One of the most important debates in the philosophy is about the degree to which specialized knowledge about varietals, regions, or production methods is necessary in order appreciate a wine. Do I have to know the Syrah I’m tasting is from form Hermitage in order to fully appreciate it? David Sackris in an essay entitled “What Jancis Robinson Didn’t Know May Have Helped Her” argues that knowledge does not contribute to the taste experience.
He argues that the thesis that wine knowledge is necessary for appreciation “does not appear to be well-supported by the way wine lovers discuss some of their early experiences with fine wine. For example, world-renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson says in her memoir:”
Like so many wine lovers before and since, I found my love affair ignited by a single, outstanding, and still memorable bottle of red burgundy. Even though you might have spent years swigging ordinary commercial stuff of varying degrees of deliciousness, it takes just one sniff and sip of something in a completely different class….that there is more in every way in an incontrovertibly fine wine…this is a completely different experience from drinking a normal wine (1997, p. 27)
Since Robinson at that time did not have extensive wine knowledge, yet she was apparently able to recognize the quality of this particular red burgundy, Sackris argues that wine knowledge is not required in order to appreciate wine quality. To hold the view that wine knowledge is necessary for appreciation one would have to assert that Robinson was in fact not appreciating the wine.
But by itself Robinson’s report of her experience does not support the claim that wine knowledge is not necessary for appreciation. To my knowledge, no one argues that one can’t enjoy wine or recognize quality distinctions without wine knowledge. All it takes is attentive drinking over time to be able to make basic discriminations about wine quality. The question is whether one can fully appreciate wine without wine knowledge. It’s a matter of degree.
It seems to me wine knowledge enables two dimensions of appreciation:
(1) It sets expectations which can sometimes help us recognize features of a wine we might otherwise not notice. For instance, I find the peppery aromas of Syrah are sometimes hard to detect. If I know I’m drinking Syrah and I know Syrah often has a pepper aroma, I’m more likely to notice it than if I lacked that knowledge. That does not mean it’s impossible for a novice to sense pepper. Only that they are less likely to without the knowledge of Syrah’s flavor profile.
And (2) part of aesthetic appreciation is knowing the significance of what you are tasting. What does a particular aroma profile tell you about the wine you’re tasting? How does that influence your judgment about the wine? How does that influence your appreciation of other wines to which the present wine is to be compared?
Thus wine knowledge is essential for a full appreciation of wine.
To be fair to Sackris, he doesn’t base his argument solely on the kinds of experiences Robinson reported in her memoir. His argument depends on a more complex argument about the relationship between cognition and pleasure which I will discuss in a future post.