Philosophy of wine

Louis Pasteur

‘Philosophers have probably drunk more than their fair share of wine; but they have not had a fair share in the words written about it.’ Roger Scruton, distinguished philosopher and writer, and also wine correspondent for the New Statesman in his contribution to Questions of Taste. An excerpt:

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In particular, they have largely avoided discussing the most important philosophical issue with which wine acquaints us, which is that of intoxication. Questions immediately arise. What exactly is intoxication? Is there a single phenomenon that is denoted by this word? Is the intoxication induced by wine an instance of the same general condition as the intoxication induced by whisky say, or that induced by cannabis? And is “induced” the right word in any or all of the familiar cases?

Furthermore there is a real question about the relation between the intoxication that we experience through wine, and the state of drunkenness. The first is a state of consciousness, whereas the second is a state of unconsciousness – or which tends towards unconsciousness. Although the one leads in time to the other, the connection between them is no more transparent than the connection between the first kiss and the final divorce.

Non-rational animals sniff for information, and are therefore interested in smells. They also discriminate between the edible and the inedible on grounds of taste. But they relish neither the smell nor the taste of the things that they consume. For relishing is a reflective state of mind, in which an experience is held up for critical inspection.

Aquinas distinguished the cognitive senses of sight and hearing from the non-cognitive senses of taste and smell, arguing that only the first could provide the perception of beauty.2018filosofiwine3

Visual experience reaches through the “look” of a thing to the thing that looks. I don’t “sniff through” the smell to the thing that smells. One conclusion to draw from that is that smells are ontologically like sounds – not qualities of the objects that emit them but independent objects.

If asked to choose therefore I would say, for philosophical reasons, that the intoxication that we experience in wine is a sensory but not an aesthetic experience, whereas the intoxication of poetry is aesthetic through and through. Still, there is no doubt that the intoxicating quality that we taste in wine is a quality that we taste in it, and not in ourselves.

My excitement at a football match is not a physiological condition that could have been produced by a drug. It is directed towards the game: it is excitement at the spectacle and not just excitement caused by the spectacle; it is an effect directed at its cause. And that is true too of the wine.

Visual experience is a representation of reality. Now taste and smell are not like that, as I noted above. I might say of the ice-cream in my hand that it tastes of chocolate or that it tastes like chocolate, but not that I taste it as chocolate, as through taste were itself a form of judgment. Winespeak is in some way ungrounded, for it is not describing the way wine is, but merely the way it tastes. And tastes are not representations of the objects that possess them.

There is more at stake when it comes to taste in wine than mere taste, and the adage that de gustibus non est disputandum is as false here as it is in aesthetics.

In particular we should distinguish between four basic kinds of stimulant:

  1. Those which please, and which have mental effects, but which do not alter the mind.

Tobacco is probably the example most familiar to us.

  1. Stimulants which have mind-altering effects, but which do not bring any pleasure in the consumption of them.

The most obvious examples of this are drugs that you swallow whole like Ecstasy, or drugs that you inject like heroin.

  1. Stimulants that have mind altering effects but which give pleasure in the act of consuming them.

The two most interesting cases are cannabis and alcohol. I refer to alcohol in general and not just to wine.

  1. Stimulants that have mind-altering effects which are in some way internally related to the experience of consuming them. 2018filosofiwine_1ab

The example, of course, is wine, and that is what I meant earlier in referring to the intoxicating quality of the taste.

Wine is not simply a shot of alcohol, and must never be confused in its effect with spirits or even with cocktails. Wine is not a mixed drink but a transformation of the grape. The transformation of the soul under its influence is merely the continuation of another transformation that began maybe fifty years earlier when the grape was first plucked from the vine.

When we raise a glass of wine to our lips, therefore, we are savouring an ongoing process: wine is a living thing, the last result of other living things, and the progenitor of life in us.

It would be an exaggeration to make too much of the comparison, ancient though it is, between the erotic kiss and the sipping of wine. Nevertheless, it is not an exaggeration, but merely a metaphor, to describe the contact between the mouth and the glass as a face to face encounter between you and the wine.

The ancient proverb tells us that there is truth in wine. The truth lies not in what the drinker perceives but in what, with loosened tongue and easier manners, he reveals. It is “truth for others”, not “truth for self”. The characteristic effect of wine, when drunk in company, includes an opening out of the self to the other, a conscious step towards asking and offering forgiveness: forgiveness not for acts or omissions, but for the impertinence of existing. That is one way of understanding the Christian doctrine of trans-substantiation, itself a survival of the Greek belief that Dionysus is actually in the wine and not just the cause of it.

First, tastes are not qualities in the way that colours are. The taste can be there without the substance, as when I have a taste in the mouth, but have swallowed nothing. The taste is in the mouth in something like the way the smell is in the air or the sound is in the room. Tastes belong with smells and sounds in the ontological category of secondary objects.

Those who conjure with the magic names of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhine and Moselle are not just showing off: they are deploying the best and most reliable description of a cherished taste, which is inseparable from the idea and the history of the settlement that produced it. The Ancient Egyptians, 2018filosofyinwine2incidentally, while they often labeled wines with the place of their production, and would trade with all the suppliers around the Mediterranean, would classify wines by their social function. Archeologists have recorded amphorae labeled as “wine for first-class celebrations”, “wine for tax collection day”, “wine for dancing”, and so on. It is easy to imagine a tasting in which the punter holds the glass to his nose, takes a sip and then says “Burgundy”; rather more difficult to imagine him saying “tax collection”. Why is that?

Now it seems to me that the act of settling, which is the origin of civilization, involves both a radical transition in our relation to the earth – the transition known in other terms as that from hunter-gatherer to farmer – and also a new sense of belonging. The settled people do not belong only to each other: they belong to a place, and out of that sense of shared roots there grow the farm, the village and the city. At some level, I venture to suggest, the experience of wine is a recuperation of that original cult whereby the land was settled and the city built.

Nothing else that we eat or drink comes to us with such a halo of significance, and cursed be the villains who refuse to drink it.