Philosophy has Been Wrong About Wine for 2500 Years

the thinkerThroughout most of philosophy’s history, wine has been treated as an insignificant diversion, incapable of being beautiful and incapable of producing genuine aesthetic pleasure. The reason for this dismissive attitude is that we experience wine through taste and smell, and these were considered to be “lower senses” incapable of generating the complex cognitive content that the higher senses of hearing and vision enable. The assumption is that only objects that generate complex thoughts or stimulate the imagination can be beautiful. Even the best wine offers only sensuous pleasure.

Wine, it was argued, tells us nothing about the human condition as literature or painting does; neither does it allow us to explore our emotional responses like music does.

But these arguments won’t fly. Many great musical works tell no story and generate no train of thought. Some musical works generate emotion in listeners but many musical works, from Bach to cool jazz to modern ambient music can be enjoyed without much emotional response. Some architecture, textile art, and many abstract paintings and sculptures do not represent something or generate understanding. They may or may not stimulate the imagination or the emotions.  Surely nature can be beautiful without it representing or expressing anything.

Thus, the capacity to produce understanding or emotion cannot be a necessary condition for what counts as beauty since that would rule out many obviously beautiful works of art as well as natural objects. But if we are willing to grant that understanding and emotional response are not necessary for an object to be beautiful, then wine must qualify.

Of course, it is simply not true that wine is a purely sensuous medium without cognitive engagement. Memory is crucial to the appreciation of wine and so is knowledge of wine production and wine regions. And imagination is in part what enables us to see a wine as whole. We recognize properties such as “tension”, “elegant”, or brooding, only via the imagination. Wine engages the whole person including one’s mind.

Philosophy has been wrong about wine for 2500 years.

One comment

  1. For many of those 2500 years wine was not treated as a diversion so much as a revered and holy product–the nectar of the gods, the drink of immortality, or the blood of Christ. It was a sacred beverage in so many societies, and often restricted to an elite class. It wasn’t considered art because it was considered a product of nature, not of the hand of man. We don’t see references to many winemakers in the ancient world (aside from the amphorae in Egyptian tombs) but we often see references to regions, rather than individuals. Wine was perceived as a product of the natural world of the region, not as a creation of man. In this way wine was seen as closer closer to jamon iberico than a da Vinci or Beethoven Symphony.

    It’s hard to argue that a Vidalia onion is art.

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