"I think of an audience as a cocreator, the fifth instrument to our quartet," said Dave Brubeck, the great jazz pianist.
Music is one thing; wine is another. As a material object, wine exists independently of us. But as an experience, we are essential.
Our experience of a wine, any wine, is richly colored by context: our companions, the time of day, the effect of accompanying food, the shape and size of the glass, the wine's temperature and the ambiance of where we are drinking. Not least is our receptivity, which is strongly affected by the tidal pull of our mood and psychological need of the moment. ("Tough day at the office, dear?")
All this is worth noting if only because there's a tendency, given the consumerism of our era, to view wine—especially fine wine—as a discrete object. This presupposes that a wine qualitatively exists independently of everything previously described. It does not. Indeed, it cannot.
This is why—we've all heard this many times—we or someone else tastes a famous, much-praised wine and says, "That wine was nothing special. I don't see the big deal here."
Now, maybe it is the wine's fault. Not every lauded wine deserves its accolades. Fashion does play a role, as does rarity and (high) price. But if my experience is anything to go by, most highly praised wines—extremes of excessive alcohol, overripeness or incompetently executed "naturalism" excepted—are reliably good.
So what, then, is missing if a reliably good wine fails to register? In a word: you. Now, this is an unpopular assertion. In our populist, crowd-sourced, we're-all-equal-here cultural moment, everybody's judgment is equally valid because, hey, if I like it, it's good, right? And vice-versa. Sorry, pal, but there's more to fine wine than you or I liking (or disliking) something.
A surprising degree of wine appreciation and, especially, understanding, relies on what we bring to a wine rather than on the more obvious feature of what the wine brings to us.
This is not true, of course, for all wines all the time. Some wines, like certain varieties of fish, dwell at the surface. This is why many wine drinkers, quite understandably, want, "Delicious!" That one-word descriptor is for them the highest possible praise.
None of us is exempt from this preference, mind you. And not just with wine. Several years ago my wife and I, after much research and years of gallery- and museum-going in Australia during the time we lived there and over numerous visits, bought an Australian aboriginal "dot" painting that we greatly liked.
We sent a photo of it to an Aussie acquaintance who is an expert in Australian aboriginal art and advises wealthy art collectors. His outback-dry reply? "It's a nice decorative piece." Got it. "Delicious" has its place. We all want some of that in our lives.
Not every sensory experience should require us to bring something to it. This is why I, and many others, love one or another version of Moscato. Talk about delicious. I love Moscato d'Asti, which for me is the best Moscato on the planet. But I certainly don't ponder upon it, chin in hand, trying to fathom its mysterious depths. Instead, I guzzle it with unthinking glee and then look around for more. (It is only 6 percent alcohol, after all.)
That acknowledged, it must also be said that many of life's most rewarding aesthetic experiences do require us to bring something. During a recent dinner party, a married couple sweepingly declared, in unplanned unison, "The greatest 20th-century artist is Mark Rothko." It was one of those assertions people make to keep things lively or to see how fellow diners respond to provocation.
I suggested, in response, that much as I admire Rothko's paintings, the 20th century was chockablock with artistic giants. After all, Pablo Picasso only died in 1973, and even Henri Matisse made it to 1954. And then there were all the many Abstract Expressionists, to say nothing of other "color field" practitioners such as Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell.
But the key point, I insisted, was that however great Rothko might be, recognizing the greatness of his work requires you bringing something to it. After all, conventionally speaking, a few big splotches of color, however artfully arranged, is not most people's idea of artistic "delicious." They insisted that it was not so. It was all there, they said, and requires nothing of us.
I don't believe that for a moment, whether it's wine or art or music. Most of the time, most of the really good stuff requires something from us. Whether we're aware of it or not, most wine drinkers of any experience bring a lot to a wine.
Take drinking old wines, for example. I'm no fan of them myself. But I do get their appeal. However, make no mistake: Appreciating a truly old wine, one where much of the originally vocal fruit has been replaced with, at best, only whispers of flavor suggestion, requires a certain sort of availability, a willingness to meet the wine more than halfway.
You're bringing a lot to such a wine: an awareness of its venerability, its rarity, its historicity, its sheer triumph in having endured, and, not least, in a certain sort of recalibration, an allowance on your palate's part about what makes for wine "goodness."
No one—and I mean no one—bellies up to the old-wine bar and downs a shooter of a 50- or 75-year-old wine, wipes his or her lips with the back of a hand and thoughtlessly declares, "Delicious!" You have to bring a lot to the great majority of old wines, even the sweet ones.
In our egalitarian era, it's unpalatable to suggest that you have to bring something—knowledge, experience, even humility—to a wine, young or old, in order to "get it." But it's so. Not every wine is "Delicious!"