What is the Philosophy of Wine?

by Dwight Furrow

Philosophy has been an ongoing enterprise for at least 2500 years in what we now call the West and has even more ancient roots in Asia. But until the mid-2000’s you would never have encountered something called “the philosophy of wine.” Over the past 15 years there have been several monographs and a few anthologies devoted to the topic, although it is hardly a central topic in philosophy. About such a discourse, one might legitimately ask why philosophers should be discussing wine at all, and why anyone interested in wine should pay heed to what philosophers have to say.

This philosophical discourse about wine did not emerge in a vacuum. Prior to the mid-20th century, one would never have encountered “philosophy of economics,” “philosophy of law,” “philosophy of science,” “philosophy of social science,” or the “philosophy of art” either, each of which has become a standard part of the philosophical canon. Philosophers have always had much to say about these practices but not as organized into discrete sub-disciplines with their own subject matters.

The assumption behind the emergence of these sub-disciplines is that the study of philosophy brings something to them—particular skills or insights—that immersion in the disciplines themselves would struggle to employ. Thus, in trying get clear on what the philosophy of wine can contribute to the community of wine lovers, we quickly run up against the question of what distinctive skills or insights characterize philosophy.

The first obvious thing to say is that philosophy is useful when a human practice raises difficult conceptual issues. Philosophers are allegedly good at clarifying conceptual muddles by using logic, by focusing and honing the questions that need to be asked in order to bring clarity, and by unpacking assumptions and presuppositions that are not obvious and about which the practitioners of some activity might be unaware. Perhaps, more importantly, philosophers use their capacity to make inferences and frame concepts to synthesize areas of inquiry that on the surface may seem unrelated. Of course, these are general intellectual skills, but philosophical training is supposed to make one especially adept at them.

Philosophers also specialize in rational justification. Not content to simply establish the origins of our belief systems, philosophers focus on the evidence that supports our belief systems and whether we have good reasons to believe what we believe, which requires an inquiry into what exactly counts as a good reason. In other words, philosophers think about thinking and try to develop concepts that help us think more clearly.

It would take me far afield, and outside my area of competence, to assess the degree to which several decades of interaction between philosophy and other areas of study have produced meaningful results. However, this engagement has certainly benefited philosophy because it forces philosophers to leave the ivory conceptual towers to engage life as it is lived by other intellectuals. However, it is worth noting that some practitioners of the law, social science, science, the arts, etc. find it useful to engage with philosophers on these matters. These are robust, on-going discussions with a now extensive history, so some people find them fruitful.

At any rate, if a practice does not raise any conceptual issues, it is not a good candidate for a philosophical treatment. I doubt that we will see a philosophy of auto repair, a philosophy of call center response, or a philosophy of Uber driving because it isn’t obvious they raise conceptual or logical problems that need to be solved. If your mechanic cannot fix your car, a book of philosophy is unlikely to be helpful. (This is not to say there are no ethical issues with these practices. Only that we don’t need better concepts to handle them.)

If follows from this that, if a philosophical discourse has developed around a practice, there must be conceptual issues that at least appear to need attention. Which brings me back to wine. What conceptual issues does the wine industry face about which philosophical inquiry might provide enlightenment?

One foundational issue that has occupied the attention of most philosophers writing on wine is whether wine is a genuine aesthetic object. Is wine the sort of object that provides a robust aesthetic experience that is, at least in some respects, analogous to our experience of works of art or nature? The answer to this question requires that we explore the concept of an aesthetic experience, which has long been a central topic in philosophical aesthetics. The conclusion produced by most philosophical analyses of wine answers that question affirmatively. Wine provides a robust aesthetic experience, although it is a matter of some dispute whether it is art-like.

Why is this question important for the wine community? Because wine is also a commodity and its commodity form often obscures its aesthetic appeal. Excellent wine is expensive to produce, difficult to sell, and requires some experience to appreciate. Wine producers are caught up in solving production problems while people in the wine trade focus on price-to-quality ratios, wine scores, competitions, and marketing strategies. Most consumers, for their part, approach wine as something that either tastes good or not. This commercial discourse, although necessary to sustain the industry, loses touch with wine’s greater significance as a cultural treasure with deep connections to geography, history, and the lives of people who make and appreciate it. Committed wine lovers are very much aware of this “soulful” dimension but there is a need to continuously find new, creative ways of articulating this dimension of wine by showing how wine shapes our relation to nature, the passage of time, our concept of good taste, our moral identities, and concepts of beauty. Philosophy reminds us of these connections because it teaches the skill of conceptual synthesis, showing conceptual relations between seemingly unrelated domains, and articulating underlying value commitments that are part of philosophy’s historical attention to the study of how and why we value something.

A second foundational question is whether wine appreciation and/or criticism is subjective or objective. The correct account of how our private, personal experiences are related to an independent, objective reality has been a central issue in philosophy since its inception. It’s hard to see how it could be answered without a philosophical inquiry since it is neither an empirical nor a technical question. Most philosophers think that at least some dimensions of wine tasting achieve a kind of objectivity, although there is vast disagreement about how to characterize it.

The balance of objective and subjective aspects of wine is an important question for the wine community to think about. Wine is a vague object and the capacity to discover the full range of aesthetic properties exhibited by wine takes commitment, practice, and disposable income. For many people in the wine industry, this is a lamentable state of affairs because these are barriers to participation. Thus, some find attractive the view that the arduous task of learning about wine and quality standards can be bypassed by insisting on the thorough subjectivity of wine tasting. However, this point of view poses a very real threat to the wine industry. Everyone from winemakers and salespersons to sommeliers, wine writers, and consumers who are wondering what to buy assume there are standards of quality and that some wines are better than others. Ask a winemaker why she controls her fermentation temperatures and she will tell you because it makes better wine. In other words, the discourse that ties the wine community together assumes that wine tasting is not entirely subjective.

No doubt, like any other aesthetic practice, there is a great deal of subjectivity to wine tasting. That is a good thing. We would not care much about aesthetics if our attachment to aesthetic objects were not deeply personal with all the idiosyncrasies that entails. But the possibility of sharing these deeply personal experiences depends on having norms and competencies that enable fruitful discussion, however unstable and contingent those norms might be. It is an inherently philosophical task to extract these norms and highlight them through articulation and then explain why we should or should not adhere to them.

Related to this issue of objectivity is a question about the degree to which cognition influences what we taste. Wine education has become a central activity of almost everyone in the wine industry. How effective is this education and what methods or activities can increase its effectiveness? Definitive answers to these questions depend on the relation between cognition, perception, feeling states, and preferences. Philosophy has a long history of discussion about how these facets of experience are related that can directly influence debates about wine education.

A fourth issue that concerns the wine industry on which philosophers might provide input is the nature of the language used to discuss wine. This is a source of contention in the wine community. Many people find that tasting notes, which simply list aromas or textures, are not particularly helpful in describing a wine. Yet more elaborate metaphors that attribute personality traits to wine are baffling and treated with derision. Linguists have studied wine language and gathered empirical data on how wine language works. But philosophy asks broader more abstract questions about the nature of meaning, understanding, and communication and how linguistic meaning is related to patterns of feeling, experience, and knowledge. Philosophical enquiries are normative. They address questions about how language should be used and how it can be reformed to enhance understanding. Thus, philosophy can provide the wine community with a broader frame of reference with which to assess the role of language in wine appreciation.

Finally, wine is a source of pleasure and inebriation. But its production and appreciation are also sources of deep meaning for wine lovers. How does wine fit into our attempts to lead good lives? If any question defines philosophy, it is this question of what counts as a good life. The proper role of pleasure, the kinds of pleasure that are worth pursuing, and the relative value of a deep commitment to an aesthetic practice are quintessential philosophical issues. And these are questions that any thoughtful drinker should be asking themselves.

Thus, wine production and appreciation with all its complexity and variation is the sort of practice that invites philosophical reflection. And wine’s status as an everyday aesthetic object makes it attractive as a topic of discussion for those philosophers who view philosophy as a way of life or an aid to living.

It isn’t so much that there is a distinctive skill here that only philosophers have that can be applied to issues in the wine community. Many non-philosophers have analytical skills. Rather, there are centuries of discussion about meaning, value, and knowledge and their interconnections that are accessible only if you’ve mastered a certain number of feet of shelving space in the library. It’s a matter of asking different questions and inventing concepts that might not occur to someone without that background.

It is that capacity for inventing concepts that may, in the end, be philosophy’s most significant contribution to wine. Wine’s reliance on tradition is both an attraction and a snare. The wine community can sometimes be complacent and excessively bound to conventions preventing new variations from gaining a foothold. Perhaps the ability of philosophy to invent new concepts to reframe how we think about wine can help avoid that complacency. Socrates referred to himself as a gadfly, questioning dogmatic beliefs and challenging easy assumptions. To be honest, the philosophy of wine, to date, has not displayed much of a tendency to disrupt or agitate. It has largely been content to analyze and clarify current practices.

Perhaps it has not yet found its Socrates.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.