Experiencing wine through Wabi Sabi

“Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace” (Koren, p. 51).

Wabi-Sabi, the aesthetic approach of Zen Buddhism, originates in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. The words Wabi 侘 and Sabi 寂 have multiple meanings, but commonly Wabi refers to rustic simplicity, freshness and quietude, and Sabi refers to the patina or beauty that comes with age. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic ideal, a calm state of mind and sensitive way of learning to see the invisible, eliminating the unnecessary. In many ways, Wabi-Sabi can be seen as the opposite to the Western, Hellenic ideal of perfection, symmetry and absolute values, instead honouring the impermanent, imperfect and unfinished.  In the book Wabi-sabi for artist, designers, poets and philosophers, Leonard Koren contrasts the main ideas of Wabi-Sabi with the characteristics of modernism:

Modernism Wabi-Sabi
Public Private
Logical Intuitive
Modular Variable
Progressive Cyclic
Geometrical Organic
Control of the senses Expansion of the senses
Clarity Ambiguity
Absolute Relative

(Koren, 2008, pp. 26-29)

Just as Wabi-Sabi contrasts today´s Western ideals of materialism and perfection, in the contemporary wine world, not at least among natural wine advocates, a new way of experiencing and communicating wine is offered as an alternative to “absolute” evaluations and rankings. A subjective and relative approach is becoming more common, and artisanal wine producers want to give back the symbolic and aesthetic value of wine that somehow has been lost in the view of wine as an object of commerce.

In his Epistenology, Nicola Perullo offers an alternative to the inpersonal and technical way of experincing and describing wine. Perullo moves the attention from optic to haptic perception and presents the concepts of encounter and relationship: “Wine is not made to be contemplated from a distance – a certain proximity to it is a requirement”. According to Perullo, wine is not an object but a living organic system meant to be introduced into the body and “touched from the inside”.  Equal to this, in Wabi-Sabi, the private as opposed to the public is seen as the best way to experience life. Another analogy between Wabi-Sabi and some trends in the wine world today is the focus on emotions. Wabi-Sabi  gives prevalence to intuition before logic, and the expansion of the senses in contrast to modernism and control of the senses. One main point within Zen Buddhism and Wabi-Sabi is to “unlearn reason and simply see clearly, without pretense and without intellect”. An attempt to a similarly open approach with less prejudice is also heard in the wine tasting world today.  Perullos talks about the “knowledge from the inside” which involves body as well as cognitive and emotional relations,  and how wine it should be enjoyed attentively, fully, intensely, and entirely.

The natural wine world’s attempt to offer an alternative to technically perfect, industrialized and often homogenous wines can, other than to environmental and perhaps anti-corporate arguments, also be connected to deeper philosophical questions regarding beauty. Whereas the idea of beauty as something static can be seen as the ideal for a standardized wine production, the appeal of artisanal and natural wines are their unpredictability, variability and imperfection. Commonly considered “faults” in wine are actually a relative concept – sometimes oxidation is part of the winemaking for instance – which illustrates the vague line between wine fault and style. In the view of Wabi-Sabi, nothing is perfect and everything evolves from nothing and devolves back into nothing. This nihilistic view, however, doesn´t mean that all is meaningless: beauty lies in the imperfection, impermanency and incompleteness. What perfect or still is considered dead, since without growth and change there is no Tao – way or path. Wine, being alive and in constant evolution, in the bottle, in the glass, is the optimal materialization of the Wabi-Sabi concept of impermanency of beauty. The moment we think we know the essence of a wine, it´s gone, it has changed. Or did we change? Maybe it doesn´t really matter.

The last sculpture of Michelangelo, the Rondanini Pietà, which he finished at an age of 88, was intentionally left unfinished, roughly carved out. The evolution of Michelangelo’s art work, from his technical perfection already as a child prodigy, into the simplified and expressive last statue, says a lot. Just like an art work that really touches our souls need something more than technical excellence, a “perfect” wine might not be the one we remember or which even gets the 100 points.  The unfinished, asymmetric or even flawed, might be just what makes something memorable, be it a person, an art work, or a wine.

As Leonard Cohen sings: There is a crack, a crack in everything. That´s how the light gets in.



Cooper, T. M. (2018) “The Wabi Sabi Way: Antidote for a Dualistic Culture?. Journal of Conscious Evolution.10(10), Article 4. Retrieved at: https://digitalcommons.ciis.edu/cejournal/vol10/iss10/4

Koren, L. (2008). Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philiosphers. Point Reyes, California: Imperfect Publications.

Perullo, N. (2014). Epistenology (English translation from the original Italian version published in “Pietre Colorate”, 19/2014). Retrieved at: http://www.academia.edu/17623879/EpisteNology

Wong, T. & Hirano, A. (2007). Wabi-sabi. Learning to see the invisible. Retrieved at: http://www.touchingstone.com/Wabi_Sabi.html







5 thoughts on “Experiencing wine through Wabi Sabi

  1. That’s quite a persuasive argument for natural wine! However, I still feel that with all the variables that go into wine making, the mastery of the artist/wine maker is in the harnessing of those variables and the transformation of them into something exquisite, harmonious, and interesting (to not say beautiful or perfect), but perhaps that’s my westernised mind talking. This opposed to, more or less, letting nature run its course. In terms of describing wine, I struggle a lot. Too technical and not everyone can understand it, too subjective and idiosyncratic and not everyone can relate. Is it only interesting in the act itself, or does it have communicative or collective value?

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  2. This is a complex topic that I made another attempt to touch upon a while ago: vitaevinifera.wordpress.com/2018/06/20/naturalwine/. On the one hand, I do not like the division natural/conventional wine, and I believe that all wine is an artifact, a piece of art and a piece of culture. Even if we would let nature run its course, there is some human intervention involved in making wine. On the other hand, the idea of a static perfection which sometimes can be found in art as well as wine, bothers me, and this is where some “natural” wines can challenge my senses and predjudices. Sometimes something less perfect can be more beautiful, or beautiful in a different way (the crack that Cohen mentions). With that said, I am definitely not the person who would defend faults or wines that repulse me as interesting just because they are different. Uniqueness is not an excuse for bad quality, to me. Regarding your comment on describing wine, I agree, it´s difficult to find a good level and an own style. I suppose it has a communicative value but that the language needs to be adapted to the context? At least that´s what I am aiming at…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Complex indeed, and it’s interesting how deep rooted dichotomies are in western thinking. But I’m sure this means I have a lot of philosophy to catch up on! This is also why I love reading your articles because it makes me question things I maybe take for granted. Good point about the context in tasting notes. I’ve yet to define my target audience as I’m still trying to define myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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