Philosophy of Wine

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Is It

The discriminating wine palate: bouquet, nose, great vintages, genius vintners.  Are these just myths perpetrated by winemakers and taken up by snobs with too much money to spend?  John and Ken raise a philosophical glass with Barry Smith from the University of London, editor of Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine.

Listening Notes

With only a cursory glance at the topic for this week’s show, you might be surprised to notice that John and Ken even had an hour’s worth of radio-worthy material to discuss. However, only a moment more in the company of our hosts is needed for it to become apparent just how expansive and incisive the domain of the philosophical is. Considerations of wine open the door for Ken and John to ask questions about the secondary qualities of wine and whether taste is an attribute of the wine or the drinker. They consider how the act of drinking wine might actually differ experientially for a wine connoisseur and a layman, and whether the qualities we assign to a wine denote objective facts or subjective judgments.

The guest Barry Smith enters into the foray and argues that although the taste of a wine and the qualities we assign it are a personal experience, it verily reveals something about the external world. Like our other senses, taste provides us with knowledge about objective facts of that which we taste. In response to a question from John concerning a hypothetical bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild falling in the woods with no one around to drink it, Barry is confident that it nonetheless possesses the same qualities of taste.

Barry then brings the group to consider what happens when a knowledgeable person “drinks analytically.”  He argues that in comparison to a person who hasn’t developed a sense for assessing the qualities of a wine, his/her experience is actually different. They both might drink the same wine, but only the expert breaks down his experience into its numerous components. Someone who learns to do this changes how he appreciates an experience, which actually gives him new experiences of the wine. After assessing the qualities however, there is still a point at which a judgment is made regarding the qualities which determines whether a wine is found to be enjoyable. Ken questions these ideas, and wants to know what is going on when experts disagree on the quality of a wine, and what might be gleaned from blind tasting. Furthermore, the importance of the particular history of a wine and whether that actually effects the aesthetic qualities it possesses is a point of contention among our hosts and guest. There is a lot to be said about how a wine interacts with the many senses invoked while tasting, the expectations associated with a wine, how the history relates to what we actually perceive, and the conversation during this episode leaves the reader with a great deal to ponder.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (SEEK TO 00:05:12) - Zoe Corneli visits a wine appreciation course at the South Beach Yacht Club to find out about the attendees’ different philosophies on wine. Here, guests are asked to evaluate a set of Rieslings that will be paired with different dishes in their meal that evening. They learn a lesson or two about the relating the flavors in the wine that come to mind with other experiences they have had from their chef and instructor, who walks them through the lesson.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher: Ian Shoales, in his own segment today, takes us through the history of alcoholic beverages. In comparison to some of its relatives (beer and liquor), wine has been able to keep a low profile throughout the ages. But one should not be fooled by the seemingly docile nature of a wine and cheese party . . . wine can be a vicious business indeed, particularly when fraud and numerical ratings enter onto the scene.