Does wine have its own philosophy? Can it be art? A new book tackles these questions and more.

By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 23-Mar-2021

I once had a three-hour conversation over dinner about the nature of terroir. You would think that would make me the right person to review philosophy professor Dwight Furrow’s book “Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life and Love”.

But in fact, I’m on the fringe of this book’s potential audience because I don’t have that conversation often; I’m more likely to spend three hours talking about baseball. If you want to know whether this book will appeal to you, consider which of those three-hour conversations you would rather be in.

I confess that I skimmed a lot of the book, which is written in a style somewhere between academic philosophy and a work for a general audience. But this is a good sign: when Furrow writes on topics of interest to me, I find his work insightful and thought-provoking.

In particular, Furrow writes well about many aspects of writing about wine.

His section on the use of metaphors in tasting notes makes some excellent points. He defends the use of terms like “sinewy” and “brooding” to review wines, writing: “To claim that a Sauvignon Blanc contains pyrazines is almost tautological; that aroma is part of what defines Sauvignon Blanc. That is far too generic a description to be useful to readers of wine reviews who want to know the relative virtues of a specific wine. What the reader needs to know is how aroma and flavor work together to create an overall impression of the wine, an account that no list of chemical compounds or aroma esters will provide …

“Even the metaphorical fruit and vegetable aroma descriptors give us only limited access to what makes a wine enjoyable. If you enjoy Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, it probably is not because you have a fetish for black-cherry aromas. Wine writers need a more robust vocabulary if they are to do their jobs, and it will inevitably be both metaphorical and include the holistic, aesthetic properties of the individual wines they describe.”

I think the best market for this book might be winemakers; the first note I wrote about it was: “Winemakers will like the art section.” Furrow takes on the question of whether wine can be art by examining what “art” means. If a collage of found material can be art, or an Andy Goldsworthy environmental piece in a forest is art, then it’s art for a winemaker to assemble a wine that expresses her intentions. You might note that this definition doesn’t say anything about estate grapes or low intervention, because even Jackson Pollock’s paintings aren’t low intervention. This is a discussion I want to have over dinner with some winemakers I know and will make the entire book worthwhile for some.

A natural reaction

That said, Furrow also writes: “This is why artisanal winemaking methods and an ideology that resists industrial winemaking processes that cover up or distort the influence of origins are so important in preserving wine’s status as an object of love. Without that connection to origins, wine risks becoming just another commodity, pleasant and enjoyable to be sure, but without the depth of meaning that wine lovers crave, and therefore incapable of fulfilling the promise to climb love’s ladder.”

Furrow takes a stand on natural wine that I strongly agree with. While not signaling whether he’s a glou-glou chugger or hater, he writes: “The fact that the taste of wine matters enough to argue about it, with the aim of convincing others, means that wine is not just a preference but an attempt to experience something of genuine value and import. If it were a preference for Minute Maid or Sunkist, then arguments would be beside the point. Everyone in the wine world should welcome this controversy over natural wine because it is a sign that wine is not merely a commodity but a work of art worthy of our commitment.”

And I like his definition of beauty in wine: “Beauty in wine is the sensuously alluring dramatization of significant variation.” It’s true: a great wine has to have typicity for its region and grape variety, yet if all Barolos tasted alike none would be interesting. It’s how they differ from each other that makes them fascinating.

However, my interest level drops off dramatically whenever he steps away from wine to discuss aspects of philosophy. One relic of his academic background is the style of introducing previous writers and then discussing their theories at length. I didn’t read Burnham and Skilleås’ “The Aesthetics of Wine”, and I didn’t pick up this book to see a discussion of their book, but they are cited on 27 separate pages.

But we are who we are, and Furrow is an academic at heart. He is emeritus professor of philosophy at San Diego Mesa College. He’s also a prolific wine blogger at Edible Arts. He drank a lot of wine in the making of this book and some of the most relatable passages are those at the end of each chapter, when he lists the wines that inspired his thoughts. Furrow is a professor with a wine critic itching to get out, and it’s notable how he describes the duty of a wine critic: “The primary purpose of wine criticism is to aid in the appreciation of a wine by revealing what is there to be appreciated.”

It seems that writing the book is his attempt to fulfill this purpose for the entire world of wine.

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