What’s the Point of Fine Wine, Afterall?

Pouring Austrian fine wine into three glasses
Photo credit Anna Stöcher
Journalists discussing fine. Peter Schleimer (l), Paula Redes Sidore (c), Willi Balanjuk

Arlberg Weinberg

Last month saw Austria’s annual wine festival held in the snow-covered Alpine resort of Lech am Arlberg, 1,444 meters above sea level. In contrast to the traditional “aprés ski” culture, Lech enjoys a reputation as devoted to fine food and, in particular, wine, as it is to snow and slopes. The theme of the 2023 summit was “International Fine Wine,” featuring a series of lively discussions and tastings hosted and attended by industry personalities from across Europe and the U.S. The following is an adaptation of my introduction to the day three tasting panel “Do Austrian wines reach the requirements to be considered Fine Wine?” with co-presenters Peter Schleimer, editor-in-chief of Vinaria, and Willi Balanjuk of A La Carte Wineguide.

This strikes me as an entirely fair and utterly unbiased question — as we sit here together in what is, arguably, a fine wine mecca and one of Austria’s best, drinking predominantly the finest of wines with the top minds and palates in the business. 

Yet before we can tackle the question about whether Austria belongs in this uppermost echelon of vinous libations, it’s only fair to first establish a baseline definition of the term “fine wine.” Many colleagues in recent times, Pauline Vicard of London-based fine wine think tank Areni Global among them, have dedicated considerable time to just that. “If we don’t know what fine wine is,” Vicard recently posited, “how can we protect it? And in order to know whether it’s worth protecting, we must be able to articulate what it stands for.” 

However for many of us, this category — which, in wine’s postmodern phase, some will convincingly argue is no longer a category worth discussing, never mind protecting — still feels extremely nebulous. 

Fortunately for you, there’s at least one expert in this room — me — who studied nebulousness in college, or as we called it then: literature. 

Making the Cut in Words and Wine

Like great wine, great literature has, over the years, codified a canon of excellence — but one that, upon close inspection, proves surprisingly nebulous and contentious. 

One of the most influential and polarizing attempts to define that canon came in the form of Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon,” in which the prominent U.S. literary critic named 26 “immortal” authors. The ink was barely dry before the pushback began. As could be predicted, some considered the list insufficiently rigorous on one side, others decried it as overly exclusive, silencing countless worthy voices.

I certainly can’t resolve that paradox today, but I can highlight what I’ve always thought was the silent commonality between both positions: To make the cut and, in wine parlance, to be considered “fine,” a work of literature must exceed greatness, and in many cases genre, and rise to the level of essentialness. This despite the fact that there is no official list of standards or criteria for what makes a book — or a wine — essential. 

To be considered “fine,” a literary work must exceed greatness and rise to the level of essentialness. This despite the fact that there is no official list for what makes a book — or a wine — essential. 

So what are the things that might raise words — or wine, or other cultural products — into the parthenon of the essential? The potential criteria are many and might include: heritage, provenance, quality, cost, longevity, reputation, recognition on the market, and rarity. Not all apply to all products, of course: since Gutenberg invented his printing press, scarcity has not been an issue for books, and YouTube has put even the most obscure movies back at our fingertips. And needless to say, the world of wine, like the world of literature is brimming — some might say oversaturated — with critics, professional and otherwise.

The “Intentional Fallacy” of Fine Wine

For better or worse, the criteria that interests me most today is perhaps the one that is also the most resistant to definition: intent.

“A fine wine,” British wine expert Robert Joseph recently wrote in a piece for the trade magazine Meininger’s International, “is made by a person or people who are trying to make the very best product possible.” In literature and cinema or the performing arts, this has classically been called “authorial intent.” It is one of the original strategies for making sense of the content in front of us. It’s a belief that the creator of a text possesses a privileged understanding of its meaning and consequently, that any interpretation contradicting this understanding must defer to the author’s intentions.

Simply put, if the winemaker says he or she is making a fine wine, then it is a fine wine — or at least should be measured against that intent. Context counts.

In literature, context — an author’s identity and world — counts too, though some last century critics disagree (as critics do). Indeed, invoking “authorial intent” as a standard by which to judge the success of a work of literary art fell into notable disrepute among  modern critics — an “intentional fallacy,” as it was called in a 1946 essay by the American New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley. 

But in wine this concept is alive and thriving. 

In fact, I would argue that this is one of the primary ways in which the industry glosses over difficult questions about bad vintages for any given individual wine, offering a categorical “pass” based on its status as an already established “fine wine.” Then the question becomes a tactical one: how to best communicate that to the consumers. 

There are gaping flaws in this approach, whether in wine or books. Some wines are too good, or bad to not evaluate entirely on their own merits, forcing us to ignore the historical component. This gives rise to an inescapable tension and risk that we will end up lauding potential “one hit wonders,” or ignore the obvious decline of a member of the pantheon.

Literary critics are certainly aware of the problem. The New — now very old — critics’ approach would demand that I throw out everything discussed above to focus solely on the work with the idea that everything that needs to be known about the text can be found exclusively within it. It doesn’t matter what the author thought; the text or wine, speaks for itself and has a life of its own.

Something to Talk About

I don’t have any answers here, just a series of intentionally provocative questions aimed less at Austria per se than at the category of Fine Wine in general. For its part, I believe Austria is on the cusp of greatness, following a wholesale re-imaging post-1986 of what wine is and can be. A singular, terroir-driven character imbues the wines from all 17 winegrowing regions. There is diversity and distinction, reflection and respect, and a new vineyard classification system that was just put into law last year. The aging potential hasn’t yet been fully tested, but all signs point positively. In ten years’ time, the wines before us today may well be future icons. 

Although there are as many potential approaches as there are classification systems, literary theories, then and now, are ultimately filters overlaid on a text to aid a reader’s understanding or interpretation. And perhaps that may be a more helpful way to come at the concept of “fine wine.” 

“The wine industry is at an inflection point,” Joseph said when asked how he would define fine wine. Over the last few years we have seen assaults by the wine press, questioning the role and responsibility of gatekeepers who get to define “essential” for a changing industry and landscape. Crucially, the climate crisis is upending “universal truths” from one vintage to the next.  

Definitive “standards” are more often than not
arbitrary lines in the sand — or terroir. 

I find the questions legitimate, even crucial. We blind ourselves voluntarily if we rely too heavily on the classic “auteur” approach — yet we risk becoming too sterile and detached from lived experience if we focus solely on the product. Let us learn from Bloom’s attempt that was decried as, at best erudite, at worst dangerous. Such definitive “standards” are more often than not shown to be arbitrary lines in the sand — or terroir, if you will. 

If we have learned anything as wine professionals, I hope it is that while we can learn from each other, ultimately we must define for ourselves which wines are “essential” and trust our own guts and palates to, paraphrasing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “know it when we taste it.” 

Let me, however, give the final word to Hugh Johnson, who once said: Fine Wine is a wine you want to talk about. And like a good literary critic, grant me please the space to suggest an edit. Truly fine wine is wine you not only want to talk about but write and publish about — online, on paper, in books. It is a liquid that inspires conversation, and thus connection, that engenders discussion and thought in those whose hallowed halls (or in our case lips) it enters. That’s the engine behind TRINK, and my own wine journey from writing to wine and back again.

Austrian fine wine bottles from Lech wine tasting.

A Developing Austrian Canon?

Recommended Wines

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  • 2021 Grüner Veltliner Ried Zwerithaler “Kammergut” Smaragd, Prager, Wachau DAC
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  • 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Ried Edelschuh, Wohlmuth, Südsteiermark
  • 2021 Wiener Gemischter Satz Ried Langteufel, Mayer am Pfarrplatz & Rotes Haus
  • 2021 Zierfandler Ried Mandel-Höh, Stadlmann, Thermenregion
  • 2021 Roter Veltliner Ried Steinberg 1ÖTW Privat, Josef Fritz, Wagram DAC
  • 2018 Cuvée No 6 TBA, Kracher, Burgenland
  • 2017 Sämling 88 “Domkapitel” TBA, Tschida-Angerhof, Burgenland
  • 2018 Gelber Muskateller, Ruster Ausbruch DAC, Feiler-Artinger

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