Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. Oxford University Press
New York, 2007, 222 pp.
Reviewer: David J. Hoaas
The essays in this volume are based on a December 2004 conference sponsored by the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. The con- ference was entitled Philosophy and Wine from Science to Subjectivity. The ten chapters in the volume either had their roots in the proceedings from this conference or were com- missioned pieces following the conference. The list of contributing writers includes seven professional philosophers, a wine educator, a biochemist, a wine critic, and a wine-maker (albeit one with an undergraduate degree in philosophy).
In her forward to the text, noted wine writer Jancis Robinson asks “could this book represent the most fun you can have with wine without drinking a single drop?” (p. viii). For the casual reader, the answer to this question would be no. This book is not a bedside reader. The essays contained in this text are serious academic works prepared by philoso- phers, wine writers, and natural scientists. The chapters require study and contemplation by the reader to reach their full meaning. Approached from an academic perspective, the book becomes informative and pleasurable to read.
Plato, Locke, Hume, and Kant all discussed the wines they enjoyed and favored (p. xi). They, like other philosophers, however, have not applied their craft of philosophy to the study of the enjoyment of wine. For those who enjoy fine wine, this enjoyment is a very reflective process. Care is taken to buy wine from specific vintages. Wine is kept at con- trolled temperatures to safeguard its quality. Discussion takes place regarding when to open certain wines. Writers provide instruction on deciphering labels on foreign bottles of wine. Books are written concerning the pairing of food and wine. The intricacies of enjoy- ing wine are to be contemplated. It is this contemplation and reflection of the taste of wine that provides a role for the philosopher.
When individuals discuss and reflect upon wine and its taste, the assumption is made that they taste the same thing. But is that actually the case? In ontological terms do we know what we are actually tasting (p. xiii)? To speak like an economist, the question is, does the utility from drinking wine come from the wine itself or does it come from the experience of drinking the wine? If it is the experience, what is it that determines the characteristics of the experience? Does a drinker of wine learn how to appreciate the experience and how is that appreciation learned. To paraphrase an often used quote, is it the case that “I don’t know wine, but I know what I like” or is it that “I have to know wine to know what I like.”
Wine critics can subjectively describe their impression of a wine. Chemists can objec- tively list the physical properties of a wine. Is the tasting of wine a subjective or an objective experience? That is the question of this text. As is the case with the review of most conference volumes, the tendency is to want to give a chapter by chapter summary of each presentation. That would be droll. A few of the chapters, however, warrant special mention.
Chapters one, two and three of the text, to varying degrees of depth, discuss the subjec- tive side of wine tasting. In chapter three Barry C. Smith slightly changes the question. The subjective versus objective experience of tasting wine is not based on the metaphysi- cal versus physical properties of wine but on one’s ability to describe what they taste. The key issue for Smith is communication. Can a wine drinker communicate what it is like to drink a particular wine and are others able to share the same pleasure from drinking the same wine. Smith uses the analogy of describing pain (p. 58). Most everyone can recognize when they are in pain. Attempting to accurately describe that pain to another individual may be another story. The taster can recognize recurring elements in various wines sam- pled. Putting definitive names to these elements is where the problem begins. Individuals rely on wine writers and wine critics to help them describe what they taste. The subjective tasting of wine implies that one does not find the advice of all wine critics equally valuable. The valuable wine critic is the one whose personal tastes and preferences are most closely aligned with one’s own.
Chapter six of the text by Adrienne Lehrer later returns to the topic of wine vocabu- lary. This vocabulary relates to the description of a wine’s color, appearance, bouquet, aroma, taste, and mouth feel. Philosophers of language will find the choice of words used to describe wine quite interesting.
Chapter four of the text by Jamie Goode focuses on the objective or natural science approach to questions of taste. Namely, Goode explores the taste experience from a biological perspective. For those interested in the different reactions in the orbitofrontal cortex of trained tasters versus untrained taster when sampling wine, this is the chapter for them. Goode’s discussion is on psychophysics the field of study that concentrates on how physical taste stimuli are perceived by the mind (p. 93). The physical stimuli most wine drinkers are familiar with are appearance, scent, taste, and tactile feel. The reader interested in a more complete statement of Goode’s views should consult his book-length treatment of the subject in either Wine Science (2005) or The Science of Wine (2006).
The inclusion of Ophelia Deroy’s contribution to the text is quite appropriately placed as chapter five. Deroy tries to reconcile the subjective versus objective debate over the taste of wine. Unfortunately, as is true of most of the questions in the book, the debate cannot be resolved. The chemical properties of a wine obviously affect its taste. Yet no chemical diagnosis can of itself decide the quality of a wine. In the case of wine as in any tasting experience, it is quite hard to say when the evaluative (subjective view) stops and when the purely descriptive (objective view) starts (p. 106).
Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine is not a book written with economists in mind. The Journal of Wine Economics is written with economists in mind. This reviewer would therefore be remiss if he did not mention the two economic studies cited in the text. The studies cited address the reputation effects of the French Bourgogne and Bordeaux Classification System versus the California 1978 Appellation System. The study mentioned with respect to the French classification system is Landon and Smith’s 1998 article in the Southern Economic Journal entitled “Quality Expectations, Reputation and Price.” The study mentioned concerning the California Appellation Classification System is Podolny’s 2005 “The California Wine Industry,” that appears in the text Status Signals.
This review began by asking the question, is the tasting of wine a subjective or an objec- tive experience? As with many philosophical discussions, this text does not definitively answer that question. The writers of the chapters for this text do, however, thoroughly dis- cuss why this is such a difficult question to address. In closing, the words of Roger Scruton (p. 18) seem to be appropriate for those who either subjectively or objectively enjoy a glass of fine wine. Scruton states, “Nothing else that we eat or drink comes to us with such a halo of significance, and cursed be the villain who refuses to drink it.”
David J. Hoaas
Centenary College of Louisiana