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

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.