The Philosophy of Wine: a Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication

Drinking good wine provides an occasion for pleasure, but it also provides an opportunity for thought. Taste invites reflection, as Voltaire says, and it is this tendency to think about what we drink that opens up common ground between philosophers and ordinary tasters.

Liking a wine that others dislike makes us wonder whether they taste it the same way we do and they just don't like that taste, or whether it tastes different to them. Philosophers will push things further. If the way the wine tastes is different for different people, can there be such a thing as the taste of the wine? If the answer is no, taste is subjective and just a matter of individual experiences. So can we ever really share the pleasure of this bottle? Whether or not we can, our belief that we can may explain our desire to share our best wines with sympathetic companions.

Cain Todd is the latest to ride the swelling wave of interest that philosophers are taking in wine. His book is an attempt to make common cause with others who defend the objectivity of taste, believing that terms such as "elegant" and "balanced" are as appropriate to describe wine as "tannic" or "acidic".

Wine writers and critics have been, on the whole, suspicious of philosophy's entry on to their territory. But what they do not appreciate is that they provide the entry point for philosophers by expounding on the subjectivity of taste. Wine critics may know a great deal about varietals, vineyards and vintages, but subjectivity and objectivity are core business in philosophy, and the mere mention of these notions is an invitation for any wine-loving philosopher to join the discussion. Wine critics are given to saying, in one breath, that taste is subjective, and in the next going on to recommend certain wines as better than others and declaring particular vintages superior.

What is going on here? I suspect there is a failure, on the part of critics, to separate judgements of the qualities and characteristics in a wine from personal preferences. Preferences can be subjective without this impairing the ability to detect the cherry and earthy notes of this Pinot Noir.
Todd is keen to stress that there really is something in a fine Burgundy to which we are responding: something worthy of our attention that demands an appropriate response. He is hard-pressed to tell us what makes a particular response appropriate, but is willing to allow that individual tasters may have different and even incompatible responses that still count as appropriate, thereby countenancing a form of relativism about taste. However, there is no threat to objectivity, according to Todd. There really is something right to say, from your different point of view, about this Meursault, given the standards and categories you appeal to so long as I can see your point in judging things the way you do. It is hard to see this view as saying anything more precise than that you are entitled to be wrong, or that you have adopted the wrong standards or categories.

Todd pushes this relativist line in opposition to my defence of objectivity of taste in Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine (2007), where I diagnose disagreements as being due to individuals' contradictory reactions to a wine's flavours, or their distinctive ways of experiencing the same flavours. By contrast, the relativist has to insist on there being a different way the wine tastes to you and me due to our operating with different standards or categories. This isn't so obvious. I may judge what is in my glass as pretty poor for a champagne, but come to see it as rather good when I realise it's a Prosecco.

More interesting is Todd's thesis that wines are aesthetic objects - not works of art, but objects that give rise to heightened or aesthetic experiences in individuals, in the way that, say, a landscape might. The idea is that wines can be expressive. But expressive of what? Can a glass of Château Lafite convey sadness in the way a piece of music or a landscape might? Todd is keen to take the music analogy as far as he can, but there are clear differences. While music or landscape can evoke emotions in us spontaneously, the expressive power of a wine seems to depend on associations in the mind of the taster. There is no message in the bottle.

Todd disagrees and tries to tie the expressive powers of a wine to its intrinsic features. This bold move doesn't quite work; he acknowledges that our ability to respond to the expressive powers of a wine are the "result of an imaginative awareness" of "terroir and grape, the intentions of the winemaker" - all this depending on the level of expertise and background knowledge of the taster. How much of an advance is this on association?
Besides, if wines are expressive of anything, they are expressive of place, the cultures and traditions that gave rise to them. Todd is right, at least, to bring in the intentions of the maker. Winemakers usually work with an aim in mind and know when they succeed or fail. Gaining an understanding of that aim helps us to recognise and celebrate great wines for the achievements that they are. This book helps us get there, and offers gentle philosophical lessons along the way.

The Philosophy of Wine: a Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication
Cain Todd
Acumen, 224pp, £19.99

Barry Smith is the editor of "Questions of Taste: the Philosophy of Wine" (Signal Books, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus