We usually think of wine tasting as a perceptual experience which then produces an experience of pleasure or displeasure depending on your reaction to the wine. It can also be a cognitive experience in which you employ knowledge and memory assess whether a wine is typical of its type, similar or different from other wines you’ve tasted, etc. But I think this picture of wine tasting is not quite right because it leaves imagination out of the picture.
There is a good deal of disagreement among philosophers and psychologists about what the imagination is but there is some consensus that imagination is a speculative mental state that allows us to consider situations that are not immediately in front of us in the here and now.
It’s obvious that wine tasting involves the imagination. Although it may be true that appreciating and identifying aromas of cassis, mushroom, and cedar is a largely perceptual experience, assessing whether a wine is balanced or not requires holding an image of the various components of the wine in mind while assessing their relative intensity. All of the refined assessments of wine—finesse, nuance, harmony, distinctiveness, and development on the palate require creating and holding that image in mind and that requires imagination. In fact any holistic assessment would be impossible without forming an image of how the component fit together in one’s mind.
But imagination can play a more extensive role in wine appreciation. Wine can provoke images of places and things. The salinity of a good Chablis may evoke images of the seashore, the smell of rosemary and lavender in a Rhone blend may make you imagine the south of France. Since wine reflects features of the place in which the grapes were grown it naturally evokes images of those sources. This is one of the pleasures of wine.
John Dilworth in his article in Wine and Philosophy argues for a more creative use of the imagination.
Drinking a glass or more of a wine, I claim, involves a series of related imaginative improvisations, in which the common theme of the sensory qualities of the wine is subject to a variety of spontaneous variations, each involving a different kind or kinds of sophisticated imaginative processing of the same sensory data. On this view, drinking a wine is not like experiencing a previously finished artwork, but instead it is an exploratory, spontaneous activity in which you yourself are the artist or creator of what you experience. In these respects it is like the fertile activity of a jazz artist as he creatively improvises on a standard jazz tune, or, more specifically, like the spontaneous, try-anything creativity of an actor in an improvisatory theater production, who decides herself what to say at any moment rather than following a pre-existing script.
Because of the “mildly hallucinogenic” influence of the alcohol which loosens inhibitions and makes this “imaginative improvisatory theater” available to us, Dilworth argues that wine provides us with “sensory themes” that we use to engage in imaginative play. He is not explicit about what form this takes—that is apparently up to each individual–and he admits that many people may not engage with wine in this way. However, he suggests if we don’t do so we aren’t getting the full experience of what wine has to offer.
I am broadly sympathetic to Dilworth’s argument. In my wine reviews I use sensory features of the wine to suggest emotions and personality traits that can be attributed to the wine. Wine is expressive and we are missing important aesthetic features of the wine if we ignore it. But I have one reservation. Dilworth suggests there need be no constraints on the imagination when engaging in this “improvisatory theater”. He calls it “spontaneous, try-anything creativity” and at one point asserts “the drinker’s improvisatory freedom in experiencing the wine has no restrictions beyond his own spontaneous current preferences.”
Of course, people are free to play with wine as they see fit. But if you’re interested in exploring the wine, its nuances, and potential for aesthetic engagement the imaginative play must be about the wine, not some thoroughly private fantasy unrelated to the wine. Dilworth is right that wines have sensory themes, but it’s that sensory theme that constrains one’s creative interpretations.
Consider an analogy. The meaning of song lyrics is often obscure and notoriously difficult to interpret. You could take a song , for instance, the Beatle’s I am a Walrus, to mean anything you want it to mean, without regard for the actual lyrics. But then you are no longer interpreting the song and the whole enterprise seems pointless.
Interpreting what a wine is expressing would similarly be pointless if you ignore the sensory theme and simply make stuff up. Legitimate interpretation must reveal something about the object being interpreted, not the mental state of the interpreter.
But aside from that disagreement, Dilworth is right. There is an ample role for the imagination when reading a wine.