I am programmed to find this landscape beautiful ... says Denis Dutton in his first chapter of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (2009). He discusses a universally beautiful landscape to which humans have an innate attraction. When I read this I thought, sounds like wine country to me, and reminiscent as well of the way people speak of terroir. Tonight’s post draws a connection between instrinsically beautiful landscapes, wine country vistas and terroir.
Dutton begins his book with a discussion of Komar and Melamid’s 1998 research project to determine the most attractive piece of art world wide. They came up with a landscape with low rolling hills, of bluish tint with a body of water and some indication of human habitation. They called it for short America’s Most Wanted Universal Blue Landscape and summarized their findings in the book Painting by Numbers. Then they painted, humorously, that very painting as a pastiche of all these desirable attributes and it looks a bit like a Hudson School landscape with some figure tacked to the front.
The ghost of an instrinsically pleasurable landscape remains in our brains from the Pleistocene and the 1.6 million years during which human evolution perfected the survival instinct to gravitate towards protein rich habitat abundant with other important attributes for hominid survival. One writer in particular stands out, having written about this more in detail than Komar and Melamid: Jay Appleton and his 1975 book The Experience of Landscape. Dutton explains Appleton’s theory: the universally ideal landscape relates to East African Savannahs where much of early human evolution occurred, and where the predominance of desert is a relatively recent phenomena; having slowly supplanted grassy pastures, stands of bushes and trees, rolling vistas and plentiful wildlife. The perfect place for hunter gatherer tribes to make a go of it.
Jump to wine country and our widely acclaimed beautiful landscapes. They definitely fit the bill. I get excited when uncovering how things work and when the mechanism relates to art history I’m particularly enthused. The success of wine tourism comes from our atavistic memory of ideal habitat, that many generations of painters and schools of art have helped to solidify. Interestingly that habitat matches the indicators for good terroir, so the visitors here get double satisfaction – seeing those places they were evolved to love, and getting some tasty wine out of it. In terroir, growing conditions for premium winegrapes are going to include: slopes, proximity to water, diverse ecosystem (trees, shrubs, wildlife), hills with varying sun exposure, and favorable soils (fruit, berries and nuts). A walk around here will eventually land you at a strategic vantage point (also important for survival) from which you can perceive successive lines of horizon folding into each other until they turn blue in the distance.
Despite learning I’m programmed to be attracted to this landscape, there is still agency in the land itself, in its ability for agricultural production for the survival of mankind. The particularities of winecountry's landscapes are more significant because they don't just produce fruit and nuts, they make up the bullet points for producing amazing wine, and that consumable product holds its own intrinsic beauty for the nose and palette.