The Scientific Approach to Wine
A scientific approach is a great place to start with wine. Understanding the botany of the vine, species and inter-species relationships, viticulture, how a grape's genetic material relates to the natural environment, and the vine's multiple modes of procreation all help to get an idea of what is in your glass.
Additionally, it's important to understand the winemaking process from a scientific standpoint. Why does one fermentation yield certain molecules that taste one way, while another similar fermentation will yield completely different molecules that taste radically different? Getting a handle of what is happening on the molecular level with grape particles, temperatures, and various microorganisms helps to (a) reveal the human touch in winemaking as you taste and (b) solve problems in wine (c) choose wine that might be appropriate to your personal tastes.
And finally, and possibly the most important, a scientific understanding of the human body can help us understand how the olfaction system processes wine and how our minds and bodies react to the various psychotropic effects. This is probably the least explored region of scientific wine study, and it rarely enters wine curriculum in any substantial form.
But, if you are reading this article you probably already know all that (most wine courses have strong focuses on viticulture and vinification), and you also probably know (or are beginning to know) that exploring the science of wine is not enough.
The Historic Approach to Wine
Once you get what is going on chemically, it is nice to know how this agricultural product came to be, with all the many industries built up around it. By contextualizing the molecules of wine against war, culture, colonialism, nationalism, natural disasters, industrialism, religion, government, economics, and tradition we begin to see how the product emerged congruently with humanity and how it arrived at its current state. This is mostly done through museum exhibits and books. In Rioja the museum at Dinastia Vivanco takes you through a recent part of wine's historical journey in a most palpable way and does a great job at contextualizing the history of wine. Also, many writers successfully incorporate science and history in their wine writing (Goode/McGovern/Johnson/Robinson), but there is still a deeper surface to scratch that deals with the way in which science and history are spun.
The Structuralist Approach to Wine
Structuralism is a philosophic approach to something in which the doer assumes an inherent underlying structure of the subject. For example, from a structuralist viewpoint, I might say (or just believe) that all civilizations have a basic structure based commerce, family life, religion, competitive sports, and musical performance. Then, when I go out to study a civilization, as I study it I'm going to look for the structural elements and attempt to fit that civilization into the deep structure that I have already prescribed to it and all civilizations. If I find a civilization that lacks, say competitive sports, then I will either have to reexamine my assumed structure or deem the society uncivilized-- which may or may not be an appropriate representation of that society. The main point here as it applies to wine is that when we build strong, unwavering structuralist foundations, it becomes difficult to reconcile things/concepts that do not "fit nicely" into our models, and, in the world of wine, this means that unique producers/wines and atypical means of production are left on the fringe of this structuralized notion of wine, and often ridiculed for it.
I get a very uncomfortable feeling when I read most wine writing, because so much of it is informed by a unilateral structuralist approach that is not just boring but dangerous. I'll make a case study of Bordeaux-- structuralism abounds on the examination of Bordeaux-- to explain my point:
There is an assumed notion of what Bordeaux is and means, an assumed "deep structure" of the idea of Bordeaux wine, and a shared assumption that there is something stagnant/typical/real/omnipresent/everlasting about Bordeaux. Yet in reality, each Chateaux is not hard-tied to certain pieces of land; they can buy and sell vineyards within certain regions and still maintain the Chateaux's position in the classification-- it's a huge anomaly in France's terroir-driven national values, one that is explored in great detail by Benjamin Lewin in What Price Bordeaux. Thus it is plausible (and realistic) that a drastically different wine may be made each year, from different properties, and the diversity is exacerbated further by the usual variables such as machine influence, the harvest, the year, different farming philosophies, chemicals and additives available in the marketplace, the oak barrels, ad infinitum. So, with all of these variables, what does "Bordeaux" really mean? Can what is essentially a brand based on a few common factors such as potential grape varieties, similar climate, and similar soil, really be viewed through structuralism? To the extent that we can make grape varieties do our bidding it can, and also to the extent that a meta-terroir can exist for a large region; but the core center of our imagined assumption of Bordeaux's concrete stableness is wavering and fleeting. You can't nail down a moving target. It reminds me of social anthropologist Ulf Hannerz's analogy of "culture" as "flowing;" like a river, you can dip your foot into the flow but it will never quite be the same each time, despite a perceived continuity through multiple similar experiences.
Bordeaux may have once been easier to understand (back in the days before estate bottling when continuity of style was easier to follow in export markets because of importer barrel blending)-- but even that statement assumes a simplicity that most likely never really existed. And since the introduction of first and second labels in the '70s, now production for most of the big Chateaux is split and based on quality which essentially bifurcates Bordeaux's potential identity. Global warming exacerbates the assumed ironclad identity of Bordeaux even further, and I wont even start on how wine fraud has skewed its perceived identity.
The changeability and variety of Bordeaux wines is not necessarily a bad thing; but the analysis of Bordeaux gets sticky when Bordeaux is presented structurally as if it is one dimensional. Most of our structuralist assumptions of Bordeaux (or any sub-unit of wine study) can be deconstructed to reveal a higher level of complexity. The flux and flow of culture/people/climate/time make it difficult to build and maintain structuralist frameworks for any region, grape varietal, or whatever other unit you are dividing the world of wine into for analysis. To structuralize an area of wine is to gloss over incredibly meaningful complexities and diversities.
And yet, we need a bit of structural perspective to learn and understand things. We have to start with some building blocks; to always question everything leaves you with nothing to present or know. Structuralism, however, should be used knowingly and sparingly and be seen as something that can be molded and changed as necessary with the flow of time.
By viewing wine through a philosophical framework based more on existentialism or phenomenology as opposed to structuralism, the individual's experience with/of wine can be synthesized into a more reflexive approach, and the highly unique collision of time/place/people/grape may maintain its sanctity.
Phenomenology of Wine
Andrew Jefford recently published the article "Wine and Astonishment" in The World of Fine Wine, Issue 36. In the article, he synthesized elements of his personal wine philosophy with Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, and the result was.... pretty astonishing. Heidegger's ideas are built upon the work of many other philosophers, most notably one of his teachers Edmund Husserl. I believe that-- though Heidegger blamed Plato for obscuring true Being for centuries to come-- the first seeds of phenomenology and existentialism can be observed in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory focuses more on the philosopher's journey, but it first presents the notion that what we "know" might just be a "shadow" of some completely different "form;" which sounds like a distant echo of Heidegger's notion that "existences" of things/people/places are actually masking a profound "Being." It marks the beginning of a search for something meaningful behind what is physically presented to us, and this quest resonates acutely with the experience of wine in life.
Existentialism is a murky philosophic topic, but basically one that emerged from the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and even Dostoyevsky (through literature) and seeks to bring a individualist viewpoint to previous systematic philosophic approaches byway of discovering Authenticity (or being true to one's individual Self). Husserl called for a going back to pure Authentic consciousness, and later Heidegger asserted that there is no traveling or converting of the Self to get to Authentic consciousness-- rather, the true Being of everything is always there, masked by Existence, but will emerge and show itself under the right conditions; and that this Being is more fundamental than anything else. (Yes, this paragraph is a highly condensed nutshell of a much more complex topic).
Jefford explores Heidegger's notion of Being as it pertains to wine-- that Being is always behind wine's surface, and that if we approach wine with this in mind, we may maintain our astonishment of wine for the good of the discipline. I'll take it one step further and say that if we approach wine with Authenticity of Self we are more likely to see the Being emerge through the film of Existence.
Reflexivity Among Wine Experts (Critics/Sommeliers/Writers)
The quest for Authenticity of Self has led to a flurry of scholarly reflexivity. Reflexivity is looking inward toward the self as you study something that is outward, examining your own role in the event you are covering, or the examination of a circular relationship between the studied and the studier. A scientific equivalent could be the notion that observation affects reality (especially in quantum physics, the act of observing can change the state of the observed). This notion also affects anthropology based disciplines that study phenomenon through fieldwork, and it affects us as tasters too (in that how we observe wine affects how we experience wine and how wine's Being is presented to us).
Here is a wine example:
A non reflexive wine tasting note: The wine smelled of basil, cherries and smoke. The taste was subtle and fleeting, possibly due to low alcohol.
The same wine tasting note, but reflexive: I was in a terrible mood because my 401K had just crashed. I had just finished two cigars and was eating a big hunk of lamb meat doused in pesto. The wine being served was an old Burgundy, and between the cigar, the meat, the pesto, and the cologne of the guy sitting next to me, I could barely catch any aromas-- but I think I got some basil (or was it the pesto?) and a smokiness (could it have been from the cigar?). Couldn't taste a thing with all the other inputs vying for attention. Will need to revisit this bottle in another setting.
The non-reflexive note is terse and out of context, which gives the reader a skewed sense of the wine's potential quality. The reflexive note is long and tedious, but it is more useful because it communicates that because of the context, the wine may not have shown as it was intended. The reflexive note takes into account the environment and the psychology of the drinker. While you may not have learned much about the wine, you have learned something: that it may be a subtle wine, that it is not a wine that can most likely lift the spirits after a 401K crash, and that you should probably not pair it with cigars, lamb, and pesto.
If every sommelier took this approach and began to write long and detailed reflexive tasting notes we could all be bored to death. But my point here is that a hint of reflexivity can heighten the quality of what you have to say about the wine. For example:
A slightly reflexive wine tasting note: Sitting on the beach at sunset, eating oysters, and drinking a budget muscadet-- green apples, oyster shell minerality, and rich acidity-- this may be the best wine I have had all week.
There. The note is concise, it communicates what the wine tasted like and hints at the market value, but it also envelopes the reader in the context, the mood of the drinker, it tells a story, and outlines what foods/settings would pair with the wine.
Many professional disciplines have moved toward a more reflexive approach to both research and the disciplinary presentation of information (be it a journal article, a book, or a documentary)-- especially disciplines that revolve around social interaction (anthropology, linguistics, ethnomusicology, sociology, history). Wine equally revolves around social interaction-- in fact, it possibly exists because of it-- and the discussion of it can be enhanced through reflexive contextualization. Part of this reflexive revolution has grown out of postmodernism and its backlash against Othering through deconstruction.
Reflexivity in wine has always been here on a casual level. A heavier reflexive approach to wine took off when Kermit Lynch published Adventures on the Wine Route in 1990. In his effort to put the focus on the places he visited, his memoir also examined the Self-- his personal role in traveling to Domaines and cherry-picking his portfolio-- and it contextualized each of his selections based on geography, the tastes of the wines, and moods and personalities of the winemakers/growers. In the memoir-- though he meant to put the focus on the Other-- you can visualize Kermit's Self, you get to know his values, and you can see how he interacts with people-- it is highly reflexive, and because of how he synthesized the physical wine with how it fits into the larger matrix of context, he gained global notoriety and made many producers famous.
Another reflexive account that comes to mind is Terry Thiese's Reading Between the Wines. Here, behind the elegant prose you glimpse into someone's profoundly personal experience with wine, winegrowers, and consumers. He writes himself into the story and you can see his interactions with the winemakers play out, which reveals each of their biases, assumptions, and personal philosophies.
Alice Feiring is ridiculously reflexive. In Naked Wine, you know exactly how she felt when she arrived in California to attempt winemaking, because she describes in detail how she lost her laptop on the plane, felt stressed, then became elated when the flight attendant reunited her with the laptop at the end of the flight. There is no attempt to hide the Self behind the total wine experience, and this is why, I think, so many people enjoy her blog and books-- everything is contextualized. You know exactly where she is coming from, you know her values, her prejudices, and with all this information, you can take what she writes and evaluate it against your own ideas. Her writing personality is a bare as the wines she prefers to drink.
Patrick McGovern is fantastic about approaching beverages from the scientific, the historic and the reflexive approach. He synthesizes the three approaches so seamlessly in Ancient Wine and Uncorking the Past.
When writers ignore reflexivity we find ourselves in a dangerous place. Opinions and circumstantial conjecture can be misconstrued as hard facts especially to those outside the discipline, wine's metamorphic place in time (its changeability from day-to-day) is ignored all-together, and its essence is viewed as if through a straw. Its Being becomes shrouded in static Existence. This is the core of why so many sommeliers and wine writers hate point systems-- assigning a point value to wine assumes that bottle is a dead, static product that doesn't grow or change. It falsely fixes it in place, time, and quality level while disregarding palate variety and individual perception.
To be fair, while select reflexivity may enhance the world of wine writing, it sometimes works against the sommelier in the workplace. Presenting detail-filled accounts of past experiences with wine is not what diners are usually looking for. They usually want to know quick, basic clues about the wine that will guide them to the right bottle so they may create their own experience with the wine, in their own unique context.
Blind Tasting: Less Communication As More Communication
As important as transparency is for winegrowers and reflexivity is for wine experts, there is an equal importance on visiting wine as a taster with an open, limbic mind stripped of all assumption. Is it possible to do so? No. Can we try? Yes. Blind tasting is an important exercise to keep yourself from forming hardened faulty assumptions. It's a part of breaking down the vocabulary to keep wine fresh so that we may... be astonished by wine.
I'm not suggesting that all tasting should be blind; though I will admit that I have a daydream to open a restaurant or wine bar that serves everything blind (food & wine), where guests are invited to enjoy the flavors of the food and wine based solely on their own merits. But I do believe there should be a healthy mix of informed and uninformed tasting. And it is important to approach an informed tasting as if it is blind-- even if it is just for a few moments as you take the first sniff.
I'd like to give an example from my personal experience (a pretty common somm experience, sadly). A man brought in a bottle of mid-range Chateauneuf du Pape to a dinner. I uncorked the bottle for him and, whew! It was massively corked. I brought him a sip to show him and said "Sir, this is very sad, the bottle is corked, the wine is not good." He sniffed, sipped, then looked at me with indignation and declared "It's delicious. Pour it out for everyone." If it had been a restaurant bottle, I would have replaced it with an uncorked bottle; but it was his own, I had no back up, and there comes a time when you can't argue with someone about what to do with their own property. In this case, Mr. TCA was so infatuated with the romanticism he associated with the label that his senses couldn't admit to himself that what he was drinking tasted disgusting. He obviously had had an amazing wine experience with this Chateaneuf du Pape producer and he inscribed all of the feelings and emotions of his previous experience onto this one. He kept telling his guests to "Go ahead, take a sip of this amazing wine! Isn't it incredible?!" The guests-- unaware of the status of the label/region had no preconceived romanticism to inscribe upon the experience-- they were essentially tasting the corked wine blind. They couldn't ride along on his mental journey to a past Chateauneuf du Pape experience. They didn't like it. "It smells..... earthy?" said one, with a raised eyebrow. They trusted their senses, he trusted his imagination.
Phenomenology can loosely explain his lucid disbelief-- Husserl used the term phenomenological" bracketing" to refer to setting aside the question of an object's existence (or state of existence) so that other goals might be achieved without questioning the basic foundation of the elements under examination. Mr. TCA bracketed the quality of his bottle, assumed it was something, and was unwilling to explore the possibility of it being something else.
We can't always let our imagination get in the way of evaluating the physical wine; and yet even wine professionals do-- all the time. In our workplaces not so much with corked bottles, but we inscribe our preconceived notions onto particular bottles and producers-- mediocre bottles can taste amazing under the haze of past experience, and, even more sadly, sometimes a great wine gets sipped nonchalantly because it lacks the label of a famous producer.
But equally important and conversely, it can't all be blind. We want to taste the place, to sense what the vineyard might be like. Terroir is a matrix of possibilities worked through with use. A piece of land holds infinite possibilities for types and styles of wine-- a finite number of which are, as Jefford points out, shepherded into being each year, and to experience this visceraly and knowingly can be profound.
This brings me to my main point: only when wine is examined from many angles can we truly approach wine ataraxia. Build up a structuralist approach to a type of wine based on scientific and historic study, and then break it apart with phenomenology/existentialism, etc., add the variety of reflexive context, then try to re-form a new structuralist schema. Drink blind then reveal the label; another time look at the label and try to sip it as if you hadn't seen the label; then taste completely informed while looking for the structuralist building blocks of the region in the wine; and for a Zen lesson in pure paleo experience, try drinking blind and then never reveal to yourself what the wine actually was.
As important as it is to connect with the Being of something behind its physical existence (in this case, that something is wine), it is equally important to connect with, nurture, and evolve your individual approach to wine (the Being of the way you approach Being)-- to deconstruct the form behind your approach, and to examine and reexamine your biases and assumptions. By applying a conscious synthesis of multiple approaches while constantly and consciously resynthesizing the multiplex approach, we move closer--as if on an asymptote-- to truth.