book learningIn the wine world there are hundreds of grape varieties used to make wine, thousands of wine regions and sub regions each providing a slightly different expression of those grape varieties, and countless methods, styles, techniques, and supporting materials also influencing what we taste in the glass.

In order to enjoy wine you don’t have to know any of that. But in order to get the most out of your wine experiences you have to know some of it, at least enough to begin to conceptualize the variations available to be tasted and set normative expectations.

The only way to learn this material is through books, podcasts, live instructors, or other cognitive aids. Sure you can taste these variations but our powers of  sensory discrimination and memory are just not up to the task of organizing and retaining the patterns of what we taste without the conceptual framework that book learning provides. You can’t note an interesting variation if you don’t know from what it is a variant. Yes, you can build this knowledge up from experience if you pay close attention, take lots of notes, and study them. But that takes decades. Of course, all that learning will not mean anything without relating it to the actual experience of the wines.

There is little evidence that expert wine tasters have greater physiological capacities to taste than non-experts or novices. What they have is book learning and experience.

What about aesthetic experience? Can wine drinkers who lack book learning have aesthetic experiences of wine? Burnham and Skilleas in their book The Aesthetics of Wine argue that the aesthetic properties of wine are unavailable to novices.

I disagree. Aesthetic experience is a matter of having a certain kind of attention—focused on the aesthetic object but searching for the widest range of properties the object can exhibit. One can approach a wine with the proper attentive attitude of wonder and fascination and thus have an aesthetic experience even if you know little of what you’re tasting. But you will miss much of what the wine has to offer because you don’t know what to look for. Novices have aesthetic experiences but they are limited to a narrow range of what a wine makes available.

In this regard, wine is like any other aesthetic object. You can enjoy a symphony by Beethoven or a song by The National without knowing anything about musical styles. But without knowledge of compositional tendencies or performance norms of the traditions in which musical artists work much of the significance of a work will pass you by.

And wine poses an additional challenge. Unlike sounds, lines, shapes and colors which are easily accessible to the senses, just there for us to see or hear, flavors and textures are much less discernible, hiding behind sensitive detection thresholds that need cognitive penetration to experience.

Wine education is essential to the health of the wine community.