Fine vintage of veritas in vino

Questions of Taste
September 21, 2007

A cursory examination of the label might well lead you to think this unlikely sounding volume is something to be sniffed at rather than attentively smelled. Books linking philosophy to popular culture are coming out faster than apologies from the BBC, and while most provide diversion for the authors and a palatable way into the subject for novices, few would suggest that they generally rise above the level of decent philosophical plonk.

Look more carefully, however, and you'll notice contributors of excellent vintages, ranging from leading philosophers Kent Bach, Tim Crane, Roger Scruton and Barry C. Smith; through learned wine experts such as Steve Charters, Jamie Goode and Andrew Jefford; to the philosophy graduate and leading wine maker Paul Draper.

Let the pages aerate and the book's different layers emerge. The attack comes from Scruton, who leads off with a characteristically passionate eulogy for the joys of oenological intoxication. Scruton is a one-off: an intellectual who manages to embody a sensibility that is more English than tea and cucumber sandwiches, while writing the kind of prose that you would normally expect from the other side of the Channel. "What we taste in wine is not just the fruit and its ferment," he writes, "but also the peculiar flavour of the landscape to which the gods have been invited and where they have found a home."

After this uncharacteristically heady start, however, the book's mid-palate is dominated by more delicate issues surrounding what we can know about wine and whether this can be said to be objective. No one view emerges dominant, but the combined effect of the contributions is to challenge the common-sense view that flavour is the subjective phenomenon par excellence.

Evidence for the objectivity of wine's qualities turns out to be plentiful and, in hindsight, obvious. Many qualities that wine tasters identify are scientifically measurable, such as tannin levels, acidity and alcohol content. Contributions on wine and the brain by Jamie Goode and science and subjectivity by Ophelia Delroy bring a welcome empirical angle on these issues. But even descriptors such as "peachy", "balanced" or even "brawny" would have no function if they did not at least approximate to real properties of the wine.

What remains most stubbornly subjective is an overall assessment of whether a wine is pleasant to drink. But an expert taster can identify a wine as a particularly good example of its kind while not particularly liking it herself. This would only be possible if alongside the subjectivity of preference there was an objectivity of quality. And although it is true people disagree over fine wines, there is very little disagreement over what constitutes a bad one.

There are other notes that emerge less repeatedly in the volume. Kent Bach discusses the role that knowledge of wine plays in its enjoyment, while Tim Crane's essay raises interesting questions about the importance of distinguishing between works of art and other objects of aesthetic appreciation, such as landscapes, human forms or a good Bordeaux.

There is a distinct change of flavour for the finish, which is a fascinating, though philosophically thin, interview with wine maker Paul Draper. It does not upset the harmony of the whole, however, because the book is primarily of interest not only to philosophers, but to anybody intellectually curious who has ever sipped wine and given it a second thought. This is an example of an all-too-rare beast: a rich, complex book that is to be primarily enjoyed simply because the questions it wrestles with intoxicate the mind.

Julian Baggini is the author of Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind and editor of The Philosophers' Magazine .

Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine

Editor - Barry C. Smith
Publisher - Signal Books
Pages - 224
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 9781904955290

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