What is intellectual pleasure in wine?
For a professional, is there pressure to intellectualize wine? For a consumer, is there inertia to sensualize wine? The present mantra is to democratize the consumption of wine, to enable consumers to feel legitimacy in their experience of wine. But if that experience is informed only by pleasure, is it not limited? Likewise, if that experience is informed by a need to analytically reduce and intellectualize, is it not limited?
While wine quality has improved tremendously in the past decade, allowing good wine to be had by all, understanding truly great wine is only accessible to the 1% and to the professionals lucky enough to ride on that stream of cash. While wine is a luxury good and there is no inherent value to a wine of quality, demand has pushed the very best to inaccessibility. This, however, does not change the fact that there are great wines, wines of art, and merely good wines. The great wines are in very short supply. As such, I believe wine is fundamentally misunderstood in our society.
Unlike an art-form such as music that can be heard relatively easily by anyone, wine is more akin to visual art – expensive and inaccessible. However, great wine cannot hang in a public gallery. There is absolutely no accessibility to the experience of great wine other than consuming it directly. Most in the industry learn about great wines indirectly, through reading and discussing. The lucky experience them here and there in tasting events or industry dinners. Almost none can open a bottle at home, and consume it slowly over an entire evening. Even fewer can do this repeatedly. Most consumers do not even go this far. Even most amateur enthusiasts have limited direct exposure to the great wines. This means there are almost no true experts on great wine. It is simply impossible to have informed views without the necessary experience. It is much like forming opinions on an artist like Sol LeWitt or Ellsworth Kelley through other people’s renditions of what the work looks like rather than engaging in the in-person experience such art delivers.
I think, for this reason, wine is consumed mostly as a food, in a limited context, with partial knowledge. There is nothing illegitimate about this experience, but it does not give access to the higher aesthetic dimension of wine as art.
Returning to my original question – what is intellectual pleasure in wine? Its base is accretive and requires an initial outlay of hard work, thinking, and careful comparison to build a sufficient baseline of knowledge. I mean this both in terms of book knowledge and palate knowledge. But this is insufficient. The next layer is open-minded confusion. Building expectations only so they can be upended. The legitimate purpose of blind tasting is not to show profound skill and ego, but to confuse, and render unfamiliar. A humble, open-minded attitude is necessary to start to understand greatness in wine. There is no singular formula for that greatness, no flavour profile, no single set of objective criteria by which you can identify such wines. Blind tasting is not necessary to foster this attitude – it is but a tool. So in my view it should be understood as such and not necessarily valorized. Though it can be achieved in other ways, its purpose remains important. You need to know enough not to try to make everything great, but be open enough not to limit the mind to the experience of greatness.
But none of this sounds pleasurable yet. Next is the slow journey. Each bottle a series of decisions, brush strokes, chord progressions and rhythms, convention and the challenge to that convention. Greatness is not static. Then comes the moments of aesthetic pleasure, far beyond the purely sensual but mediated through it. Personally I find these moments inarticulable in any meaningful way. Much like trying to explain the greatness of John Coltrane’s Village Vanguard sessions: futile. The meaning forms ‘in relation to’ but also as purely temporally present.
With all that in mind, I had a fortunate week meandering through a series of such experiences, new and old world, with much Pinot Noir: