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Philosophy and wine: 
from Science to Subjectivity

Jamie Goode's Report on a one-day meeting held on Friday 10th December 2004, organised by the Philosophy Program of the School of Advanced Study, London University (http://www.sas.ac.uk/Philosophy/Wine.htm)

Part 2: Kent Bach's paper - What good is knowledge in enjoying wine?

‘What good is knowledge in enjoying the experience of drinking wine?’ asked philosopher Kent Bach, himself a wine lover with a 4000-bottle cellar. ‘We could ask the same about cheese, coffee, chocolate or malt whisky’. Does knowledge about wine make the wine taste better? Can it enhance the experience of drinking the wine?

He then posed the following question as an interesting side issue: are people who know more having a different perceptual experience? ‘I’m not asking what good knowledge is in making, selling or evaluating wine – I take it that knowledge is good in all those respects,’ clarifies Bach. ‘Also, I’m not asking whether there is any value in being able to blind taste a wine’. Instead, he’s distinguishing these from the pleasure one has drinking the wine. Many of these types of knowledge pertain to taste. Open a wine you’ve had before and there is expectation: this is the cognitive pleasure of remembering what a wine will taste like.

Bach then outlined four assumptions he is making in developing his arguments. (1) We are talking about people who have a basic liking for wine. (2) That people have the practical skills of knowing how to taste. (3) A rather shaky assumption that expectations and external influences play no role in one’s experience and judgment. (4) We’re discussing the effect of knowledge on people with normal sensitivity to aromas and flavours.

Three related questions, posed in order to help frame his arguments followed. To what extent do differences in preference reflect differences in taste? Do we share a common experience? Is it possible for two people to taste the same wine, experience the same thing and then for one person to like it and the other not?

According to Bach, it is possible to distinguish three types of pleasure: sensory, cognitive and emotional, with the third, he suggests, not being relevant to wine. He also makes a distinction between four levels of perceiving components of a wine’s characteristics. There is (1) sensing, (2) noticing, (3) recognizing and (4) identifying.

If we compare bird watching and train spotting with wine tasting, there’s a difference. In the first two pursuits, the fun is in recognizing and identifying. With wine, there’s a level of pleasure that occurs beyond merely recognizing and identifying flavour components. Then Bach drew attention to the sorts of terms used to describe experts in particular fields. ‘Discerning’ and ‘discriminating’ have both an aesthetic and cognitive meaning. Both can imply merely expertise, but there’s an additional level of meaning that implies good taste. 

There’s a distinction here between being an expert and a connoisseur: the latter implies some level of good taste in the area of expertise. This is illustrated in a rather gross but amusing analogy. Imagine someone with a special ability to taste and smell. They work in a medical laboratory, but instead of using analytical devices to test blood and urine samples, they use their elevated sense of taste and smell. But there wouldn’t be an aesthetic side to this, and we wouldn’t consider them as connoisseurs. 

Bach proceeded to compare vision and taste/smell, contrasting the terms we use to describe these different senses. For vision, our words are precise: we have lots of specialised descriptors for colours – even for degrees of redness. For taste and smell the vocabulary is much less precise, and most of the terms are connected with the ‘cause’ of the smell or taste. With vision it is much easier to make a judgement. Look at the just noticeable differences (JNDs) in colour perception: one researcher has estimated that there are 10 million JNDs in colour possible by untrained judges, a remarkable number (based on extrapolation). 

When people are presented with tastes and smells it is more difficult for them to make a discrimination and it takes them longer. We are slow to respond to different stimuli. Bach referred to the work on multidimensional scaling that is used to quantify sensory data in psychophysics. Large data sets have been collected on people’s similarity judgements. From these it is possible to construct a similarity or quality space. From this work, the conclusion is that taste has the five well known dimensions (umami, salty, sweet, bitter and sour). However, estimates of the number of dimensions for olfaction (respects in which smells can differ) have varied, ranging from 7 to 18, but in any case many more than the three needed for colour (hue, saturation, and intensity). This may help explain why differences in smells are harder for us to describe, but it does not mean that we are not capable of discriminating them.

Bach then posed another question: do experts taste something that other people don’t? Putting this another way, what is wrong with the default position that knowledge doesn’t seem to make a difference? Could it be that novices can sense and notice, but can’t recognize tastes and smells in wine?

Finally, we moved to a musical analogy. Bach reckons that wine is like a musical chord that is sustained, but there must be something more to wine, because while he can listen to a symphony many times over, he couldn’t listen to a single chord. It’s a rather deep point, and I’m not quite sure I grasped this analogy properly in my notes. Still, a good place to end – this was a thoughtful paper that ended up framing a lot of useful questions, rather than providing many answers.  

The philosophy of wine

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