red burgundy is both bigger and wider than most other wine glasses. This is, we expect, because red burgundies in their prime are known for their wide range of aromas. The large surface and ample free space above the liquid but below the rim of the glass allow a wide range of volatile molecules to leave the liquid but stay in the glass, and thus to provide a wider range of aromas to the taster. One reason not all wine glasses are this size and shape is that a wide glass has a negative impact on how fresh the wine tastes. However, red burgundies are rarely in want of astringency and acidity, and this ‘trade-off’ takes these properties of the wine into account. This is also an easy experiment to perform at home: Just take a bottle of good red burgundy such as a premier cru about 10 years old, and smell and drink it from a wide and large glass, and then from a tall and narrow one. The sensuous impact of the wine will be quite different in these two cases, and while the appreciation of burgundies may benefit from the glasses made by Riedel and others, the requirement of wide comparisons desired by the wine trade pulls in the direction of standardization and the use of the ISO glass. Since the glass used is such a crucial aspect for how the wine is experienced, tasting notes of different wines should, we believe, state the kinds of glasses used.
The shapes and sizes of the glasses used by those who appreciate wines are also known by wine producers, and this makes it less likely that they will make wines that do not appear at their best when tasted from the relevant glasses. Thus, the standardization effected by the practice, or practices, of wine appreciation may have an impact even on the production of wine. While the development of these glasses makes perfectly good business sense to Riedel and others because enthusiasts will have to buy many more glasses, their existence also serves to emphasize that there is a widely shared view in the practice of wine appreciation on the general and desirable characteristics of a wide range of different wines. This agreement in itself demonstrates that there is a community of wine appreciation, but also that there is, as of now, no settled agreement, at the basic level of glasses at any rate, between the conflicting interests of standardization and the desire to optimize the diverse characteristics of the wines. It is up to each personal taster, or groups of tasters, to make a decision on whether or not the settled agreement on the desirable characteristics of a single type of wine – a red burgundy, for example – should demand a glass enhancing these characteristics. Thus there may appear to be a conflict between the melioristic demands of aesthetic enjoyment, and the desire to provide for universal conditions of tasting that allow inter-subjective judgments.
A central feature of Rowe’s argument is the absence of parts in wine. Without parts wines cannot be patterned by the intellect, and no critical rhetoric can be employed to this end. However, when tasting wine one starts with looking at the wine in the glass, where the visual appeal is important, continuing with swirling, sniffing – all with the wine still outside the body, and then on to having the wine in the mouth. Here it passes through the mouth, after having been chewed over, gurgled or both, before it is spat out or swallowed. This progression is both the result of a natural progression and of a practice. As part of the practice, this ordering makes it possible to talk about tastes or aromas being noticed at different locations from the ‘first nose’ (sniffing the wine without having swirled it first), to the after-taste. This gives the tasting process a duration and a progression – the temporal dimension – and it also makes it possible to identify tastes and odors as being spatially located. Both of these observations directly counter Mark Rowe’s claims about wine lacking parts that can be patterned by the intellect. The importance of this should not be ignored.
We have seen here that wines are vague objects with a wide range of parameters, and that their ‘capture’ by the intellect is further hampered by behaving like moving targets both in bottle over months and years, and in the glass at a single sitting. The parts or elements of wines are not initially laid out in space, time or any other sensory field; and moreover, because it is difficult to learn to form the appropriate critical compensations, wine tasting may be more subject to extraneous influences than practices of appreciation that rely upon sight or hearing. The temporal ordering of the tasting of the wine thus has the added advantage of providing a sequence which facilitates ostensive definition. In tasting notes we find terms such as ‘attack,’ ‘mid-palate,’ ‘mouthfeel’ and ‘after-taste.’ This sequence helps the inter-subjective community of wine appreciation to identify elements of the wine, and to employ critical rhetoric to direct attention to relevant features of the object, when one is called upon to justify a judgment of its aesthetic attributes.
2030 – A Thought Experiment
Philosophers have often used thought experiments. Descartes and his evil spirit set the stage for what is still called modern philosophy, and many others have followed his example. The value of thought experiments is a moot point. Some claim that thought experiments combine stringent argument with memorable imagery, but others, such as Daniel Dennett, are more skeptical. Dennett claims that for many thought experiments, those he calls “intuition pumps,” “their point is to entertain a family of imaginative reflections in the reader that ultimately yields not a formal conclusion but a dictate of ‘intuition’.” 64 A call to the intuition pumps is rarely motivated by a desire to trick readers, but such is their effect.
Our purpose is not, of course, to persuade readers of a particular position by manipulating intuitions. We hope, however, to tease out and perhaps identify some general intuitions concerning wine through drawing up two counterfactual scenaria set at two different times in the future. What we want to achieve by turning the wineworld upside down is to challenge and hopefully clarify some widely held beliefs and intuitions concerning wine today.
The first of these scenarios is set in 2015, and it chiefly concerns the extent of our knowledge of a wine’s composition, while the 2030 scenario builds on the 2015 scenario by making it possible to reproduce – in the absence of vines, grapes and vintners – exact copies of the wines analyzed by the methods available in 2015.
The 2015 scenario
Spectrographic analysis back in 2012 was not all it could be, but three years later new technology that could specify every single kind of molecule in a liquid as well as their quantities was introduced. Every bottle of wine in existence could thus be literally analyzed into bits. From major components such as alcohol to complex organic compounds or trace elements of this, that and the other – all was revealed in 2015. A complete picture of all the wine’s components could be developed, and not just an idea of how many grams per litre there were of sugars, acids and the rest of those parameters that in 2015 seemed so very twentieth-century. This implies that the development of a wine could also be charted. Maturation and development could from now on be identified with precision, but revelations – if there were any – were for the future given that these methods of analysis were new.
What would the consequences be of this new state of knowledge? For one thing, the familiar issue of bottle variation could be identified with precision and given a numerical value. As we have seen, from 2009 there was growing, but as yet only anecdotal, evidence of significant variation between bottles of the same wine, bottled on the same line on the same day, with regard to how much free oxygen they contained. 65 The appreciation of wine is always an interaction between the liquid and the tasters, but as tasters we tend to assume that any changes in the experience of a wine over a fairly short period (such as tasting two bottles of the same wine within a week or two) must be due to changes in the wine rather than any alteration in the taster. Given the level of precision envisioned in this 2015 scenario, we could be forced to reconsider the scope of taster variation in ways that would be interesting for sensory science, psychology and philosophy alike. For the first time we could, perhaps, come closer to identifying how much of what now is regarded as bottle variation is indeed taster variation.
The level of analytic precision in 2015 could also turn out to strengthen the nominalist position with regard to wine: That there are no such things as wines, only bottles. It could even take us one step further. It might turn out (should taster variation be demonstrably the greater factor) that there are only singular experiences. But rather than settling ancient metaphysical debates, this scenario only highlights the main question: What do wine enthusiasts really care about? Is it the fine distinctions in the composition of an object, or rigorous objectivity in judgment, or the full experience of tasting and drinking it? The way we put it here makes the answer rather obvious, but it may turn out to be less obvious when we move to the 2030 scenario a little later.
It is uncontentious, and indeed true by definition, that identical wines will provide us with the same materials to be tasted. But in this scenario few turned out to be identical – and it would no doubt prove much more difficult to determine, across the board, how little difference amounts to no difference, for the purposes of finely tuned evaluative tasting. Bottles of the same wine turned out to be ever more divergent the older they were even if they had been stored in the same case in the same room from the day they were bottled. This may appear to be an added assumption on our part – beyond what is warranted by the scenario proper – but so much is known even today about differences between bottles, and the long-term effects of varying levels of oxygen in bottles, that these assumptions are entirely in keeping with the scenario.
However, knowing the precise chemical makeup of wines would open the old question of whether or not we can judge a wine – or any other aesthetic object – from facts alone. Would expert tasters and wine critics become surplus to requirements in the 2015 scenario? After all, the object will be revealed with all its constituent parts in a completely objective manner. However, we have seen above that the wine we taste and drink is not the one in the bottle or the glass. First off, it may be hard or even impossible to determine from the molecular analysis of the wine which molecules will end up in the air above the wine in the glass – and in what quantities. The various influences on this are many, including temperature, air pressure and agitation of the glass or bottle prior to serving. Is the wine decanted? For how long? And once inside the taster’s oral cavity the number of important factors multiply. We outlined above a set of practices in relation to wine that are almost always followed, and this will serve to limit the number of factors in most cases. So much so, perhaps, that broad assumptions can be made when a number of instances have been compared. Still, it is obvious that what we experience is not the wine in the bottle, but the wine as it interacts with our senses.
Even in 2012, a set of important facts can be known about wines, such as their levels of residual sugar and acidity. However, wines that came from neighboring vineyards, grown in the same year, with the same varietal and by the same farmers, and that were identical with regard to these parameters, often taste different. David Schildknecht, reviewer for Robert M. Parker Jr.’s The Wine Advocate , has used Riesling wines from Zeltinger Sonnenuhr and Wehlener Sonnenuhr in the Mosel as examples of this. 67 This is by and large the same vineyard even though it is divided between two villages, but the important fact is that wines from these two vineyards always taste less sweet than those from other vineyards in the vicinity – such as Wehlener Klosterberg – with exactly the same values for residual sugar and acidity. It is conceivable that the full range of reasons for this will be revealed by the advanced methods of analysis in 2015, but we still hesitate to affirm that these methods can tell us what the wines taste like.
We think, until persuaded otherwise, that only tasting can reveal what a wine tastes like. This is true even when by ‘taste’ we mean something like sensory effects. However, when taste is understood more narrowly as aesthetic discrimination and judgment, it is still more clearly dependent on the wines getting tasted by a human being. It is unlikely that any sophisticated apparatus will ever determine that a wine is like “an iron fist in a velvet glove” – an often used judgment of wines from Grand Cru Musigny in Burgundy. With perfected methods of analysis we may be able to make better predictions from a wider range of facts about how wines will taste, but the well-worn cliché about the proof of the pudding is still valid for the taste of the wine.
The 2030 scenario
Fifteen years go by, and the year is 2030. Scientists with the right equipment have for years now been able to reveal complete pictures of the biochemical components of any bottle of the liquid we call wine, and not a single molecule of this liquid remains beyond the reach of the bright light of scientific exploration. Not only have they been able to demonstrate that a bottle of Château Lafite 1990 in 2015 and the same bottle in 2020 were different wines at the molecular level – they could show exactly how this came about. This gave further credibility to the nominalist position that you cannot taste the same wine twice. 3D animations of the wine’s development through polymerization and other chemical reactions makes it possible to virtually swim in the river of a wine’s development.
The new feature of the 2030 scenario is the ability to reproduce any wine from the recipe of its comprehensive analysis. Liquid time travel in 3D, for all its visual delights, was paltry compared to staging tastings of the aforementioned Château Lafite 1990 – and any other analyzed wine, for that matter – at different stages of its development. Any wine at a stage of development dating before 2015 was impossible to reproduce due to the lamentable state of science in those days, but all stages of wine development after this important year, such as 2020, 2025 and 2030 were possible to reproduce. Since wines were shown to be both molecularly and sensorically different at different stages of development, copies were made according to which stage the wines had reached in their maturation. You could thus have copies made of Domaine Georges Roumier Musigny 2005 according to the analysis from 2015, 2020, 2025 as well as 2030 – and all the years between. You could thus go and buy Roumier Musigny 2005/2020 TM as well as 2005/2030 TM – and all the years between.
A basic premise in this scenario is that the wine originals and the copies are, molecule by molecule, identical. What you get in the bottle and pour into your glass when buying the manufactured wine is an identical copy of the original bottle that was analyzed at that stage of its development. Blind tastings would show that nobody could tell the copies from the real thing. Roumier Musigny 2005 from the best cellars made in the old way, from grapes, and the copy made by clever scientists could not be distinguished by the best-trained tasters. The original Roumier Musigny 2005 cost a small fortune in 2030, but this scenario stipulates that the copy could now be made on a large scale and sold for the same price as modestly priced quality wines such as recent vintages of Chianti Classico. In the 2030 scenario we are given the opportunity to enjoy the same perfect vintages at the preferred level of maturation again and again for the rest of our lives, and the possible selection is amazing. Every wine drinker and enthusiast in the world rejoiced.
One reason for this is that for the first time ever, one could taste the same wine at different stages of its development at the same tasting. Château Margaux 2005 and 2009 at 10 years old could be tasted side by side as Château Margaux 2005/2015 TM and Château Margaux 2009/2009 TM , and the same wine could also be tasted as verticals – such as having a flight of Château Beaucastel 2007 in several of its incarnations (or should we say inliquidations?) as Château Beaucastel 2007/2015 TM , 2007/2020 TM , 2007/2025 TM and 2007/2030 TM . It would be possible to build libraries of wines at several stages of development, but copies would – given that they are identical to the originals, and provided storage conditions were on a par – develop in the same way once released. 68 Not only the liquid itself would have to be identical, but if we were counting on the development of the wine when aged in its bottle to follow the trajectory of the original, the scenario must also assume that reconstruction of the chemical properties and composition of the corks used was possible, likewise the composition of the airspace trapped under the cork, and even relevant properties of the composition, color or shape of the bottle.
One of the benefits of this scenario would be predictability. Those of us with a passion for quality wines have had our share of ups and downs, and for some wine-producing areas these can be pretty steep in either direction. Burgundies of both hues have been in this category, but from 2030 premature oxidation, off-vintages and unpredictable maturation are things of the past. You can pick your favorite wine and be sure of satisfaction every time. The future for burgundy lovers is bright in 2030, and life as oenological manic-depressives is over. Furthermore, the disappointment of having finished your last bottle of a stunning wine will be but a distant memory. You just order a new bottle or a new case of – say – Roumier Musigny 2005/2025 TM when your stack runs out. What is not to like about this scenario, particularly when ordering a case of a wine like this does not spell immediate bankruptcy?
Once the 2030 scenario dawns on the wineworld – what will happen next? Will those who make wine the old-fashioned way, with grapes, go bust? Will the producers of canonical wines nevertheless go on as before – or perhaps just a few, selling to hyper-rich Luddites? Will everybody order Château Latour 2009/2030 TM with their pizzas? Will Château Latour and all the other canonical wines now being copied sue the factory wine producers of replica wines? Will all who spent large sums of money on the Bordeaux 2009 en primeur campaign sue them? Which will be the new best-selling wine at your supermarket – Château Latour 2009/2030 TM , Château Lafite 1982/2020 TM or Musigny (Roumier) 1999/2025 TM ? None of these? We ought to remind ourselves that we cannot know for certain that the majority of consumers will prefer these ‘perfect’ wines over and above the kind of wines they know and are used to. In a study of more than 6,000 blind tastings, Goldstein et al . found no positive correlation between price and rating for respondents with no wine training. 69 Indeed, the liking for fine wines is clearly an acquired taste since there was a small negative correlation between price and preference for these respondents, while those with wine training preferred the more expensive wines. 70 The reasons for this outcome can be many. First of all, no alcoholic beverage is immediately attractive to those who have no experience of it. 71 Moreover, though, the qualities that make a wine ‘fine’ or even ‘great’ are not immediately accessible. This is because these qualities simply do not belong to taste in the sense of straightforward sensory effects any more than the quality of a medieval fresco can be easily accounted for in terms of color, shape and gold leaf. Rather, these qualities emerge in taste in the narrow sense of judgment, comparative deliberation, aesthetic sensitivity and cultural awareness. One has to have both knowledge and experiential know-how in order to be in a position to appreciate fine wines.
Our experiment in social wineworld engineering stops here, and it is not our purpose to guess. Such a radical departure from the current practice of making and consuming wine is a challenge to our conceptions of wine, and this was also the purpose of our thought experiment.
Wine as ‘Pure Experience’ or as ‘Rich Object’?
Let us take stock of our reactions to these imagined developments. Can the 2015 and 2030 scenarios help us gain an outside perspective on our present conceptions of wine, as well as on what it is about this beverage that we value? Let us first try to identify some of the challenges, and this means identifying some of the inherent features of our dealings with wine that we have come to regard as inevitable.
The manufactured wines post-2030 are superb, almost by definition. The marketing of the copies would likely make a lot of the price:quality ratio, and in effect make the best wines in existence – or analyzed since 2015 – available to all but a poverty-stricken minority. There are other considerations, of course. People tend to favor originality and originals, and despise copies and simulacra. We know this from forgeries and fakes in art, among other things. 74 In most areas one should be wary of drawing parallels between art and wine, but here it is all but inevitable. Cleverly crafted copies where not even experts, and certainly not art critics of the common or garden variety, can spot any differences get the thumbs down and go from being admired to being despised when their origins are revealed. 75 Wines, as we know them, are a combination of natural forces, such as soil, plants and the weather, and the craft of those who make them. And a bit of luck, of course. There are, to be sure, more prominent examples of human ingenuity than wines, and in our futuristic scenario it is the scientists who have shown admirable creativity and intellectual prowess. However, this is unlikely to do much to change something as deeply ingrained as our tendency to admire what is unique and original.
There is a sneaking suspicion, though, that it is not solely what we have in the glass that we appreciate about wine. Given the 2030 scenario, and the assumption that wine manufactured in a factory prevailed, wine’s direct connection with its origins would be gone. It would continue, of course, to relate to its original given that the copy would mirror the original which was made in the old-fashioned way of wine today. Its role of authentic expression and witness, however, would be at best derivative. This should not and would not worry those who hold that all we should appreciate is in the glass, but we think this thought experiment constitutes a challenge to them. Is it really possible or even desirable to drive a wedge between the liquid in the glass and our knowledge about its origins? Clearly, the copies sold have a relationship with the original, but the constituent elements of the wine were never in the vineyard under the sun. The wine we drink here and now has been created by unique conditions – including the vintner’s intervention – and it is thus a kind of witness. Sun, wind, hailstorms and drought impinge on the grapes, and this suggests that we should approach wine as a ‘rich object’ rather than an isolated one. The experience of tasting wine, and what we value about that experience, cannot be separated from the cultural knowledge and even cultural values that come with its unmediated connection to places and practices of origin. As human beings we are not only concerned with experience, we also want to be someone and to do some things, as we think Robert Nozick’s thought experiment with the experience machine shows. Nozick ’ s argument suggests that we attach great value to the reality of the experience. The problem here is that there is nothing that is unreal or even deceptive about our experiences of the reproduced wine. The wine is real (it is a physical entity and not just a simulation of a physical entity), and we really are drinking it. The only aspect of Nozick’s argument that applies is the appeal to our exposure to what he calls a ‘deeper reality’ beyond the manufactured one. A ‘real’ wine is valued, in part, because it belongs to and is a point of contact with a reality that goes beyond human control or artifice.
But there may be another objection to the experience machine in addition to its isolation from physical reality, and this is its isolation from ‘sociality.’ It could be that Nozick did not prioritize this because it would sit uncomfortably with his libertarianism, but one problem with going with manufactured experiences is that we would not really be with others, and therefore my relations with ‘others’ would carry no weight. Without collective existence I have neither privileges nor responsibilities.
The first aspect of value a wine enthusiast encounters is the price of the product. The rarity and expense of fine wine, annoying though this is for wine enthusiasts on limited budgets, may also be considered part of its value. Suppose the concert you are attending is being recorded for you to listen to again; even though the recording cannot exactly match your experience of sitting in row 7 in seat number 28, the sense of being present at something that will soon be gone forever is not quite there. Likewise, the painting in the gallery will be there for you to see tomorrow. The wine, however, is gone forever once it is emptied – if we accept that each bottle is unique. In this respect it resembles more the ice-sculptures sometimes made in cold climate zones of the world – such as northern Norway – that everybody know will be gone come the inevitable thaw. Wines develop in bottle; they mature, decline and then die. At an uncertain point in the future all the bottles of a particular cuvée will be either consumed or undrinkable. This ‘ephemeral’ quality of wine is not just an accidental, unfortunate feature of it, but is part of its existence as a rich object. An ‘ice’ sculpture made of glass just wouldn’t be the same. The attendant poignancy of a wine’s decay is clearly seen if we compare with the 2030 scenario and its possibilities of endlessly replicating comprehensively analyzed wines. The uniqueness of wine, we would argue, is part and parcel of the value of wine appreciation, even though it goes beyond the inherent qualities of the beverage in itself. Come to think about it, the wine’s ‘mortality’ mirrors the drinkers’ mortality. We are finite beings, just as a wine has a finite lifespan. We cannot return to this moment, just as the wine we enjoy together now cannot be enjoyed again. This also plays a role in our judgments: That is, the poignancy of a wine’s decay and the preciousness of our own passing lives are symbolically linked and valued as such. The uniqueness and passing of the wine symbolizes the uniqueness of the occasion. If we had the capacity to have the same taste experience with a wine again (quite apart from the fact that that is strictly speaking impossible) the values attaching to uniqueness and ephemerality would be lost.
Part of the attractiveness of the 2030 scenario may lie in our forgetting that wine production has a history. Styles change; new techniques do not only serve to make attaining a given standard easier, but actually create new possibilities. Old techniques are rediscovered, or used with respect to different grapes or climates, and new ‘philosophies’ such as ‘natural wine’ emerge. The wineworld may be frozen in place as of 2030 – even if a handful of producers carry on. Imagine the world of music if all we had were a couple of hundred compositions of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Moreover, there would be no sense of history, no way of thinking of these composers as radical innovators, alluding to past forms, interacting with their contemporaries, or creating the conditions for very different composers just a few years later. There would still be great music; but it would be both highly limited and pinned like a butterfly to a board.
If wine is only what you drink, you won’t lose anything in the 2030 scenario, really, but gain the chance of tasting great wines over and over at modest prices. Is it at all possible that we stand to lose something through this kind of development? Is it just that old habits die hard? Some would weigh in with frequent use of words like ‘artificial,’ ‘chemicals’ and the like, but should we take them seriously? Only if what we appreciate about wine goes beyond the liquid product, what we ostensibly appreciate and value, can we object to the 2030 scenario or claim that it also represents a loss. Our intuitions regarding wine are probably formed by wine being the product we know and love today – characterized by good and bad vintages and more or less skilled or lucky producers. This is the backdrop to our expectations and actions related to the tasting and purchase of wines. Our thought experiment represents a radical departure from these and other parameters, and this may be a reason of its own for the expected problems we may have with unlimited access to ranges of immutable and ‘perfect’ wines. Being able to access ‘perfect’ wines at will may seem like a great idea, and certainly a prospect one would not turn down without compunction. But how satisfying would perfection be in the long run were it to become the norm? Perfection may be more attractive as a goal than as a reality, and it could well turn out to be more than a little boring. The 2030 scenario may also suggest that enduring bouts of something akin to manic depression in relation to wine is a valuable part of our interaction with it and integral to its status as a rich object. As it is today, you never know what a wine you pour into your glass is going to be like. Having to expect the unexpected may not only be a fact of life in the wineworld of today, but also something that creates a welcome frisson in the wine lover. When this goes, as it will if you source from the factory rather than the château, fattoria, bodega or domaine in 2030, maybe some of the fun of the practice of wine appreciation goes with it?
As we know wine today, variation is an inevitable feature of our interactions with it, and it may be that only with the prospect of eliminating variation altogether could variability and unpredictability be appreciated as valuable in their own right. We have learnt to accept unpredictability as part of the world of wine, but against the background of this thought experiment may we perhaps also learn to cherish unpredictability? If we can go out and buy Château Margaux 2005/2025 TM and Château d’Yquem 1961/2020 TM at the supermarket, we will have variation but no unpredictability. The excitement in opening a bottle that has been long in the cellar will be gone, and we will know exactly what we will get. Predictability is followed by its near relative boredom, and the excitement will be gone for the wine enthusiasts. 77
But could it be that there are more fundamental features are at play here? Just like light needs darkness and good needs bad, perhaps these fantastic manufactured wines need the ordinary variety, and perhaps some downright bad ones too, in order to be appreciated as fantastic? As we have seen above, when the pinnacle of quality becomes the norm the norm changes, and the best is no longer the best but what is normal. Even though the perfect copies of Château Lafite 2005/2025 TM develop after you have bought them (they are, after all, exact copies), variation will shrink unless, of course, the wineworld of today continues as some kind of parallel universe to the one envisioned here – and not only as the top producers trying to see if the current vintage may eclipse any of the historical ones.
The Taster of the Future
Variability – whether in off-bottles or off-vintages or in the very instructive bottles that ‘just miss’ 78 – is not only an inherent feature of the wineworld of today. It also represents a fundamental feature for the other crucial ingredient in wine appreciation: the taster. Wine appreciation depends crucially on the practical and theoretical competencies developed by the taster, 79 and without the variation of bottles, vintages, producers and other ‘known unknowns,’ wines would not be appreciated by tasters like us. In order to appreciate wines the drinkers draw on experiences, and a taster’s tacit as well as explicit knowledge depends on the current variability of wines. Sometimes it may be the most instructive experience of one’s wine-enthusiast background to have a wine that just misses being what it could have been. Thereby, for example, the taster learns to see what is significant, and why it is significant within the overall taste, and to appreciate how that overall taste might be composed of various and varying elements. One element of taste might be judged appropriate for one wine but be completely ‘out of place’ in another. Moreover, the taster can now understand how relationships between elements, such as balance, become significant, and how these are altered by variability within still other elements or relationships. For example, what is considered to be a perfect balance between two elements such as sweetness and acidity may be so only because of some third element – or a range of other elements that are hard to pin down. The Sonnenuhr example discussed above should come to mind, where several other factors are likely to affect the perceived sweetness of the wines given that residual sugar and acidity are objectively identical. Indeed, how is it possible to evaluate two ‘excellent’ wines side by side, however similar they may be? For each is sui generis , exemplifying a quite different excellence. Here the taster needs to learn, through tasting lesser wines, how great wines can be related together meaningfully. They are like different successful solutions to the same aesthetic puzzle, that of integrating the various possible flavors, odors and cultural reference points. Only in this way is it possible to arrive at a position from which one can judge how excellence is a product of the interaction of various factors. Again, the taster needs to go through phases of surprise and confusion, and thereby to learn that certain grapes, for example, have various possibilities, and not just those specific possibilities found in the great wines. Finally, through experiencing variability and wines that miss greatness, to a greater or lesser degree, the taster can learn how all these factors and judgments can be linked back to weather, soil, production techniques and so forth. For all these reasons, it appears that experience of variability and even wines with flaws must be part of the serious taster’s toolkit. Without it, the culture needed to appreciate all these great wines will not only change (that is beyond doubt), but may simply wither and die because the experiences necessary to acquire competencies are no longer available.
The 2030 scenario gives you the opportunity of drinking exactly the same wine on your silver wedding anniversary as you did at the wedding, and it is likely that our beliefs, actions and emotions connected with wine would change accordingly. That could be a valuable thing, providing a nice opportunity to meditate upon changes in us, against the background of knowing that the wine has remained identical to itself. It would be like returning to Disneyland, last visited as a child but still unchanged. Wines as we know them today are moving targets, and at some point they will fade away and die. The 2030 scenario opens possibilities we cannot quite conceive of today, and there is no privileged position available from which we could determine which wine culture – the one we know or the 2030 scenario – would be ‘best.’ All we can know is that these two scenarios are different, and this difference can highlight some of the less obvious fundamentals of the current wineworld.
If we understand wine as a rich object – as being more than we can sense – the inherent variability, unpredictability and various imperfections are aspects of what we value about wine. The role of wine as witness may sometimes be taken too far, 81 but even if the ‘testimony’ it contains about its origins is less than clear, the knowledge that it has an origin that directly (and not only indirectly) caused the wine in the glass to be like it is, gives the wine an extra dimension and makes of it a richer phenomenon than viewing it as just the liquid in the glass. If we understand wine as a rich object in the way suggested here, then the origin of the wine and its ability to provide a connection with that origin gains a value of its own. And so will the necessary diversity among grape varieties, blends, growth conditions and cellar practice.
Perhaps our concerns about the ‘brave new wineworld’ of the 2030 scenario are valid only within the parameters of the wineworld of today? Our concerns may be based on a kind of projected nostalgia for the current wineworld, with which we are connected through beliefs, patterns of behavior and expectations. It is possible that given the 2030 scenario a culture would emerge that values the predictable and reproducible, where the experience of reproducible wines would produce emotional attachments all of its own. 82 Above, though, it was suggested that this new culture would have, at the very least, severe limitations. The place of wine in our web of beliefs and values today is not only about variation and the unpredictable, but also the poignancy of decay and destruction.
We don’t know how far we may be from the 2030 scenario, and we don’t even know if it is at all possible. But the appeal of this bright future, with perfect wines on tap, has faded somewhat through considering its wider implications. There is a strong case for the view that wines are rich objects, and that the appreciation of them comprises a lot more than the isolated experience of drinking them. The preference of today’s imperfect wineworld over the 2030 scenario may be sentimentality on our part, but we would rather be old fashioned and sentimental about wine than modern and boring.
The discussion in this article has been concerned with what kind of object wine is. The first phase of this discussion was chiefly concerned with the peculiar characteristics of wine as an organic liquid that is both a moving target and a vague object for our senses. The second phase used a thought experiment in the shape of a wine science fiction to locate wine in our wider web of beliefs and values.