Interpreting a Wine is Like Interpreting a Work of Art

munch the screamPhilosophers who think wine and food cannot be works of art often argue that smell and taste, unlike the visual arts and music, don’t provide a representation of reality. The now deceased Roger Scruton was one prominent skeptic of wine as art despite being an avid wine lover. But his argument (in this anthology) ignores basic facts of wine tasting that even a novice taster would understand.

Scruton’s argument is based on three claims:

(1) Tastes and smells are free-floating qualities independent of the objects that cause them;

(2) The apprehensions of smells and tastes are non-conceptual. We can detect a taste or flavor, for instance chocolate, without conceptualizing it as chocolate. Thus, tastes and flavors are not representations of anything and therefore lack intrinsic meaning;

(3) And, as a result, descriptions of tastes and smells are excessively subjective and arbitrary because they are not constrained by reality.

The upshot is that valid interpretations, as we typically find in the art world, are impossible in the world of food and wine, according to Scruton.

I have argued in a previous post that (1) is false but (2) and (3) must be addressed as well.

Scruton defends (2) and (3) as follows:

When I see a table I also see it as a table (in the normal case). In describing my experience I am describing a visual world, in terms of concepts that are in some sense applied in the experience and not deduced from it. Now taste and smell are not like that….I might say of the ice-cream in my hand that it tastes of chocolate or that it can taste like chocolate, but not that I taste it as chocolate as though taste were in itself a form of judgment. The distinction here is reflected in the difference between the cogent accounts of paintings given by critics, and the far-fetched and whimsical descriptions of wines given by the likes of Robert Parker. Winespeak is in some way ungrounded.”

Apparently what Scruton has in mind is that chocolate ice cream causes me to have a chocolate-like sensation. But no judgment, understanding, or interpretation is required.  I just perceive chocolate without assembling various sensations into a rule-governed, conceptual representation of the object.  I doubt that this captures our understanding of chocolate ice cream. But I will leave that for another time. He surely misunderstands wine tasting and makes an utter mystery out of ordinary wine talk, which in clear cases is just as cogent as talk about tables or art.

The reason I see a table as a table (rather than an assortment of properties such as flat surface, rectangular surface, 4 supporting legs, walnut, etc.)  is because I’ve acquired the concept of “table” through a history of participation in a linguistic community in which the concept of “table” is consistently deployed. When I’ve mastered the norms of that community, I have the concept of “table”.

A similar conceptual formation occurs in various contexts when tasting wine. When blind tasting, my ability to interpret a medium-body wine with apple, roasted pear, and pineapple flavors as a Chardonnay is through participation in a community of wine tasters with established norms regarding the appropriate concept to apply to that flavor profile. Similarly, when evaluating wine non-blind, the ability to judge a Chardonnay as typical of or an ideal example of its provenance and vintage again requires assembling various sensations under a concept of what such a Chardonnay should taste like.

Novice wine tasters begin to learn to apply the concept of “Chardonnay” by tentatively pulling together various sensory experiences and using background knowledge they’ve been taught about wine varieties. But experienced tasters use a robust conceptual model of what Chardonnay should taste like. In clear cases, identifying a Chardonnay is no more difficult for experienced tasters than identifying a table is for ordinary language users and is no less a judgment in which a concept is applied in the experience.

Judging a wine to be harmonious, balanced, or elegant involves  even more complex conceptual formations. These features are not simple sensations caused by chemical properties of the wine which are detected on the palate, but involve drawing off from considerable past experience a concept of what it means for various types of wines to be harmonious, balanced, or elegant.

In other words, tasting wine at this level is not a mere detection of a property but an interpretation based on the possession of a concept.

There is an important difference between the concept of “table” and the concept of “Chardonnay”. The possibilities of error and the existence of borderline cases are much greater when applying the concept of “Chardonnay”. Some un-oaked Chardonnays taste like a (poorly made) Sauvignon Blanc; others from very ripe fruit may have the weight of a German Pinot Gris.  Flavors often lack clarity and winemakers have the tools to manipulate grapes to mask their intrinsic qualities. But this has nothing to do with the inability of tastes and flavors to form the basis of conceptual content.

If we lived in a visual world blanketed in perpetual, thick fog, the error rate for applying visual concepts would skyrocket. But the concept of “table” would be no less a concept. Conceptual clarity is one thing, conceptual content quite another.

Aesthetic concepts used in judging wine such as complexity, balance, and elegance are no less cogent than concepts used in judging art.

One central element in the appreciation of any work of art is that the work demands interpretation.  Works of art are about something and what they are about, their meaning, is often not directly perceivable in the work but must be the product of judgment. We apply concepts to the work in light of properties of the art object, or in light of evidence about what the artist was trying to accomplish.

We do the same with wine. There is nothing odd about a claim that I interpret a wine as elegant just as I might interpret the Mona Lisa as mysterious or Munch’s The Scream as a vision of modern angst.

The greater puzzle is why such mundane observations about wine escape the attention of philosophers.

This is an edited and updated version of a post from 2012.

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