The Sociality of Wine
What a wine tastes like to someone, we might think, is an entirely private affair, relative to the person drinking it. In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, the claim “Man is the measure of all things”, attributed to the philosopher Protagoras, is applied to our perception of taste: The same wine can taste different even to the same person, depending on their circumstances. If, for example, I’m ill, a wine that tasted sweet to me before, now can taste bitter. So, if the same wine can taste different even to myself, depending on the day, whether I have a cold or not, what I’m eating, or perhaps even just my mood, what hope is there in knowing what a wine tastes like to others? Unless we can find a way to enter someone’s mind and consciousness, something highly unlikely, it seems we can never know what it is for another person to taste a particular wine at a particular moment, and how it might be different, or similar, to how it tastes to us. This solipsistic conception of what wine drinking amounts to, however, seems to be in conflict with a key characteristic of wine drinking: It is in fact a very social affair.
Wine’s social dimension is apparent in the way it invites conversation, easing human interaction due to its alcohol content. One might say that this is true of all alcoholic drinks. But somehow wine strikes a balance that no other alcoholic beverage does. The moderate amount of alcohol in wine, the slower pace at which it demands to be drunk due to its texture and intense taste, the fact that its consumption is often accompanied by food, all these factors somehow seem to contribute to a much smoother, mellow transition from sobriety and social stiffness to looser tongues and higher spirits.
It’s no accident that wine is the choice of drink in many social occasions where just the right amount of inebriation can help bring people together: from first dates to diplomatic dinners to business lunches, human interaction would not have been the same without being mediated by a glass of wine, or two. However, getting tipsy with someone else on the same bottle of wine doesn’t tell us much about how the other person is experiencing what’s in their glass, compared to what is in one’s own.
Voltaire, one of the many philosophers to have written about wine, claimed that “taste invites reflection”. Amongst oenophiles, that reflection can end up being about the wine itself. But this kind of reflection is not that of the isolated philosopher, siting at their desk alone with their thoughts, the kind that lead Descartes in his famous Meditations to question whether the world itself existed. The kind of thinking that wine invites about itself has a social dimension, one that thrives on talking to each other about the wine, prompting an analysis of what each person finds in the glass, in an attempt to discover more about it.
For many wine lovers, the story usually goes, it’s drinking a great bottle that acts as the moment of conversion into oenophilia. For me it was a few sessions of blind tasting alongside friends at the University of Cambridge blind wine tasting society. Through looking and smelling, and tasting the wines, but crucially, through discussing, we would guide each other to what was in the glass (with mixed success, it must be said). Especially when it comes to the elusive description of what a wine smells like, sharing each other’s impressions can be very helpful: “Red fruit. Strawberries, or is it raspberries? Something earthy? A kind of mustiness.”. So not only is it possible to know what a wine tastes to one another without mind reading, sharing information when drinking is a way of discovering aspects of the wine that had previously eluded us, enhancing the experience and the pleasure that goes with it.
Discovering what a wine is like, with the help of others, collectively, is not only what we do when in the company of a fellow oenophile. Wine writing and wine reviewing largely performs that role too, helping to guide us discover new wines, making sure we attend to them with some degree of care, taking note of their defining characteristics and reflecting on their context. Reading about how a wine sits in relation to its peers in the region, or other vintages of the same wine, or even wines from the same grape variety but grown elsewhere, can all contribute to the way we experience the wine when we finally drink it. This collective, collaborative nature of wine connoisseurship is indicative of the nature of knowledge more broadly. Today we understand that knowledge is far from how Descartes had envisaged it, something we can arrive at on our own, simply by reflecting on our inner thoughts and experiences. Knowledge is a cooperative, social endeavour, the result of many different eyes and minds working together, each relying on information and observations made by others. The enormous scale and international character of the CERN project, driving new discoveries in the world of particle physics, is a good example in case.
The act of recommending wines to others, and the desire to share certain bottles with certain people, is, finally, the ultimate manifestation of the social nature of wine drinking. Humans are brought together by things they have in common, things they jointly appreciate, whether it’s food, or art, or music. But with some things, like with wine, the overlap in taste is best celebrated and enjoyed when the experience is itself shared. It cements that relationship of mutual recognition of something as great, and it makes space for that moment of communication between people to take place. Subverting Protagoras’ solipsism, I would go as far as saying that the same bottle of wine can taste differently, depending on the company we drink it in.