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

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.