Shameless Self-Promotion

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Coming Soon:

cover 1

Jacket Copy:

Wine is more than a beverage. Like great works of art, the most interesting wines have originality, dynamism, emotional resonance, and personality. Discover how wine can be so expressive in this remarkable philosophical romp through the aesthetics of wine production and wine appreciation.

Previous work on the philosophy of wine has shown wine to be an important source of aesthetic experiences. “Beauty and the Yeast” takes this argument in surprising new directions. It analyzes wine as an expressive, living organism that challenges our assumptions about creativity, beauty, good taste, and objectivity, and explains why the changing landscape of wine requires that we rethink the role of established wine traditions. The book offers unique philosophical insights into the nature of wine appreciation, wine language, and wine criticism, and explores a novel approach to wine tasting that reveals our emotional attachment to wine.

Written to appeal to thoughtful wine lovers with no background in philosophy. After reading, you will never taste wine the same way again.

Thanks to all of you who made suggestions about the cover. I chose this one because it is eye-catching, unique, and captures the book’s theme—wine’s vitality, its similarity to a living organism, explains wine’s aesthetic appeal.

Also, coming soon—a redesign of the blog.

This week marks the 9th anniversary of Edible Arts. Time for a new look.

There are Two Wine Industries. We Need to Stop Conflating Their Interests.

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airline wineI’m sure Robert Joseph is correct when he argues, in Wine Business International, that emerging wine regions will sell more wine by planting International varieties rather than indigenous grapes.

Did you hear about how Hilton, Sheraton and Hyatt will no longer offer international breakfast options in their Tokyo hotels, and how they will restrict their morning menus to typical Japanese fare such as steamed rice, miso soup, fermented soya beans, pickles and dried seaweed? No?

That’s hardly surprising because it’s fake news. I made it up.

Those hotels, like their Japanese-owned competitors, the Imperial and Grand Nikko, would never dream of doing anything like that – they know many guests expect to start their day with toast, cereal, muesli or fried egg and bacon.

To survive economically, big hotel groups need to give their customers what they like, rather than what they think they ought to like.

That’s the same rationale behind Turkish Airlines pouring Turkish Chardonnay and Syrah on their flights, rather than indigenous Turkish grape varieties. They need to keep huge numbers of passengers happy.

In answer to the question does the world need another Starbucks, more thoughts from Kim Kardashian, or more plantings of Chardonnay, Robert happily looks at the sales numbers and says why of course.

But that ignores the interests of the rest of the industry.  I can’t find a reliable assessment of how many wineries there are in the world. But there are almost 10,000 bonded wineries in the U.S. and the U.S. is only the fourth largest producer, well behind France, Italy, and Spain. Suffice it to say there are probably several hundred thousand commercial wineries around the globe. The vast majority of them are not selling wines to hotels, airlines, or grocery chains.

If everyone is making Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Syrah, 90% of these wineries have no reason to exist. The vast majority of the wineries in the world don’t have to keep the hordes happy. They need to build local markets and give wine enthusiasts a reason to seek out their wines. To do that they need to offer wines that are distinctive, and that means indigenous varietals must be part of the mix.

The idea that the wine world could flourish with a few mega producers selling generic juice to business travelers is absurd.

Yes, there is a market for industrial wine, and there is no reason why emerging regions shouldn’t participate. But there is a whole other wine industry out there that defines the culture of wine. What works for industrial wine doesn’t work for them.

Blind Tasting Cannot Block all Biases

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blind tastingBlind tasting is considered to be the gold standard of wine evaluation. And the reason for its status is that it allegedly blocks the biases that come from any preconceptions we might have about a wine. There is no question that our prior beliefs about what we taste can influence and distort our perceptions. If we know and admire the producer or know the wine we are tasting is costly we might view the wine in a more positive light. The influence of confirmation bias and other mistakes in reasoning are well documented.

It stands to reason that if we can block these potential biases through blind tasting our evaluations are more likely to be accurate. They prevent us from honestly assessing what our perceptions tell us. But that is only true if in fact blind can succeed at blocking prior beliefs. And that does not seem to be the case. Blind tasting blocks some ways of acquiring prior beliefs about a wine. But as philosopher Jonathan Cohen argues:

What distinguishes blind from sighted tasting is that the former prohibits the taster from employing specific sources of information about the perceptual object (say, from the shape of the bottle, the words on the label, testimony about the methods of production). But this leaves it open that the blind taster might come to hold the very same beliefs about the perceptual object by other means — specifically, as a result of perception and perceptually informed inference — and that those beliefs might subsequently affect her perceptual experience.

What Cohen has in mind is this:

Suppose I dislike Merlot and suppose, unbeknownst to me, the wine I am blind tasting is, in fact, a Merlot. If I am adept at blind tasting, I will correctly judge the wine is a Merlot and my prejudice against Merlot will still then shape my judgment about its quality. In this case, a prior belief is still negatively affecting my judgement about wine quality. Yet I am forming my distorted judgment based on evidence that blind tasting allows—my inference that it is a Merlot. The reasons for wanting to block a bias from influencing my judgment when tasting with no blinders are also reasons for wanting to block bias when tasting blind. So blind tasting fails to prevent my biases from informing my judgment.

Cohen also describes another case in which blind tasting fails.

It has been well established that our perceptual responses to a stimulus are influenced by contrasts with other stimuli we experience at the same time. In the context of wine tasting, how we perceive a wine is influenced by other wines we taste it with. Blind tasting has no ability to block this kind of distorting influence in which our impression of a wine is influenced by something other than that wine.

The only way to block the influence of perceptual contrast is to taste something neutral, such as water, between sampling each wine to be blind tasted. This, of course, is easily accomplished but I doubt that blind tasters are always careful enough to cleanse their palate after each wine.

Thus, blind tasting is not a comprehensive solution to worries about biases.

Wine Review: Paul Achs Edelgrund Blaufränkisch Burgenland 2016

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paul aschOne of Austria’s signature red grapes, this Blaufränkisch hails from the  Neusiedlersee district of Burgenland. “Edelgrund” is the name of the vineyard.

This wine is marked by fresh, assertive acidity melding with a linear, angular mineral seam that anchors the wine from beginning to end. Juicy but thin with tart, citrus notes, the spare fruit gradually recedes as the ample powdery tannins become increasingly prominent, launching a invigorating, turbulent battle on the finish won by the forces of peace. Aromas of black cherry and wild herbs laced with barnyard and crushed rock complete the image of a reckless moment tamed by cooler heads.

On the lighter side of medium bodied, the urgent, penetrating top notes give this wine a flash of ferocity until the shapely tannins wrestle it to the ground. Serve with a goulash but make the music jangly and urgent like U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love)

Technical Notes: Aged for 12 months in a combination of used Burgundian pièce and large French and Austrian oak casks.

Score: 90

Price: $27

Alc: 12.5%

“I Like it” Doesn’t Capture the Meaning of Beauty

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vega siciliaIn aesthetics it is crucial that we distinguish liking something from finding it beautiful. I might judge an ordinary Chianti to be a good wine because I like it. But a beautiful wine—Screaming Eagle, Vega Sicilia, Chateau Margaux—is not beautiful merely because I like it more than the ordinary Chianti. The idea of “liking” or “finding it pleasing” doesn’t capture the aesthetic value of great wines or extraordinary works of art.

The problem is to say what that difference amounts to. One common way of marking this distinction is to claim that beautiful wines or works of art are beautiful because we judge them to be valuable in themselves. The beautiful objects have value not just because we like them; we like them because they have intrinsic value. We value them for their own sake.

But this way of describing the nature of beauty doesn’t quite work. It suggests that the object has value over and above any experience of it. To the contrary, one would think that a beautiful object has value because it causes our experience of beauty. The value resides in our relationship with the object and its impact on us. Thus, the object cannot be valuable in itself.

It’s for our sake that we enjoy beauty. The experience of beauty is pleasurable and part of the reason we value beauty is because of the pleasure it brings.

I think the best way of thinking about this is that certain kinds of pleasure involve more than simply “liking something”. In addition to finding them enjoyable, beautiful objects demand something of us. They embody a standard that we have to strive to fully perceive or understand.

Ice cream is pleasurable but it doesn’t demand something of us. Great wines or works of art by contrast merit our attention—we feel we have to be true to them and we can fail in this endeavor. It’s that sense of merit just beyond our reach, the sense that we are being guided by the object, that makes something beautiful.

We take pleasure in being so guided but it has little to do with “liking”.

Philosophers Sometimes Say Dumb Things about Taste

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philosophersThe recently deceased Roger Scruton was a highly regarded philosopher and wine connoisseur who wrote one of the seminal books on the philosophy of wine. But despite his obvious love for wine, he sometimes took a bizarrely dismissive approach to wine’s aesthetic potential.

Here is one such argument. He writes,

“…smells cannot be organized as sounds are: Put them together and they mingle, losing their character. […] They remain free-floating and unrelated, unable to generate expectation,tension, harmony, suspension, or release.” (I Drink: Therefore, I Am, 122)

I have never understood this argument. In paintings brush strokes mingle and lose their individual character. So do notes in a musical chord. Are we to then conclude that paintings and symphonies cannot be aesthetic objects either?

Furthermore, tastes and smells are hardly free floating and “unrelated”. Some wines are harmonious because their components fit together well. Wine and food pairing could not work if tastes and smells were “free floating” and “unrelated.” Flavor pairing theory shows there are in fact systematic relations between flavors based on shared chemical compounds. And how a wine evolves on the palate generates expectations and tension.

Why would a philosopher makes such easily refutable remarks? In Scruton’s case it’s ideological commitments, a desire to characterize aesthetics in terms of reason rather than sensuous enjoyment.

Philosophers are as easily fooled by ideology as anyone else.

Traveling in a Bubble

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bubble carI have spent the past 9 days trekking across the county. Tomorrow we arrive at our destination—Asheville, North Carolina. This is the 8th year in which my wife and I have spent summer and fall in constant motion. To say this year is different would be a vast understatement.

Lynn has family business to take care of in Asheville. I did some research on virus transmission on airplanes and quickly ruled out a plane flight. A strict quarantine is absolutely necessary.

So we travel by RV. No winery visits. No restaurants. No art museums. No ball games. No strolling through city streets. No botanical gardens, national parks, or wildlife preserves. No photo ops.

We pull our kitchen full of provisions and a bathroom. We fuel only where credit card transactions happen at the pump. Most campgrounds have  remote check-in.

I have not spoken to anyone except for my wife in 9 days. The only excitement is anticipating which song my Pandora stations will play next.

In two weeks we turn around and do it in the opposite direction.

This is a pure form of travel where only the motion matters.

Wine Review: Harrington Wines Mourvèdre El Dorado County 2016

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harrington mourvedreThis feels like a last testament. Harrington Wines has been a fixture in the San Francisco artisanal wine scene since 2002. They specialized in unusual varietals not often found in California. Unfortunately, they closed up shop in 2018, but there are still some bottles floating around and they’re always worth your attention.

This Mourvèdre shows an exotic blue fruit/red fruit medley with a marked scent of red licorice. Some freshly turned earth lurks in the background mingling with a faint echo of Mourvèdre’s characteristic animal vapors.

Luscious, seductive and moaning with melody up front, it acquires a stony, mineral layer at midpalate and the wine is transformed into something more resolute with very firm, thick tannins giving it a sinewy strength that creeps up on you with a series of deliberate, muted undulations. On the finish, the fruit power keeps the faith along with a lovely mineral trace but it’s that virile structural strength that wins the battle as if it’s sardonically commenting on its earlier self.

A shapeshifter with charm and fortitude, darkly mysterious and animalic like Black Mambo by Glass Animals.

Technical Notes: Grapes were from the  Suma Kaw Vineyard in El Dorado County, an organic, dry-farmed vineyard at about 3000’ of elevation.

Score: 92

Price: $33 [Later vintages available here]

Alc. 13.2%

Vote On the Book Cover

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My book on the philosophy of wine is still on track for a mid-November release. I’ve been plugging away at editing for the past several weeks; next week I send it off to a professional editor for fine-tuning.

I also have to decide on a book cover. My book designer sent me several ideas for the cover but I’m having trouble deciding. Do I go with the most visually appealing cover or the cover that best reflects the themes of the book? Do I play it safe or chose something outside the box?

You guys can help me. Here are the best options. Which one makes you want to buy the book? Let me know in comments.

barrel        sunburst   bottles  corkscrew  cork-and-grapes

We Should Get Rid of Typicity as a Criterion of Wine Quality

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wine evaluationOne of my pet peeves in the wine world is the outsized role typicity plays in judging wine quality.

Wine education is largely about understanding what a typical Barolo, Left Bank Bordeaux, or Mosel Riesling is supposed to taste like. That’s fine. The entrance fee for any community is to understand the norms of that community. The wine world is organized around the distinctive flavors from these canonical regions and you can’t claim to know wine without understanding these flavor profiles.

But why is typicity a criterion for wine quality? Why do judges and critics downgrade wines that aren’t typical of their region? What matters in the wine world is distinctive variation. We seek out regions, sub-regions, and  vineyards capable of producing wines with a distinctive signature and identity. But then we turn around and insist that a wine must be typical of its region if it is to earn the highest accolades. These goals are in some tension with each other.  If we really value distinctiveness it’s hard to see how typicity could be of equal value. If a wine is typical, it isn’t quite distinctive.

If you happen to own a vineyard with an unusual soil composition that gives you atypical flavors, why should your wines be punished by judges for being atypical? As a winemaker, why should you be forced to “edit out” that distinctiveness in order to conform to what authorities deem is the proper expression of the grapes you’re using?

The over-reliance on typicity guarantees that most wines from a region will be generic. Instead of encouraging differentiation, typicity encourages mediocrity.

Simon J. Woolf made a similar point recently regarding the tasting panels that some regions employ to enforce conformity to an accepted flavor profile.

Typicity serves the needs of people who enjoy the game of deducing the region and varietal based on tasting wines blind. Without typicity, it would be impossible to establish the decision trees that blind tasters use to draw their conclusions. Most wine experts were trained using this deductive model of blind tasting; it is an effective way of sharpening your senses. But by elevating typicity to a criterion for wine quality we’ve transformed an instructional method into an aesthetic goal.

The result is fewer interesting wines.