It is quite surprising that no one has published a book like this before. Wine is an excellent subject for philosophy. In nine essays and an interview it focuses questions about subjective and objective qualities, aesthetics, the part in our appreciation played by knowledge, and the nature of expertise. Philosophy of wine has the advantage over many rather tired areas of philosophy that it is only likely to be discussed by those who care deeply about its main subject matter; it is also possible to say new and interesting things about it. Furthermore the subject’s natural audience is wider than the specialised readership of obscure peer-reviewed journals so philosophers writing about wine are more or less forced to be outward rather than inward looking. Questions of Taste is written for any intelligent reader (something that I believe should be true of all philosophy books, but patently isn’t). As Jancis Robinson points out in her preface, this book ‘ deserves a wide non-academic readership’
Questions of Taste consists of essays by a range of philosophers, including Roger Scruton, Barry Smith and Tim Crane, together with pieces by wine professionals such as Paul Draper (chief wine-maker at Ridge Wines, California, himself a philosophy graduate), Steve Charters, a Master of Wine who has written on the topic of wine and society, the wine writer Andrew Jefford, and the wine scientist Jamie Goode.
It is tempting to draw analogies between the book and a fine wine, with different complementary writers balancing out its overall effect.
The acknowledged source of much of the philosophy is David Hume’s essay ‘Of The Standard of Taste’ where he addressed the question of whether taste, in the sense of artistic sensibility, is purely subjective. Hume’s good critic (who can provide a touchstone of taste) judges in optimal conditions, has superb powers of sensory discrimination, has had practice in making judgments, is free from bias, and draws on a wealth of relevant experience allowing him or her to make appropriate comparisons and assessments. The backbone of Questions of Taste is Barry Smith’s essay in which he argues that the cliché about wine, that it’s all a matter of personal taste, needs to be examined. Smith distinguishes between taste as sensibility, taste as a property that a wine has, and tasting, which is the way each of us experiences the taste. As he convincingly argues, there are many properties of a wine which are not purely subjective in the sense that the individual is the final arbiter: for example, the acidity of a wine is something which a taster can taste. The way the taster experiences the acidity is, admittedly, via the subjective experience of acidity, but, this does not make a judgment of acidity wholly subjective.
In passing Smith gives those of us who aren’t experts in a wine an insight in to what it would be like to be someone capable of fine discrimination about wine, and the subtleties and complexities of the experiences that this liquid can provide a sensitive and knowledgeable person. Like several other writers in the book, he also gives appropriate weight to the social and cultural aspects of wine-drinking, and (in opposition to at least one other writer in the book) takes the plausible position that knowledge can affect how a wine tastes (against the ‘innocent palate’ sort of argument that makes the taste of something independent of your knowledge of its origins). Here, then, is a convincing argument for realism about tastes of wines, delivered with an impressive level of detail and knowledge of the subject under discussion.
Many writers in this area omit to mention one of the more obvious aspects of wine, namely that it can intoxicate. Roger Scruton addresses this issue, pointing out the intentionality of this peculiar variety of intoxication that involves an intertwining of the intoxication with the relishing of the wine. The mental transformation caused by wine is part of the taste. So too is knowledge of the origins of the wine, its links to particular land. And wine, when taken in moderation, has pronounced social effects: for Scruton the truth in wine is not in what the drinker experiences, but in what he or she, with loosened tongue, reveals. Scruton’s essay is idiosyncratic, speculative, and celebratory. In contrast, Kent Bach gives a frank and partly autobiographical account (equally celebratory of wine, though) of the relevance of knowledge to the experience of wine. Unlike Smith, Bach believes that knowledge for the most part leaves taste unaffected: it provides cognitive pleasures in itself, and indirectly enhances the pleasures of drinking wine by steering us towards those most likely to give pleasure. This is analogous to Arthur Koestler’s argument that preferring original paintings to excellent forgeries is largely a matter of snobbery, since the retinal experience of forgery and original are indistinguishable. The counterargument to Koestler is that we don’t see retinal images, but that seeing is theory-laden, richly affected by what we know, by what we have seen, by what we expect to see, and by what we believe about what we are looking at. As Nelson Goodman has stressed, these factors can all be instrumental in the process of our learning to make fine aesthetic discriminations - as he put it:
…the aesthetic properties of a picture include not only those found by looking at it but also those that determine how it is to be looked at. (Languages of Art, p. 111-112)
It is interesting to see analogous debates about the beholder’s (or taster’s) share being played out in the realm of wine.
Gloria Orrigi in her essay on wine epistemology addresses the interesting question of how wine connoisseurs achieve authority, focussing on Robert Parker and his famous 100-point ranking system. Again Hume surfaces here. Orrigi shows how Parker exhibits the qualities that Hume esteemed in a ‘true judge’, notably absence of bias, and fine sensory discrimination and how these contribute to his trustworthiness as an expert. His implied honest persona has moral qualities that make his readers take him seriously. Yet Orrigi questions Barry Smith’s claim that wine experts can allow consumers to assess the real taste of wines by proxy. Adopting what appears to be a relativistic stance, she describes the ways in which experts either reinforce or subvert existing hierarchies of judgment. My reading of this is that she is saying that wines don’t have real qualities. Orrigi explains how a novice entering the world of wine uses heuristics to get up to speed with the body of wine knowledge and the wine canon, and at the same time learns to make discriminations within that framework, perhaps eventually gaining confidence to challenge aspects of it. The implication seems to be that, against Smith, wine expertise is a socially constructed notion that purports to describe real qualities of the wine, but ends up relying on implied moral qualities of the critic (but here I might be misreading Orrigi - [see her clarification in her post of 9th July 2007] – presumably these moral qualities can be no more real than the taste of the wine… (but perhaps I shouldn’t start down that track).
This is, overall, a very interesting book, even for someone who is not obsessed with fine wine. It triggers a range of thoughts about analogies and disanalogies with other areas of experience. It also provides a glimpse to those outside the wine world of the complex judgments and fine discriminations that those within it make. Perhaps the collection would have benefited by drawing in more philosophers whose primary interest is in aesthetics and the philosophy of art and who could have linked discussions of wine to comparable discussions about music, pictures, literature, and so on. But that might have been at the expense of freshness and passion.