In the following series of posts I will be exploring the question of wine aesthetics. Can wine be appreciated as an aesthetic object, and if so, what does that mean exactly? What do we mean when we talk about aesthetic value or an aesthetic experience, and above all, how does that relate to wine?
In a previous post I spoke about the role of pleasure in aesthetic experiences arguing that pleasure is not merely a sensory pursuit as its potential to evoke an aesthetic experience leads to cognitive engagement with the object.
We all seem to instinctively know what pleasure is. No philosopher, psychologist or guru needs to explain it to us, we know it when we feel it. It is that which pleases us, that which causes feelings of enjoyment, happiness and liking. It is the opposite of suffering. It is that which makes our lives worth living and that which we spend our time and energy pursing. However, the question of whether the experience of pleasure is merely a sensory pursuit, confined to the world of sensation, rather than an intellectual one is less obvious… not all that is pleasurable is aesthetic, but aesthetic experiences are pleasurable. It is within the potential of pleasure to evoke aesthetic experiences wherein lies its cognitive power…Pleasure, from water to wine
The distinction was made between two types of pleasure- “relief pleasure” like the kind experienced after drinking water when one is thirsty, and “sustaining pleasure” which motivates one to continue doing the activity, like the pleasure of seeing a beautiful painting which in turn motivates you to keep looking at it. Relief pleasure is not part of an aesthetic experience, but sustaining pleasure is because it directs and focuses your attention in a certain way. It’s a kind of pleasure which can be compared to the act of savouring or relishing what one is experiencing, sometimes leading to rapture or feelings of intoxication. And here we can make yet another distinction, or rather find another connection between sensory pleasure, aesthetic interest and cognitive engagement.
Animals and humans eat and drink in very different ways. Animals, as non-rational beings, use their sense of smell to find out information and are driven to eat in order to sustain their survival, but they do not relish the experience in the same way we do. Humans, as rational beings, relish smells and tastes, eating and drinking not only out of biological necessity but also for the pleasure of the experience itself. In the same way, an animal can be drunk from an intoxicant, but it cannot be intoxicated by a line of poetry, or a verse of music, or even the aromas and flavours of a glass of wine, in the way we can. Drunkenness by way of an intoxicant leads to a state of unconsciousness while the experience of being intoxicated by an object of aesthetic interest is a state of consciousness itself.
This is part of Sir. Roger Scruton’s argument for the cognitive status of wine in his book “I Drink Therefore I Am, A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine”, a title which positions human consciousness at the center of wine drinking and a book that illustrates how the question “What is wine?” is ultimately a philosophical question as philosophy is “…a comprehensive theory of how things seem to us rational beings” (pg. 118). When one takes an interest in understanding wine it goes beyond understanding its chemical properties scientifically because it is also about understanding it as an experience, our experience of it. This experience, and the pleasure derived from it, may exist on a sensory level, but nonetheless the condition in which it exits, if it is to be known or understood at all by us, is within consciousness itself. Scruton claims that the fact that we relish the particular qualities of a glass wine means that it is not just a source of pleasure, but an object of pleasure, and as such an object of thought and reflection.
“For relishing is a reflective state of mind in which an experience is held up for critical inspection. Only rational beings can relish tastes and smells, since only they can take interest in the experience itself, rather than in the information conveyed by it. …Like aesthetic interest relishing is tied to sensory experience, and like aesthetic experience it involves holding our normal, practical, information-gathering interests in abeyance. Why not say therefore, that wine appeals to us in something like the way that poetry, painting or music appeal to us, by presenting an object of experience that is meaningful in itself.”Pg. 119
However, while Scruton poses the question of wine appealing to us in the same way that art does, he does not think that wine is an art form, and is inclined to think that it is not an aesthetic experience either, because it does not directly express an idea or thought and has no inherent meaning that can be understood through its smell or taste. Sights and sounds, and by extension written words, are expressive and convey meaning in themselves while smells and tastes are dependent on us to give them a sense of expressivity and meaning by way of association to other things within our experience.
“If asked to choose, therefore, I would say, for philosophical reasons, that the intoxication that we experience in wine is a sensory but not an aesthetic experience, whereas the intoxication of poetry is aesthetic through and through. To say as much is to imply that the aesthetic is not reducible to the sensory, and that aesthetic enjoyments have a cognitive and exploratory character that distinguishes them from purely physical pleasures. But it does not matter very much whether you agree or disagree with the distinction, or whether you are disposed to describe the enjoyment of wine as ‘aesthetic’. What matters is the cognitive status of wine – its status of an object of thought and a vehicle of reflection.”Pg. 122-123
Scruton’s position is that the experience of wine can be both sensory and cognitive, but not necessarily aesthetic. If poetry is aesthetic it is because the written words contain and express meaning directly while the smells and tastes of wine can only acquire meaning indirectly through our experience of them. In other words, the aesthetic is contained more within the content of the object than the context of our experience. But that is also to limit aesthetic experiences to those in which we can derive some inherent meaning expressed through the object. It makes the experience about understanding, which doesn’t leave much room for things that entice, excite and intrigue us precisely for their ambiguity and mystery. Our inclination, as rational and conscious beings, to find meaning- be it in art, our experiences, or wine for that matter- is not one in the same as there being any inherent meaning to find at all. That is to say, things don’t have meaning simply because we want them to. And yet, no matter how ambiguous or mysterious an object of aesthetic interest is, this inclination of ours to understand it in some way is part of the exploratory character of an aesthetic experience, whether we reach understanding or not. The pleasure we encounter when contemplating an object in this way is an end in itself.
To relish a sensory experience is a certain kind of pleasure which aims at understanding through trying to get closer to the experience itself, to know it more intimately. It is not bound by logic or rationality because it speaks to something much deeper in us; it takes us to that ineffable place in our souls where there is nothing to grasp or hold onto, nothing to gain, we need only receive. It’s a kind of pleasure that we don’t need to make sense of because, in a way, it has already been understood even if we can’t find the words to say how, and the only thing left to do is to enjoy it. Art can do that for us, and I believe the experience of drinking wine can too. And if that is not an aesthetic experience, I don’t know what is.
But it doesn’t really matter that much, in the words of the great Sir. Roger Scruton, and he’s right. I can only say that if I spent this much time on the subject it is because wine inspired me to do so. So, let’s take another page from Scruton’s book, instructions on virtuous (philosophical) drinking…
“First surround yourself with friends. Then serve something that is intrinsically interesting: a wine with roots in a terroir, that reaches out to you from some favoured place, which invites discussion and exploration, and which takes attention away from your own sensations and bestows it instead on the world. Into the aroma that rises from the glass, conjure as best you can the spirit of absent things. Share each memory, each image and each idea with the company; strive for a sincere and relaxed affection; most of all, think of the topic and forget yourself.”Pg. 162
Scruton, Roger, “I Drink Therefore I am, A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine”, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009.