Review of “Epistenology: Wine as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

by Dwight Furrow

Epistenology: Wine as Experience is a peculiar name for a peculiar book, although its peculiarities make it worth reading. Coined by the author, Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at University of Gastronomic Science near Bra, Italy, the term “Epistenology” is a portmanteau blending enology, the study of wine, with epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge. The book is hard to categorize, which is precisely its point. Although a philosophy book about wine, it is not so much about wine as it is an attempt to think with wine, using wine as a catalyst for making connections to persons, atmospheres, and imaginative play within pregnant moments of immediate, lived experience. Although a serious work of philosophy, it only occasionally names other philosophers and refers to no previous work in the philosophy of wine or aesthetics, while advancing an intriguing alternative to professional wine evaluation and conventional wine education. It is avowedly a narrative of the author’s personal journey with wine and the lessons to be drawn from it. Derrida’s idea that every philosophy is a way of “justifying our lives in the world” is the book’s guiding light.

The book should find its audience among people looking for a richer wine experience as well as wine-enthused philosophers and other academics seeking a more authentic intellectual life. Non-academic readers will sometimes be puzzled by the philosophical claims, but most are made concrete via the author’s considerable experience with wine, which is described with an accessible, personal touch. This general approach to philosophy is appealing and much needed. Epistenology attempts to show that philosophy can be done without the trappings of academic bureaucracy, the defensive posturing over minutiae that characterizes most professional philosophy, and the conceit that philosophy can escape the personal domain by articulating vapid generalizations. Whether the book succeeds in this endeavor is an open question. I found the book thrilling and maddening in equal measure.

The book flows within three force fields that emerge as especially salient. (I don’t say “themes” or “elements” since the author finds both abhorrent.) The first leads the reader toward a view of wine appreciation as an imaginative exercise. Wine’s alcohol and stimulating aromas and textures, when experienced with empathy and situated awareness in the company of others, provokes thought and an empathic connection to much more than flavors and textures. Wine connects us to everything around us, connections which enliven thought, feeling, and imagery in an incandescent situated awareness. I found this to be the most important dimension of the book in part because it resonates with my own experience with wine as an imaginative, emotionally engaging experience.

The second force field locates this imaginative experience in an ontology that draws on diverse sources within process philosophy, although as noted, the book is only lightly laden with name dropping or commentary on the history of philosophy. (Influences such as Wittgenstein, Derrida, Serres, and François Jullien are mentioned but their views are not elaborated.) The argument of book assumes that processes are more fundamental than objects. Objects with clearly delineated boundaries, neatly nestled within precise conceptual categories, are an abstraction that covers up and distorts the role of time and change in constituting reality. What exists fundamentally are a tangle of lines of connection that cross boundaries and reveal the relational character of all events. All reference to subjects and objects is swallowed by the irreducible relational character of experience. Philosophers will find this material maddening because Perullo feels no need to argue for these positions. He sketches the ontology and does so with brio and aplomb without explaining why one should adopt this picture. Given his aim to avoid excessive academic infrastructure, this is understandable and perhaps forgivable, although it does have consequences. Philosophers not persuaded by this sketch will not be moved.

This ontological picture is then articulated via the author’s experience with wine. Wine is not to be thought of as a sensory object, liquid object, or fluid state-of-affairs. In fact, wine seems to have no independent existence apart from the imaginative escapades of drinkers swimming in the magical moments of intersubjective reverie. Wine “illuminates the hidden connections between disentangled things of this world,” Perullo writes. It encourages intimacy and exposure perceiving reality through felt relations and internalized atmospheres that break down the distinction between subject and object.

The continuous making and unmaking of the self and its relations, a sense of fluid identities, life experienced as movement, process, and transformation are made available by wine, which has its own fluid identity and process of continuous transformation. Thus, wine is no mere bearer of properties apprehended through the practice of conventional wine tasting. It’s a catalyst of events, pregnant with meaning, that connect to other events in the moment. He seems to argue that any activity that pulls us out of the transitory moment back to something that might have object-like persistence is to be rejected.

Of course, wine has long been celebrated for its ability to enhance conviviality and as a crucial stimulant of the social dimension of meals and other get-togethers. Such convivial atmospheres themselves have an aesthetic dimension and Perullo seeks to not only heighten their importance but amplify their connectivity.

This “ontologizing” of wine leads to the third force field through which the book circulates—a sustained, vitriolic, indeed splenetic critique of wine appreciation as we understand it today. According to Perullo, the categories we use to understand wine based on geographical location and varietal are irrelevant and misleading. Norms about what wines from various regions typically taste like are not worth learning. The expression of terroir is a “senseless and banal cliché” unless understood as something the drinker creates in the moment. Our interest in particular producers and how they create their achievements is nothing but late capitalist boondoggle. The practice of identifying aromas and other characteristics of a wine is a waste of time and almost all talk about wine is empty twaddle. (Yes, he is aware of the performative contradiction in that claim.) Competence in tasting is just so much snobbery and authoritarianism. Judgments about wine quality inevitably prevent us from fully appreciating the wine and the moment in front of us. All of this adds up to a claim that the dominant tasting model treats wine as a rote, sterile, and static object incapable of variation or emotional engagement.

It is as if no one in the wine community has the awareness to appreciate wine unless they have attended one of the author’s wine classes, which, as described in the book, sometimes seem more akin to seances and encounter groups than wine tastings. And his target is not just wine. All of Western aesthetics and art appreciation, caught up in an empty discourse, must have taken a wrong turn shortly after Lao Tzu walked the earth.

There may be a point to all of this. Hyperbole is after all a common literary device used to shake readers out of their complacency. Without question, the wine industry and the conventional approach to wine tasting is worthy of criticism. Wine is too bound up in its commodity form where marketing is often prioritized over aesthetics. The system of cult wines that serve as benchmarks of quality is hollow and unsustainable. The practice of evaluating wines by taking small sips of dozens of wines in a day is an abomination except in certain contexts. No doubt, there are pockets in the wine community that put too much emphasis on conventions and typicity and approach wine as a set of rules to follow while looking askance at any deviation from tradition. In some circles, objectivity is worshiped without cognizance of its limitations in aesthetic appreciation. A reductionist approach to science is far too prominent and influential. We are often too quick to judge wine quality while devoting too little attention to exploration.

But these are correctable through a more thoughtful approach to wine, less fanboy hype, and more attention to wine’s aesthetic dimension. We don’t need to throw out hundreds of years of aesthetic experience and the enthusiasm of millions of wine lovers who have found meaning and purpose in their pursuit of wine knowledge, expertise, and the enjoyment they make possible.

So what is going on here? Why the tendentious arguments?

Epistenology’s discussion of wine is caught up in philosophy’s on-going ideological debate between representationalism and non-representationalism. The reader will forgive me if I leave out the details. (Believe me. You should forgive me.) Roughly, this is a debate between competing assessments of the effectiveness of human reason. Representationalism holds that the conceptual framework and logical relations we carry around in our minds get reality right, at least when we strive for objectivity. Non-representationalism, at least the sort that Perullo seems to endorse, holds that concepts, logic, and linguistic norms are so embedded in ideology, desire, unconscious beliefs, or processes of monumental, chaotic change that no legitimate claims to getting things right through reason can withstand scrutiny.

In Epistenology, this debate is carried out in terms of two ways of conceptualizing sensation—the optic and the haptic. The optic is associated with philosophy’s deep-seated, historical prejudice toward vision as the proper modality for the acquisition of knowledge. Optic sensation requires that objects be experienced at a distance and have stable, clearly delineated boundaries that are then reflected in stable concepts, measurable, objective space/time coordinates, and governed by rule-like principles amenable to scientific and logical analysis. By contrast, haptic sensation is associated with our sense of touch, which is more sensitive to the fluid boundaries between objects, operates without concepts, and has an intimacy that requires an empathic relation to the universe, and a relational, embedded view of space and time.

According to Perullo, the entrenched model of wine tasting is governed by an optical ideology. Since that optic ideology is profoundly mistaken, on his view, our wine tasting practices distort the power of wine to affect us haptically. Wine, he thinks, is a means through which we can get in touch with our haptic, relational selves but to do so we must leave the optic ideological framework behind.

So what to make of all of this? Well, let me put my cards on the table. I agree with Perullo’s process ontology at least in broad outline. And I agree that philosophy and, to a degree, wine tasting have ignored haptic experience. He is surely right that relationships cannot be understood by presupposing subjects and objects as irreducible domains. However, I find the epistemology of his view troubling. I doubt that our apprehension of reality can do without objects and concepts with some degree of stability. Granted the universe is constantly changing and so are we. But some things are more stable than others. Some change is rapid, and some is glacial. Stability is not an illusion. It’s a very real feature of on-going yet slow-moving processes. And I doubt that we have access to these slow-moving underlying processes except through observing objects and the changes they undergo. The idea that we can “catch a glimpse” of reality’s fundamental evolution through an empathic, touch-sensitive access to the flow of reality needs more defense than he has provided in this book. Even human relationships on a thoroughly relational model require negotiation between relationships that are constitutive of the self and those that are not.

How does this debate play out in wine? This issue is especially acute with regard to wine knowledge and tasting competence. Wine lovers are fascinated by the unpredictable differences and variations of which wine is capable. The reason why wine lovers learn about varietals, regions, winemaking strategies, and terroir is not because we worship stability and convention. It’s because we want to recognize and track those variations. You can recognize a variation only if you know that of which it is a variant. I only know this Syrah from Côte Rôtie is thrillingly different if I know what the typical Syrah from Côte Rôtie tastes like. Wine knowledge is essential because the variations of which wine is capable are infinite and the intersecting lines so complex. It is through an understanding of terroir, winemaking techniques, and the convivial, shared experience of tasting and talking about what we’re tasting that we make connections to persons, places, and their histories and the natural processes that make it all possible. It’s those connections that enthuse wine lovers and they are inaccessible without knowledge and tasting competence. Wine and wine tasting are neither static nor predictable. Continuous, unpredictable variation is the most salient characteristic of wine. But the processes change slowly enough that our tasting norms and knowledge base are seldom entirely useless.

It is fascinating and potentially fruitful that wine has the additional task that Perullo describes. Through imagination and compassionate tasting with and through wine, we gain access to a richer web of relations in the moment through which the transformations of the universe spread, collapsing the subject/object dualism that persists in our everyday experience. But this is compatible with conventional tasting and wine education. There is nothing about wine knowledge that prevents a more participatory, relational experience. Aesthetic attention is flexible enough to direct our focus where we want. My knowledge of what that Côte Rôtie tastes like in no way inhibits my using it to commune with my fellows, the soft, diffuse, evanescent moonlight, and the bees in the trees should I wish to do so.

This expansion of the kinds of experience possible with wine is well and good. The attempt to overcome dualism through an object-less experience is as old as the very ancient religions of Asia and their meditative practices. That analogous experiences can be achieved with wine adds to its allure.

But most wine lovers love wine intrinsically. The wine is the point, not its ability to deliver some other experience in which wine recedes as a focal point. Wine as an object is alive and is itself fascinating.

Despite the hyperbole, this book is a distinctive, original work with a take on wine that you will not find elsewhere, and many wine lovers will be inspired by the sweeping vision of what wine appreciation can be.

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