jamie goode's wine blog: Philosophy, wine and an old pub

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Philosophy, wine and an old pub

Had lunch today with Ole Martin Skilleas, a Norweigan academic philosopher who is currently writing a book on wine and philosophy with a colleague of his, Douglas Burnham. We didn't go anywhere grand - just round the corner to the Dover Castle, a pub like they used to be 20 years ago before they all went gastropub and started charging restaurant prices - but we did have an interesting discussion about the philosophy of wine tasting, over a pint of beer.

I learned a lot from Ole, and among the insights he offered was an interesting take on how we taste. 'Wine is a vague object', Ole told me, ' and we bring conceptual knowledge to it. We try to fit it with a template'. What he means (I think) is that the senses of smell and taste are rather imprecise, so wine is vague, and to say much about it we need to bring something to the tasting experience, namely our experience and understanding. When we know what it is we are drinking we are then able to say much more about it. 'We know what to look for in a great wine', he continued. 'If you don't know what to look for you don't notice the qualities that made this a great wine'.

He illustrated this with an experience of blind tasting, which he regards as an extreme version of what happens in most tastings. With his tasting group, which includes wine critics and enthusiasts with excellent knowledge of wine, he lined up three wines blind, with a common theme: a 1999 Chablis 1er Cru, a 1999 Village Meursault and a 1999 Macon. At an early stage in deliberations a senior member of the group said, 'At first I thought the theme was Chardonnay, but I don't think it is.' No one went on to guess Chardonnay: the members of the group just put the Chardonnay template away. 'The qualities of the wines, once they were revealed, were so obvious', recalls Ole, 'it was staring people in the face'.

Coincidentally, when I got home Fiona had poured a mystery glass of wine for me to taste blind. I was thinking about this template business: this is what makes tasting blind so difficult, I reckon. I spotted it as a Sauvignon, but could get no further. It was cleanly made and modern, but it could have been from the Loire or the New World. Turned out it was from Yalumba in South Australia.



At 9:27 PM, Blogger Rick G said...

We occasionally do blind tastings in my group and for this very reason we don't allow guesses as to what the wine might be or not be early on. WE talk about the wine's flavors, flaws, positive points and of course, whether it's a wine we like or not... but we disallow the "it's not from X" or "It's obviously a Y". No matter how educated and self-confident the group, people DO filter themselves.

The results can be amusing... in a 1997s from around the world tasting we went through the wines, then revealed the list of what they could be and asked everyone to match the bottles with a wine from the list. Most of us scored terribly - it was quite amusing.

At 12:33 AM, Anonymous colmanstephenson said...

This makes me feel a whole lot better about some of more idiotic blind identifications.

At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

I'm not sure about the claim you make about wine being 'a vague object'. That's the sort of thing that philosophers with an interest in vagueness tend to baulk at. But there has been quite a lot of interest in wine among philosophers recently, the most concrete consequence of which is a recent book: 'A Question of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine', edited by Barry Smith (of the University of London), and published by Oxford University Press. There's plenty of interesting stuff in there, most of it accessible to the non-philosophically trained audience.

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Gabriel said...

... a book to which I believe Jamie has in fact contributed an article

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Ole Martin Skilleås said...

Chris: Barry Smith's collection is published on Signal books, not the OUP. Douglas Burnham and I have published an article in "Wine and Philosophy" ed. by F. Allhoff, on Blackwell in the US.

Jamie also published in "Wine and Philosophy", and its first print run of 5.500 is sold out. It also got a good review in Wine Spectator, where it was reviewed alongside B. Smith's volume.

At 3:12 AM, Blogger Matthew Sullivan said...

I find is fascinating that even though fine wine is becoming democratized, there has not been a more forceful trend to view wine appreciation as a more subjective/personal experience.

On the contrary, there seems to be a trend to view wine as something that can be objectively evaluated by authoritative experts (wielding - in some cases - numerical scores). I see this tolerance for objectivity as both a popular trend, and as one emerging among some philosopers (like Barry Smith).

I recently banged out my own riff on some of Prof. Smith's ideas in my latest column here:
The Short Cellar

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Gloria Origgi said...

Barry Smith's collection is published by SignalBooks AND by OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS in United States (with a different coversheet).
This is just to correct one of the previous messages, which mentioned only the Signal publication.
I am a contributor of Barry's volume. I was contacted by Alzhoff many months after Barry's project has started already and asked to write for another volume on Wine and Philosophy. Mr. Alzhoff contacted all the authors who published in Barry's book to ask them to contribute to his volume, but I declined the invitation.

At 11:30 PM, Anonymous Clive said...

Originally known as “The Random Pub Generator” the http://www.throngalong.com website was developed to solve the age-old problem of deciding where to go out for a drink in the evening, how to invite everyone and how to know who is coming and who isn’t.

Basically you set up a shortlist of favourite pubs (or clubs, restaurants etc), add a list of friend’s email address and choose a date and time. Invitations are sent out with a link so everyone can RSVP easily and see who else is going. The neatest thing is that the venue is selected at random, at the time the invitations are sent out, from the list given. The date can be recurring so you can have it go off automatically every week, choosing a different pub each time.

The RSVP page is great as everyone can leave messages for each other to arrange where to meet, explain why they’ll be late, or worse of all, why they’re not coming!


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home