Archive for March 24th, 2011


On Cain Todd’s The Philosophy of Wine

The Literal Metaphor: The Expressions of Wine, or How to Express Your Experiences with Wine

How many time have you smelled or tasted a wine that you just weren’t properly able to describe? Either you couldn’t identify a taste or smell or you couldn’t apprehend or explain your experience. For instance, just recently I was drinking Codice Vindo de la Tierra de Castilla Red Wine 2008. It was a good wine, but there were two interesting developments in my experience with it. One, I couldn’t quite discern what grapes were in the wine. It’s labelled a red wine, so I assumed a blend. I picked up Tempranillo, but I also assumed Carignane because of some herbs and Merlot because of some cherry. Two, I was also missing a flavor, or a descriptor for it. As soon as someone read the back label, “black currant,” I was “Yes. That’s it. Yum.” Then a little research told me the wine was 100% Tempranillo. What did these experiences tell me? You need other people to help you experience wine, and the more experiences with experiencing wine, the better enjoyment you will have with wine and you’ll be better able to express your enjoyment with wine. This is what Cain Todd’s The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty, and Intoxication (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) gets into – experience and expression.

The Philosophy of WineConcerning descriptions of wine, Todd asks:

Whether the words used to characterize wine can be anchored more or less firmly in objective properties of the wine, or perhaps in objective properties of our shared experiences of it. What, if anything, separates the appropriate from the absurd? (p 47)

In order to determine, Todd gets into the “many different ways in which we attribute smells and tastes to wine” (p 48). Here, I suddenly feel like Todd has struck a chord with me. I feel like I’m reading Ezra Pound’s essays “A Retrospect” and “How to Read” because Todd lists and describes the distinctions like Pound has his lists and distinctions for poetry and the translation of poetry. Todd’s distinctions are: descriptive, evaluative, literal, and metaphorical. To me, this sounds like Pound’s Melopoeia, Phanopoeia, and Logopoeia. I think these distinctions should all be used when describing a wine. Todd agrees, too, as he writes, “For we are no interested in naming but in meaningfully describing” wines (p 54). Which is to say, when describing a wine, the metaphor “grounds” the literal. In other words, there are distinctions and expressions of those distinctions.

Todd also points out the difficulty in sometimes separating each distinction (descriptive, evaluative, literal, and metaphorical), which is more difficult than you think, which in turn becomes another level of the subjective and objective experience of the wine and provides a discussion about the role and use of wine critics. What is the role of wine critic? Do we need them? Do they taste better than us? Just because they like a wine does that make the wine good? What about my taste buds? What about my experiences with wine? Do they count? These are concerns through much of The Philosophy of Wine.

On an aside, I also like the occasional chemistry lesson, such as:

American oak […] contains ethyl vanillate, which is also present in vanilla and which gives some oaked wines, such as Rioja, their distinctly vanilla odour (p 53).


But back to the wine critic. To add another level of complexity to the wine critic, the use of the wine critic, and the ability to describe, we have to wonder what the wine critic is referring to when he or she describes a wine. Is the wine critic, or you the taster, describing the glass of Merlot in hand, for instance, or describing the Merlot in relation to what a Merlot from that region, vineyard, or year should taste like, or describing the Merlot according to what a Merlot should taste like, or describing the Merlot based on what the critic prefers in a Merlot, or a wine in general, or is there “cultural information . . . present in the sensorial descriptions” (p 65), or is the experience with the wine being described? You can start to see how complicated the language of wine is.You can even start to understand how you can have a long and entertaining conversation about a bottle of wine or even be inspired by the wine to improv a story or poem or song. You begin to see how wine can be a muse. Well, that’s where my mind went after “Chapter 2: The Language of Wine: Chemicals, Metaphors, and Imagination.”

This chapter is followed by look into objectivity. Using David Hume’s insight’s on the perceptions of color and the notion of a true perception of each color, Todd soon arrives at a conclusion about wine critics:

The consensus of ideal critics, therefore, is required to ensure that we get the right verdict (p 90).

But, as Todd mentions, Hume also says, “all sentiment [wine tasting] is right.” This makes the critic, you, and me all correct. Or so it would seem until we learn of Realism – there are:

properties [in wine] such as balance, suppleness, finesse – [that] are really in the wine, objective features of it to which we have access through our taste and smell experiences, given the right conditions. . . . We [the tasters] can, in other words, get things wrong about the real properties of the wine (p 90-1).

This, of course, leads to the question: How do we decide who the critics are?

One answer is those who can detect the tastes and smells that are really in the wine. And how do you acquire these accurate detection abilities? With experience. You and I may pick up some smells on the nose and some tasting notes, but we may also miss a few or maybe even get a few incorrect. This may be because we lack the experience and, perhaps more importantly, because we are not trying to “make sense of the taste and smell experiences as really belonging to the wine” (p 94). Yes, there are certain attributes and properties that are part of a wine, such as the vanilla in a Rioja wine. (I know . . . shocking, right?!) Sometimes we can get the vanilla order wrong as I have by thinking of white chocolate or something sweet or just missing the scent. The one with discerning taste, however, can distinguish between raisin, figs, cherries, currants, red currants, dark currants, etc.

(On a side note, in this chapter, Todd introduces a term I know I’m going to use more frequently – the objective intuition. I think that perfectly describes my tastings and judgments of wine.)

After the critics are established, how do you undermine them? As always, with the avant-garde, or in the case of the book’s argument, with New World wines, like Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. This is because New World wineries introduce new ways to express wine, such as big fruit Merlots, or using new technologies, or introducing new combinations of varietals, or new ways to use wild yeast, etc. Now the norms have changed and so has the experience and, thus, the evaluation.

Amid all this change and experimenting, how are art critics and philosophers going to consider wine as a work of art? Is it art? Does it have aesthetic value? Does it provide an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time or over the course of a night? These are questions to which answers are sought in the penultimate chapter, “Chapter 5: The Aesthetic Value of Wine: Beauty, Art, Meaning, and Expression.” In this discussion, Todd mentions that wine is an “artefact.” I like that . . . a lot. It’s a non-wavering description of wine. In the meanwhile, a good adventure in seeking answers about wine as art is had. My answer about wine as art is, “yes and no but probably.”

(As a bonus in this chapter, Todd gives us an expressively visual history of the croissant. It’s a short but powerful burst in two delicious sentences. Yum.)

Ludwig WittgensteinIf you’ve read Ludwig Wittgenstein, you will also enjoy this book. At times, this book reminds me of Wittgenstein trying to describe pain. For him, for all of us, there is nothing to compare our pain with. I don’t know what a pain feels like to you. So, how do you describe pain? And the level of pain? What does it feel like? It seems a futile exercise. Luckily for us, wine can be shared, but similar problems arise.

In the end, this book is like a good bottle of wine. It’s filled with wonderful smells and tastes that spark the imagination. (I think it’s because of the solid language.) So often in this book I would drift off only to find myself thinking about something new, be it wine, poetry, or art. Then I’d catch myself and be glad the book sparked a new thought. (Really, what else do you want from a book?) Then I’d return to where I began to drift, read, and repeat. This book is short, but it takes a while to read because it evokes new experiences, sensations, and thoughts, just like any good wine – and I say this subjectively, objectively, objective intuitively, realistically, pluralistically, and relativistically.

If you want to stimulate you imagination, if you want wine to more often stimulate your imagination, then read Cain Todd’s The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty, and Intoxication.//

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