Is There Such A Thing As A Philosophy Of Wine?
Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine is the title of a series of essays edited by Barry C. Smith which was published last year by the Oxford University Press. Randy Sheahan has already reviewed it in these pages, and as I largely agree with him that it is a load of pretentious rubbish, and not very elegantly or comprehensibly expressed at that, I shall not bore you any more with it.
But it set me thinking. Is there, or should there be, a philosophy of wine? I'm no philosopher, but, as it happens, one of my brothers is. I'm just a humble hack who used to be a humble wine-merchant. Do I need a philosophy? If, as this book might suggest, philosophers can't write about wine. Should I, as a wine writer, be concerning myself with wine philosophy? The more I thought about it, the more I realised there was no such thing. I could waffle on about taste (but it would be better if a qualified E.N.T. surgeon did: he or she would know vastly more about taste-buds than I). I could hold forth about the effects on the nervous system of alcohol (again better a professional: all I would be doing is generalising from the particular). I could even stray into the more airy-fairy fields of the 'enobling' quality of great bottles. But that would probably be pompous nonsense.
And yet, if not a 'philosophy', there is, lurking in the background, something which more prosaically but more honestly I will call the imperatives which govern how I go about my business of being a wine-writer. Call them guiding principles if you like. Or a modus vivendi. They can be summarised as follows: Love, Belief, Celebration and Transmission.
Love really means passion. A fascination with the historical background, the inexorability of terroir, the inevitable economic constraints, and the personalities and philosophies of the people responsible. In short an attempt to understand and explain to the reader the relationship between land, grape variety and wine-maker. It hardly needs to be said that all this arises from a deep love of wine and its constant complexity and variety. What could be more exciting than a new vintage to assess every year?
Belief boils down to self-belief; a confidence that after more than 40 years at the rock face one has begun to understand something. That with this experience one can differentiate nor only between the good and the elegant and the bad and the coarse; but one can separate the sincere from the false; the pretentious, the superficial and the manipulated from the honest, the pure and the true. From this should come a determination not to accept second best (there is nothing elitist about this!); not to succumb to fashion; and to have the courage to point out that from time to time the emperor is not wearing any clothes.
Celebrate! Go out and spread the gospel! From the least to the greatest, wine is, or should be, the most delicious and food-friendly beverage of all as well as a great aperitif and digestif. It doesn't have to cost a bomb. One doesn't have to wallow in wall-to-wall Petrus. Those who only drink first growths because it is beneath their dignity to drink anything else – and perhaps are also some of those who consume only diet Coke between Monday and Friday – are idiots, and should be lined up and shot. So, go forth and enthuse the public. Be entertaining while you are about it. There is nothing more turning off than being boring. Persuade people to be adventurous, to drink wine more regularly, and to have the courage of their own convictions.
Transmission is a duty. When Anthony Barton thanked his uncle Roland from having bestowed responsibility for Langoa and Léoville on him, Roland immediately pointed out that Anthony only had the properties in trust for the next generation. Those of us who know a little about wine have inevitably been taught by others, and it is our duty to pass this knowledge and experience on to the next generation. We are today's mentors. So we must be generous with our time and old bottles. We must be patient. In this case we do suffer fools gladly. Sadly there are those out there who will never get it. But it is immensly rewarding to come acoss a young man or woman – and it doesn't matter if they are professional or amateut - who you realise, instincively almost, do have the 'knack' with wine. These people should be encouraged fifty times over.
But, enough of this, I hear you say. And, yes, you are right. Go and cook a nice meal, open a bottle of good wine. And enjoy it. That's what au fond it's all about.
This article first appeared in the Quarterly Review of Wines, Summer 2008. (qrw.com)