In vino veritas

Julian Baggini takes on his toughest assignment yet – drinking wine with Barry C Smith and Tim Crane

Tim Crane

Tim Crane

Socrates once said, “Bad men live that they may eat and drink, whereas good men eat and drink that they may live.” It’s one of the pithier ways of expressing the idea that philosophers, as evidently good men, should care not for pleasures of the flesh, but should strive for higher goods of the mind. So why am I sitting in an up-market London restaurant with two leading philosophers eating fine food and drinking several different rather good wines?

“We have lost track of the senses,” says Barry Smith, the editor of a new book, Questions of Taste: the philosophy of wine, which came out of a conference he organised on the subject at the University of London. “What are the senses for other than for making finer and finer discriminations of the world around us? People have been labouring in the fields and vineyards, they have made the best they can of the sun, soil and vines they have been given and they have passed it on for us to understand. It’s bad if we as philosophers, aware of our senses, aware of the power of discrimination, don’t even respond to their labour.”

Tim Crane, a contributor the volume, expressed a little scepticism. Smith is undeterred. John Stuart Mill may not have included refined sensory enjoyment, such as is offered by wine appreciation, in his category of higher pleasures, but Smith thinks he would have done, had he actually gone out there and tried it.

“The point about high quality, very fine, handmade wine is that it gives me the opportunity to exercise my capacity for sensual pleasure and my intellectual powers of discrimination. If we were just satisfied with a big sugar hit or instant hedonic satisfaction, why would we go to the effort of taking our time and comparing wines? We’re not getting drunk, we’re not indulging ourselves in a gluttonous way. We are using all of our smart powers of discrimination to think about what we’re given, to think about what it’s doing for us, where it came from and how it came to be this way.”

Maybe Smith and Crane weren’t getting drunk, but after a whole evening of serious wine tasting, I’m not sure I could make the same boast.

We had started off with a 1982 Mosel from Germany in Smith’s office at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. Crane noted in passing that German wine labelling is very complicated, but although the same could be said for much German philosophising, it turned out he wasn’t trying to make a philosophical point.

“Riesling as a grape has kerosene as one of its stereotypical notes on the nose,,” said Smith as he poured, which I confessed did not inspire confidence. “This is why people who say taste and smell are just the same thing are talking rubbish, I don’t want to drink something that tastes like kerosene.’

“We smell first, keeping the wine very still. You get the more volatile compounds coming off first. Then you swirl it, and it’s quite different. Now you get the fruit and minerals aromas together.”

I follow his instructions and he seems to be right. But I’m immediately suspicious. Aren’t there all sorts of psychology experiments in which the power of suggestion makes people believe they have experienced something that they actually never did? How do I know I am actually been made to recognise a smell rather than just believing I’ve whiffed something I haven’t?

“There’s no contradiction in saying that someone who is good at identifying flavours can coax it out of you,” explains Crane. I’m not very good at putting names to tastes and the other night we had a wine and I asked Tim Lewens what it smelt like. He immediately said ‘apricots’, and it was a red wine, and you wouldn’t have expected that. But as soon as he said apricots I knew what it was and I was able to put a name to it because he prompted me.”

“Someone can call your attention to something and I think that shows you there really are things in conscious experience which we don’t attend to but are really there,” says Smith.

“We think there’s a distinction between experiencing a taste and making a judgement about a taste, that for example, you like it,” continues Crane. “Remember when you first tasted beer? I can actually call that bitter taste to mind. Is it the case that it tastes the same to you and now you like that taste; or has the actual taste changed, because when I first tasted it was horrible? What Barry is saying is that’s a real distinction, between the taste changing and your attitude to the taste changing. Dennett, for example, says there’s no reality to that distinction.”

Smith goes on to explain more about why Dennett is wrong. “A lot of the Dennett-like examples of how things change when we attend to them are saying that essentially there are just neural goings on??, and that attending to them brings things to consciousness, and consciousness is actually quite sparse, perception is quite sparse. That’s not right, and I think wine tasting shows why. You’re having an experience which is very complex, and it rushes past you in a few seconds. Then I say to you, ‘Did you get the mint? Did you get the pear?’ and so on. The experience is gone, but you think to yourself, ‘Hang on, yes.’ You could say this is only because I’ve suggested it, but people are really quite resistant if you suggest, say, green pepper, and you just didn’t get that. So when you say ‘yes’, the thought is that the ‘yes’ is matching a judgement against something, something that was an experience but which was not noticed at the time. So I think what we call wine tasting as opposed to drinking is enormously complicated. There’s having the experience and there’s the attention to the experience.”

This view has an implication which goes against what passes for common sense about taste, which is that it is an entirely subjective phenomenon.

“People think of taste as a greater candidate for purely subjective experience,” says Smith. “They say that tasting only happens when I’m putting something in direct contact with the inside of me and ingesting it, destroying it.. Then they say, ‘Doesn’t that mean that taste is really a private, personal, incommunicable experience? How can you gainsay my taste?’ We think it’s subjective. On the other hand we know that there must be some objective basis for our judgements about a wine’s quality and properties. After all, huge amounts of money changes hands on the basis of predicting the quality of wines that will give people pleasure. There’s a science of all this which is enormously complicated which is in the service of trying to produce a certain range of subjective experiences that they know people will find immensely rewarding and pleasurable.”

“Barry wants to emphasise the tastes as objective,” explains Crane. “The objective tastes are what you taste. Some people, however, have better abilities to apprehend different qualities of the taste, just as with music some people simply have the capacity to hear more in something. Here the analogy is between hearing and listening; or seeing and looking. There’s what you see and then there’s whether or not you are attending to what you see, and it’s the same with listening and hearing. With taste there has to be that distinction too, but we don’t actually have the words for it.”

“I really have great faith in people’s ability to be changed forever by having their epiphany with an experience of a wine that is so compelling, complex, balanced and beautiful,” Smith continues. “At that moment they think, I’m not just attending to something going on in me, personal and private. I’m taking cognisance of something with extraordinary beauty. And I’m wondering, how does it do that?

“Part of the interest in wine is thinking about what it is like, not just what its like for us, and wrapped up in that experience of what it’s like is a concentration on the object. It’s doing something remarkable, and perhaps even its qualities are not known straight away. You can attend and learn more, and get more out of it. When you come to have this experience and see it as not all happening in you, but acknowledging the quality, character and properties of the thing itself, then you celebrate the wine: how does that object give me and other people this experience? As soon as you get to that point you give up the idea that the taste is in you. There are only three possibilities: the taste is in me, the taste is in the wine, or it’s a relation between it and me. I try to defend the idea that the taste is in the wine, and therefore we might miss some of it.”

Evidence for this case comes from our reaction to a really good wine – which is immediately hand it to someone else and say “Taste this!”

“I know that when I taste something great I often think of who I’d like to share it with and often have particular people in mind,” agrees Smith. “So through our subjective responses to an object, as the common source those experiences, we actually understand someone else’s subjectivity. It’s a way in which we get quite close to other people, a wonderful way in which we’re securing a non-verbal agreement, understanding or sharing at the level of very subjective exchanges.

“I know some of Tim’s tastes and he knows some of mine, and I’ll often think I’ll want him to try this, and it’s not shot in the dark stuff, it’s quite predictable. We can predict other people’s phenomenology.

“Taste is under-described in philosophy. What we’re calling wine tasting is not one sense. It involves touch, taste and smell, and probably also sight. There’s a lot of neuroscience and research coming together on taste. It turns out that most of the things we call taste are the result of cross-modal perception. Here’s something we can all do: we swirl this around, have a smell, and you might say ‘Smells sweet.’ Smells sweet? Isn’t sweet a taste? But actually we have no problem with that. We think sweet is also a smell. Certain smells prime us to have sweet tastes. There have been some beautiful experiments done with vanilla, for example. When you smell vanilla in a wine, people expect it to be a mark of sweetness. If you add vanilla odours and you get people to taste a range of wines, for the same wine, one with the odour, one without, they’ll say the one with the odour is sweeter.”

Usually when such experiments are reported it is assumed that they show people are easily fooled about their sense experiences, and so you might think it tells against the idea of objectivity in taste. Smith disagrees.

“I don’t think they’re making a mistake. The interaction of taste and smell actually creates the total experience. These are predictable effects. Here’s another thing we know: texture makes a difference: the more viscous a wine is the sweeter people will say it is. When these effects are strictly predicable it’s objective: we know that this dimension and that dimension interacting with such and such a ratio will have these perceptible effects, and they do. That doesn’t tell against objectivity.”

So even colour can be part of what we normally call flavour?

“Exactly right.”

“People are sometimes pleased to report to you that wine tasters were told they were going to be drinking red wine, but on fact they were blindfolded, given white wine and they described it wrongly,” says Crane. “All that shows is that the judgements that people come out with are partly the function of their expectations. It doesn’t show that there’s no way of telling the difference between red wine and white wine.”

It was time to move on to Arbutus, a restaurant where almost the entire, very good, wine list is available in 250ml carafes, and set about comparing and contrasting. Smith continued to develop his objectivity thesis.

“It is one thing to judge the quality of the wine: how well does it do the sorts things which it’s meant to do for that grape variety, where it’s from etc. It is another to ask, do you like it? I’m sure very good wine critics could say this could be great vintage for this wine, but it’s not for me.”

Objectivity, however, is not the only philosophical topics we mull over. For example, Crane is interested in the idea of snobbery.

“Snobbery is valuing something that shouldn’t be valued, which isn’t really a source of value. It has to be some kind of mistake. I think there is genuine wine snobbery, which is making judgements by reputation or price. However, if someone knows a lot about wine and imposes those standards on other people, it doesn’t make them a snob, but it might make them a bore. I have a technical definition of a bore: a bore is a person who talks about something whether or not you’re interested in it and whether or not they believe you’re interested in it.”

He also has a take on the question of whether a wine should be considered a work of art. “You can make a distinction between an aesthetic object and an art object, which is anything appreciated aesthetically, like landscape, or people. Wine is clearly an aesthetic object, but there’s no reason to think it is an art object.”

If you’re still not convinced that the philosophy of wine is a bona fide subject, Crane understands your worries. “The sceptical question which has been raised with me about the philosophy of wine is that of course there are enormous differences between wine and other pleasures and other great things, but what lessons are there of philosophical interest from it which couldn’t be gained from something else.? Are there any philosophical issues wine raises that coffee or beer doesn’t?”

The short answer is that there aren’t. In that respect, the philosophy of wine is not a sub-field of philosophy of the same kind as aesthetics, metaphysics or ethics. But at the same time, and as I think our conversation demonstrated, wine is an unusually rich source of data for philosophical reflections on subjects like consciousness and aesthetic experience. In that sense, wine is not just any old example.

If you’re convinced and you want to get tasting, Smith has some practical as well as philosophical advice. “I’d say you should not buy a £200 wine if you cannot discriminate in the class of wines between £25 and £200. You should buy the best wine in the class within which you can discriminate.”

But be careful: once you get started you might find that class rising quite steeply.

“Getting into wine financially ruins you,” says Crane, embracing his fate with another sip.

Questions of Taste: the philosophy of wine, edited by Barry C Smith, is published by Signal Books

  1. I grew up with wine. I liked telling people my mother had one breast for milk and the other for wine (red.) Until I went to work and bought my own I drank the jug type, $1.25 a gallon, 25c off if you returned the bottle – well, you get the idea. The quality I consumed after being in a position to pay more for wine didn’t improve dramatically. I was aware there were wonderful wines out there but was rarely able to partake even of the less expensive ones. I always promised myself if I ever had enough money I’d start buying the good stuff. Eventually I did reach a standard of living that permitted me splurging, at least every so often. Generally, what I felt about the wines I paid 5 to 10 times more than I was used to was disappointment. Two or three years ago my wife and I went to a wine tasting seminar held at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park. So the venue for the enjoyment of the wine, or anything else, was superb. A half dozen California, small, upscale, wineries participated. The wines were uniformly good, in spite of which the seminar helped end my love affair with wine. I learned what modern wine making was about, producing different wines, not necessarily better, though if that accidently happened all the better. And of course, with a difference came a steeper price.
    Wine, at the level you’re writing about is no longer the wine which one drinks to complement a meal, it’s some kind of token in a game. In some small ways it reminds me of some modern music, art, etc. which isn’t for enjoying emotionally, but intellectually, like puzzles, things to be understood.
    Maybe it’s sour grapes (pun intended), but I think of the interest in wine, the one you describe above, an extreme form of elitism, after all who can partake of it, only the really well off or those who are willing to spend greatly beyond their means. But is it a proper topic for philosophy? Well, I’d say as much as philosophy is a proper topic of philosophy.

  2. The Daily Eudemon - pingback on September 4, 2009 at 6:16 am

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