I have had, what I can only call, the pleasure and fortune of conversing with Dr. B on the question of wine, and he has a certain sincerity and curiosity that speaks not only of wisdom but individual thought. Rather than impose meaning on wine, he is skeptical, rejecting absolutes, generalisations and preconceived notions as adequate descriptions of what wine really “is”, while accepting that the mind is nonetheless reflected through it. However often we may disagree, I’m struck by the alluring wisdom in his shedding of what could be superfluous, illusory, or otherwise considered affectation, in order to allow the wine to speak for itself. Paradoxically, this insistence on what wine is not has led to creating truly meaningful experiences of what wine has the possibility to offer. It seems that it is this reversion to simplicity which allows one not only to listen but also to reap the benefits of it. And it is for these reasons that I’ve asked Dr. B to tell his story.
Dr. B is a retired English man who enjoys traveling with his wife, Dr.C, philosophy and wine, in search of the Epicurean sense of a good life. He is a member of The Wine Century Club and The Wine Society (UK) and has recently been selected as a judge for The People’s Choice Wine Awards. Among his many accomplishments he has received a MSc and PhD in analytical chemistry, a BA Hons in psychology, and runs an education charity in Nepal together with his wife.
His exploration of wine and philosophy are intricately connected evolving throughout his life as a relief, a metaphor, a teacher, a mirror, a travel guide, and ultimately a meaningful source of pleasure and reflection.
Since I was a student, over fifty years ago, I have had an enduring interest in wine. I have also been fascinated by what the great philosophers have to say about how to live a valuable and gratifying life. Each was a diversion, a release from the intensity and microscopic detail of researching in chemistry for a PhD back in the ‘60s when we were young! A small group of us, led by our professor, not only drank wine … we studied it, tasted it like pros, and even made it! At the same time I found it hard to read any books that weren’t related to analytical chemistry, detection limits, spectroscopy, voltammetry …… until I discovered the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, especially Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus.
Wine and Philosophy, completely different topics but somehow they have conflated into one great hydra ……… a metaphor (or an antidote) for old age. This is especially significant when combined also with travel and culture and Buddhism, the latter being obvious with my wife from student days being from Nepal.
Before I continue take a look at the image below, taken in the winery of Domaine Couly in Chinon, France…
We sat for some time taking in the meaning of this exhibition, with each stainless steel container housing a photo and words describing a life stage,
birth, infancy, youth …….. old age …… It was a brilliant collection of images, but also a complete metaphor between life stages and the stages of wine
maturation, from bottling, to drinking well, to apogee/peak, to steady decline and finally death. Yet there was something more in this metaphor, an allusion
to how one should “be” at each life stage as written by those philosophers as well as considering a psychological approach to life stages described by Erik Erikson as shown in the image below:
I shan’t burden my readers with a discussion of the stages but I will refer to the final stage which Dr C and I are well into! In the first column, despair is for the “forever young brigade” I have written about previously, not for us as we focus on reflection and an existential focus on the here-and-now in a mindful way. And this brings me to wine, wine tasting and Epicurus.
He was certainly NOT an epicurean in the sense that we use the word today, he was not a seeker of hedonistic pleasure and had a Zen-like attitude about his senses: for example when eating a simple bowl of lentils, he would take his time to experience all the subtle delights of their flavour, delights that rival those of more extravagantly spiced fare. Two of his quotes:
“It is not what we have, but what we enjoy that constitutes our abundance”
“Before you eat or drink anything, carefully consider with whom you eat or drink rather than what you eat or drink, because eating without a friend is the life of the lion or the wolf.”
So, let’s combine the philosophy of Epicurus related to “enjoying the wider moment” of a glass of wine with the psychological life stages of Erikson and positive reflection in old age. This brings me to my final pair of philosophers…. Sartre and Husserl and the beginning of existentialism. Here’s something I wrote in a much earlier post as I was about to taste a glass of sweet Malaga wine:
“Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, “You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!” which led to Sartre’s historic quote, “Existence before essence”.
“So, back to my OWN glass of wine which “exists” ….. how do I describe it phenomenologically, existentially, and as already said, never mind what is its essence!?” Here’s what I thought:
“The glass is ice cold, frosted even. The first aroma is of honey, almost like an English Mead which is to be expected from a Malaga sweet wine. It’s colour is brown, not like an aged red wine, but clear and bright, “sticking” to the sides of the glass which is often referred to as “having legs”! It is very sweet, cloyingly thick with a burnt taste that lingers on the palate and tongue even after swallowing. As a chilled sweet wine it is a perfect match for a warm and sunny afternoon in Spain, sitting in the middle of the Malaga town centre terrace with my dear wife, looking up at the Moor Alcazar, a historical central feature of the town”.
I could have describe my wine in terms of its chemistry and the botany of the vine, adding more about how the wine is made, or the global wine trade or regional classification systems. Maybe I could have added a description of how this bottle was opened and poured, or how about the effects of alcohol on the human body? But none of this would describe this particular wine, my experience of it as an immediate phenomenon, including the environment in which I was drinking it.
“Husserl, The German philosopher who established the school of phenomenology, said that, to describe a glass of wine, I should set aside both the abstract suppositions and any intrusive emotional associations, whatever they are!
Then I can concentrate on the bright, fragrant, rich phenomenon in front of me now. This ‘setting aside’ or ‘bracketing out’ of “add-ons” Husserl called epoché –a term borrowed from the ancient Sceptics, who used it to mean a general suspension of judgement about the world. In other words describe don’t judge, something the BBC could do a little more of! He sometimes referred to it as a phenomenological ‘reduction’ instead: the process of boiling away any extra theorising about what wine ‘really’ is, so that we are left only with the intense and immediate flavour –the phenomenon. The result, he asserted, was a great liberation. Phenomenology frees me to talk about my experienced wine as a serious topic of investigation.”
Now to the crux of my post, the existential question ….. what is wine tasting to me? To begin, it’s not about the wine! It’s about travel, culture, people, friendship, curiosity, mindfulness….. as well as the more “academic” elements of chemistry, geology, terroir, grapes, process ….. though less so. A real life example to typify what I mean:
A short few years back Dr C and I took a weeks holiday in Budapest staying at a high quality hotel near Elisabeth Bridge over the Danube. It was our first visit to Hungary and we were keen to learn about and sample as much as we could about their history and culture. The first evening we took dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and I asked for the wine list. Browsing through it I saw examples of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, and wines from around the globe. Turning the page I came to Hungarian wines listed and said to the sommelier “I’d like a Furmint please, what would you advise?” He looked at me in some surprise, but stated his pleasure that I at least knew one indigenous grape variety. He scurried off and returned with three opened bottles and asked me to taste all three and choose!
I shan’t labour the story, but I chose one for dinner that night. Next night I asked him about Kekfrankos, same delightful treatment. They discovered it was a birthday trip for me, and on my birthday there was a bottle of Hungarian sparkling wine waiting for me at breakfast. Then last December we spent Christmas at the same hotel with our daughter and husband, and on Christmas Day enjoyed the celebration banquet lunch and ….. guess what ….. we were remembered and were brought Furmint, Kekfrankos and a new variety, Harslevelu to our table as extras to the international wines included with the banquet.
We have similar stories from France, Italy, Spain, USA, Malta ….. in restaurants, wine bars, tabacs, wine cooperatives, domaine winemakers. In all of these places wine is but one part of the whole, a piece of the greater jigsaw of life, a piece that connects to an Epicurean way of life, the final life stage of Erikson focusing on positive reflection, a means of being mindful or existentialist as with Sartre and Husserl.
Tasting wine needs total engagement, not just with the liquid in the glass, but with all the other parts of the jigsaw ….. travel, culture, people, friendship, curiosity, mindfulness. And as Louis Pasteur said:
“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world”, so hold this thought as you open your next bottle of wine, are you ready to fully experience it in an Existentialist way with Epicurus, Erikson, Sartre?
There are two books I read a few years ago that gave me inspiration for this article, the first by Daniel Klein is a very easy read and very funny in parts too. It tells a little of Daniel’s own life in old age as he sought to add further meaning to it on a Greek island. The second by Sarah Bakewell is somewhat heavier with a description of the Existentialist movement and the major players in it including Sartre, de Beauvoir, Husserl and others.
1. Travels With Epicurus, Daniel Klein
2. At The Existentialist Cafe, Sarah Bakewell