Good wine needs no bush

Sometimes we humans are abysmally reductionist, more concerned with the components than the entity of which they are a part, making judgments on details rather than experience. As if the pain were the injury, a wave the ocean, a leaf the tree.

I am an expert on few of the things I experience, and yet they become a part of me, if only during the encounter. For the most part, I do not reduce them to their constituents before I decide whether or not I have enjoyed them, nor do I usually require to know the ingredients of a dish, or how it was prepared. I am too much in the moment of the experience, perhaps -for me the mystery of enjoyment does not demand dissection; it is not a knowledge thing. It is a feeling.

For some time now, I have wondered whether this was a defect on my part -something for which I should feel ashamed, or even guilty that I am often able, like the apocryphal Epicurean, to experience with my body something that I should be referring to my brain. To savour with no further need for analysis.

It was with some relief, therefore, that I came across an essay that seemed to understand my concerns. It was written by Nicola Perullo, a professor of aesthetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. Its title, ‘There is more to the experience of wine than its taste alone’, seemed to encapsulate something I’ve felt yet dared not mention to those oenophilic friends who advertised their credentials with every sip, and demonstrated their sophistication with each knowing sniff as they expertly swirled the wine around in their glass to prove it.

‘Thanks to the widespread influence of the University of California at Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology (founded in 1880), the wine-tasting clique promotes an approach in which proximal senses replace distal senses, with the goal of providing unbiased, ‘objective’ evaluations. Tasting wine consists in airing it, examining it, sniffing it, sipping it – and then, of course, spitting it all out. This method is now widely considered to be the ‘correct’ approach to appreciating, describing and valuing wine… [It] relies on the illusion of objectivity between the judge and the judged; it is a scientistic model that stresses the importance of analysis. The ‘taste’ of tasting is a paradigm based on the presumed neutrality of nonparticipation at a distance.’

But can taste ever be objective to the taster? ‘Consider the verb ‘to taste’: it isolates a single sense from the complete act of drinking. The overall ambiance in which drinking takes place is divided and split… The context, the process, the duration, the whole experience – of the wine and of the drinking – disappear… There is nothing that is only in the glass because what is in it is always also outside it. That is, wine can never be torn out of the world in which it’s drunk.’ In a sense, one drinks with wine. I like that.

Perullo, a true oenophile, unfortunately neologizes the concept, therefore adding yet another insider word with which we commoners must cope: epistenology: from ‘epistemology’ -knowledge, and ‘ontology’ -being. Oh yes, and did I mention its proximity to ‘oenology’, the study of wines? Clever, I suppose, but not one I would ever dare use without feeling I was losing the audience.

Most people at a restaurant are there to enjoy themselves and the company, not to burden themselves with pedanticisms.  Would the average diner, drinking whatever wine the waiter suggested, care as Perullo no doubt does, that ‘Epistenology is a holistic, relational and sympathetic perspective that relies on the idea that knowledge is participatory being-with. This entails that a wine doesn’t exist in the way that a fixed, objectified ontology would suppose.’ The context in which it is consumed -the company, the meal, the novelty of being away from the kids for a while -is what really matters for most of us.

Perullo does manage to extricate himself somewhat from his pedagogical minefield though, when he observes that ‘wine is neither an object nor a category. Wine is its encounters.’ Actually, he implied that right at the beginning of his essay had I been astute enough to see it.

But, when he eventually returns to his theme -‘Approaching wine as a process requires abandoning classical and familiar standards of taste… Let’s consider it not an object to be measured but an encounter to be experienced,’- he can’t resist his day job.

‘Instead of the optics of taste’, he goes on, ‘I suggest a haptic approach. Haptic taste perceives the material of wine even before the eye has identified it as a stable object; the wine consists of aromas, acidities, alcohol and defined geographies. It is an encounter through touch, a blending of surfaces and substances, just as I am in turn.’ Really? Would I ever dare say that to friends even if I understood it?

No, but what I might get away with is something like ‘Wine is never just itself. It is I who encounter it with you, within our surroundings in which all the things of the world are flowing. When we say: ‘I liked this wine more today than last time,’ what we’re saying is not that ‘the wine’ has changed but that the entanglement has changed – and that we have changed with the wine.’ I might get away with that for the second bottle, I suppose.

In fact, I tried it on Aurthur, down at the pub the other day. “Do you realize that we have become entangled with the wine?” I’m not really sure what made me say it, but I went on to add that no doubt we had also changed with the wine.

He stared at me for a moment, also unsure of what to make of what I’d said. Then, with conspicuous wrinkles slowly forming on his forehead, he put his wine back on the table and leaned across the table towards me -the pub’s patio was quite noisy at the time. “I’m happily married, G,” he said, obviously embarrassed. And then, after his blush had faded, dignity returned and he straightened up. “But thank you…”

I’ve decided to let wine speak for itself from now on. It is what it is, eh?


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