Metaphoricity and Wine: in response to Papazaglou’s “The Sociality of Wine”

A recent reading of Alexis Papazoglou’s article “The Sociality of Wine” in Gastromondiale left me with a warm feeling. It recalled many convivial dinners I have shared with oenophilic friends, who are not always as easily accessible depending on my whereabouts. While I found the tone warming, not unlike a good Amarone, I had the nagging feeling that his panegyric towards the sociality of wine endowed his “solipsistic” wine drinker with a flimsy coat. The concepts of sociality and “the social” were also conflated, so that I was not certain when one was invoked to buttress the case for the other.

  Bacchanale, Picasso (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Bacchanale, Picasso (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Social is a term that in English has a variety of declensions, with correspondingly different meanings. The sociality that Alexis describes for sharing wine and discussing it, is an experience that we have all had, and which most of us cherish. But this conviviality of the table is not the same as his concept as the “social” in academic conceptual parlance. The “social” is a term that inevitably signifies, in the field of philosophy and social sciences, the shared lifeworld, Lebenswelt, in the Husserlian and later phenomenological works that he inspired. For the phenomenologist (and proto-phenomenologist, Hegel to whom I believe Alexis’ hymn is implicitly devoted), the lifeworld is shared and does not, in any material sense, have an historical, linguistic or geographical Weltaanschaung. In this view, perspectives are essentially commensurable, and knowledge develops in a rational way. This is a subject-centered worldview, where we speak language, in contradistinction to the Late Heidegger’s ontology of language, where language seems to speak us.

My contention with Alexis’ concept of the social is that it places knowledge at the service of the subject, the wine-drinker, the philosopher. It presents truth as an object for a subject. But what if, as Nietzsche asked, truth were a woman? Despite all of man’s attempts at codifying her, endowing her with a purpose and a place, she manages to evade us with ever-new interpretations, succeeds in confounding us with her alluring Dis-Tanz. Wine is no less obstinate. Obstinate not because of its innumerable variables in viticulture and vinification, nor because of the various approaches to its assessment. Its beguiling quality derives from the very nature of describing a sensorial experience with a language that itself is aberrant.

The commonsensical understanding of language is as a vehicle for describing the world, or to put it in terms a linguist would prefer, for signifying a referent (object-in-the-world). Yet, when we examine the vast nomenclature that we have amassed for describing wines, we inevitably discover that nearly all are metaphors. Metaphors, in contradistinction to literal denotation, require a leap — a transport — from one object of comparison to the other. When I describe a Chablis as flinty-steely, I am not making a knowledge claim about the wine; I am rather providing a poetic description of its organoleptic properties, in the same way as I might paraphrase Shakespeare’s King Lear as nihilistic, when that term historically bears traces of its Post-War meaning and would fall on deaf ears for Elizabethan audiences of the play. There are very few descriptors one can use for a wine which are neither historical nor metaphorical, and this I believe is one reason standardized wine assessments have resorted to quantifiable categories, as when WSET’s grading rubric contains a series of quantiative entries (low/medium/high with +/- gradations, for acid-level, tannin, color on a graduated scale, etc.). Describing a wine as high-acid, medium+ tannin, pinot noir with mild bricking on the rim is certainly significant for identifying the wine’s appellation, even producer, but it does not communicate what the phenomenologist would call “the experience” of tasting the wine.

  Weingut Keller

Weingut Keller

That is because experience is irreducibly metaphorical, i.e., linguistic. Try for a moment to conceive of describing the elation of love, the thrill of music, without recourse to metaphors. The Belgian deconstructive theorist Paul de Man, claimed that without novels, one would never even recognize that one had fallen in love. This dictum is in line with Alexis’ statement that the narratives we recount about wine are social. That is, they are not incomprehensible (“solipsistic”, as Alexis writes) to the other in the form under which they are told. However, this does not mean that our experience of that wine or concerto is communicable, for what we communicate always appears inadequate to our own ears, as we flail about clumsily in our attempts at attributing monikers to sensations. As Flaubert, a novelist who painstakingly sought the mot juste to depict his fictional worlds, penned, “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” When we describe minerality in a wine, we are rehearsing a cliche for something that we all vaguely recognize but which exists not only as graphite for a Nuits St Georges, but as petrol in German Rieslings, and in a host of other adjectival descriptors that proliferate as we recognize each one is insufficient, too broad. Yet, when we are brought back to a particular wine’s visceral minerality or that particular woman’s singular turn-of-phrase, we can never describe it with quite the potency it had for us in the experience, because that diabolical uniqueness remains unknown to ourselves.

This is because experience is not merely metaphorical, it is ineffably so. Nietzsche, who famously claimed that truth was “an army of metaphors, metonymies,” encapsulates the blindness that language imposes at the very moment of insight:

Every word immediately becomes a concept, in as much as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal.

It is therefore not enough to claim that tasting wine is an experience in metaphors; it is, in addition, a discourse in generalities, equations of the unequal, falsehoods that have been circulated frequently enough that they have yielded to tacit, if begrudging, acceptance. When we describe wines today, we instinctively reach for a toolbox of cliches produced by industry imperatives and a market that requires rankings and a concommitant shared vocabulary. Often, it is enough for me to read a tasting note for ennui to set in with a wine producer I am enamored with, as if I were choosing a lover based on an enumeration of physical traits rather than the way they coalesce in a moving being. The attempt at isolating properties and assigning rankings has as its underpinning ideology, the comparison that all commodities invite. Consumers in a market of similar products naturally seek distinguishing features to purchase one over another. Wine assessment discourse has developed as a consequence of such a marketing imperative. It is of course a useful apparatus, and one with which the wine industry as industry could not dispense. Indeed, it holds real utility in the purchasing of wines as commodities.

  Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, Van Gogh (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, Van Gogh (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Yet, once we cozy up to the glass, while we can indeed detect signs of typicity and terroir, if we have been trained to do so, we are inevitably struck with the surplus of sensorial signs, and the ineffectiveness of categories to give form to the singularity that great wine especially embodies. When I taste an opulent Coche-Dury Meursault, I am occasionally shocked by the seamlessness of the bouquet. Aromatic descriptors can only be teased apart in theory, since they are (and here we are back to metaphor!) so finely interweaved that there is an almost comical hubris in the attempt at isolating them. Great wine provides us with countless examples whereby the variegatedness of the experience, the kaleidoscopic aromatics and flavors are only articulated tentatively, by making reference to categories, socially inherited descriptors, which constitute, finally, a normalized discourse to replace a private set of associations. This amounts to the admission that the historical conversation about wine, which Alexis charmingly defends, is ultimately one that, like the Hegelian dialectic, works on an all-too-abstract level. Like all Hegelian dialectics, it privileges the universal at the expense of the particular, the received wisdom at the expense of the idiosyncratic impression. Whereas certain sakés had to my nose been redolent of candy cigarettes, a sommelier’s conventional descriptor of “herbaceousness” effectively eclipsed my memory of walking to the convenience store in dusty Montana with the $5 bill my grandma had placed in my palm, and biting into the chalky sticks. Yet, even this childhood memory, if I were to evoke it in efflorescent detail, would never invoke that experience in another, precisely because the significant dimension of that moment lies lost to myself. Like Marcel of In Search of Lost Time, we cannot remember what we haven’t truly forgotten, nor can we communicate the significance of what lies hidden in the nearly opaque, inky realm of metaphor, try as we may.