Yesterday, it was Thanksgiving Thursday in the United States. On Thanksgiving Day, I often think about wine. It is a day many associate with the drink. Beaujolais Nouveau, a bland and generic vin du primeur, is released in the week leading up to the holiday and, thanks to a marketing strategy straight from the house of De Beers, promoted as the traditional Thanksgiving wine. For me though, it is the memories of spicy Burgundies and rich Bandols that are hard to shake.
As a committed wino, I think about wine quite often, but yesterday I thought about thinking about wine. A school boy error, perhaps. Most authors of books about wine I have read would, no doubt, reproach me. Wine is about unabashed hedonism, they say, not a subject for jejune philosophising or ersatz self-seriousness.
That, at least, has been the response by some of the wine establishment to the recent uptick of interest in the ‘philosophy of wine’. Clive Coates, whose books on Burgundy, though idiosyncratic, have taught me a great deal, called a recent collection of philosophical essays on wine ‘a load of pretentious rubbish, and not very elegantly or comprehensibly expressed at that’.
Mr Coates may not think philosophy has much to do with wine, and, at least in part, it is hard to disagree. The word ‘philosophy’ has been diluted to the point where its commonest use is preceded by the word ‘my’ and followed some deeply boring and yet, still horrifying, life story couched in the form of sage advice. It is easy to think that calling a book ‘the philosophy of wine’ contributes to the difficulty those with an interest in philosophy have in explaining what philosophers actually do.
Mr Coates is mistaken in one respect, however, because the value of thinking about wine, to my mind, does not lie in what philosophical enquiry tells us about wine, but in what we can learn about philosophical questions from wine. The intensity of the perceptual experience of tasting wine makes it a wonderful window into all sorts of traditional philosophical concerns, including whether and, in what way, sense experience can be objective. Does my experience of drinking Romanée-Conti (how I wish!) differ from yours? If its perceptual presentation is indeed unique to me, is there such thing as a shared experience? Can I adequately express the experience in language? What role should wine, and its unruly bedfellow, drunkenness play in the good society?
These are not new questions, of course. Plato talks about how the taste of wine is relative, insofar as it tastes bitter to the sick but sweet to the healthy in the Theaetetus and mounts a vigorous defence of moderate drinking in the first book of the Laws. Many of the fascinating ironies of wine were noticed by the Greeks and Romans. The strange way a drink used to generate forgetfulness exploits memory to create pleasure as the drinker recalls previous sips and the tension between wine’s humble agricultural origins and its power of transcendence were both quickly recognised. This is hardly surprising; human beings all over the globe have been very good at figuring out how to ferment sugary fruit. Even monkeys have gotten in on the game.
What I am interested in is whether there is any ancient analogue for what constitutes the greatest part of the enjoyment that I take in drinking wine: the unique experience of the connection between the drinker and the place and time of the wine’s production. I don’t mean to suggest that the communal pleasures of drinking are unimportant, but rather that the solitary contemplation of a wine’s origin and means of production is a different, often more intense experience.
Wine, unlike nearly all the agricultural products we consume, is traceable, sometimes with extraordinary precision. Some of the great Burgundies can be traced back to a single row of vines, sometimes to even a handful of plants. The age of the vines, the exact method of their cultivation, the number of grapes clusters per vine, and the dates of their harvest (sometimes down to its hour) are all available to those interested.
This information gives a spark to the imagination. I recently tasted (just a few sips) a famous wine, a 1959 Chateau L’Evangile. Thinking about wine while you drink it is a bit like reading Wikipedia: there is a lot of jumping from one strand to the next, making the chain appear slightly ludicrous in retrospect. You began from the Battle of Saipan and ended up on the history of the ukulele. Tasting this wine, I thought first of my mother (five years old at the time of the vintage) and wondered if she was enjoying kindergarten, before jumping to a memory of her childhood home and a playground nearby where I once illegally consumed wine of far inferior quality. The thoughts seem arbitrary but often seem to lead back to where you began.
Did the Greeks or Romans think about wine in quite this way? Was the time and place of a wine’s origin an impetus to this sort of contemplation? I don’t mean whether they appreciated certain vineyards and vintages; there is plenty of evidence that they did. Many will remember from Latin class the infamous Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satryicon and his 100 year old Falernian from Opimius’ vintage. Certainly the age of the wine provokes Trimalchio to remark that wine lives longer than man and that ‘vita vinum est’.
What I doubt is that Trimalchio (if we were to generously allow that he was a genuine wine lover and not merely a pompous fool) would recognise the wine obsessive of today. Falernian wine may have been Rome’s most famous and Falerno’s mid-slopes, owned by Sulla’s son, Faustus, may have been the most prized appellation, but this information is simply not specific enough. I doubt Trimalchio would have impressed anyone if he knew which direction the best slopes faced or if the grapes were de-stemmed prior to fermentation.
What I suspect is that the fetishisation of wine and its manufacture, in the way I have described, is a modern business spurred on by technological achievement in two, different respects. One is that the production of wine has been radically transformed in the last century. Instruments that measure temperature, sugar, and alcohol content have been invented. Temperature control and carefully selected strains of yeast are standard tools in the winery. The origins of faulty wine (largely bacteria and oxygen) have been discovered. Modern wine lovers are usually horrified to hear that wine was watered down, often by a large ratio, in the ancient world. But given that a great deal of the wine consumed would have been faulty to some extent, it is hardly surprising.
All of this development has led to greater complexity as well to greater interest in the decisions of the wine maker. At times, there seems little difference between the passionate wine obsessive and the Sabermetrics devotee in the bleachers.
The second respect is one, I think, some Greeks and Romans would recognise: the yearning for the countryside and its imagined purity by those divorced from the land.
What I think ties together diverse attitudes to wine, however, is the faith in its power to create contemplative space. It is philosophical because it nourishes enquiry and, paradoxically, by connecting the drinker to a specific time and place encourages the most universal of questions.