Fashion, Flavour and Phenomenology
In a previous article ('Jottings', Spring Cellar Notes, 2004) I developed the argument the assessment of wine is best made in the cultural context of where it originates since ‘terroir’ should be considered to include the culture and attitudes of its people as well as the more fundamental physical environment of the region. Thus I would expect people from Hawke Bay to have slightly different responses to wines from those in Wellington or even Martinborough. When considering the wines of (say) California I expect the culturally influenced differences to be even more obvious, and they are – they are likely to be up front, more heavily wooded, alcoholic and drink-now styles. That Californian’s dress, the cars they buy etc, inherently embody this style, speaks for itself. Likewise the wines from Australia often tend to be big and bold (rather than concentrated) – maybe lacking in subtlety but excellent for BBQ’s and upfront colourful cuisine (!)… it comes as no surprise that these reflect a national lifestyle and may be considered characteristically Australian from this point of view.
Cultural context is however only one aspect of the argument… It is one thing for me to report that I adore the elegance and delicacy of the floral expressions in Mosel Rieslings, but it is a very different thing to expect all the finest Rieslings to be like these. What about people who have a diminished perception of florals and a heightened perception of spice or nuances of citrus and find more pleasure in either of the latter? Some people have heightened sensitivity towards phenolics and to those particular phenolics that can make a young wine taste very acidic. The smell of strawberries is a beautiful smell at one level of concentration but because it is based on a sulphur containing compound it is unpleasant at higher levels – the transition point will not be the same for all individuals. Similarly for the smell of coffee. The characteristic smell of a lamb roast which we find so enticing has been found to be repulsive to the Chinese and this provides an explanation as to why New Zealand has always had difficulty in selling sheep meat into China. In Columbia it is said that Europeans smell like monkey urine… and so it goes on.
The results of wine-shows and reviews by wine-writers are read by some aficionados as avidly as they would savour a bottle of wine. However research indicates it is not physiologically possible to evaluate 100 or even 30 wines in a row for their purely aesthetic value and personality. Two issues are involved, the first is palate fatigue, where the more wines that are tasted during an evaluation, the more influential the obvious features of a wine become – hence high alcohol and lots of new wood become common features of successful show wines even though this style of wine may be rather less welcome at the dinner table. The second is that they are evaluated relative to an accepted judging norm and/or relative to the other members of the whole group of wines and this relates back to my earlier comments on culture and physiological sensitivities.
Nevertheless wine commentaries and shows do have a well earned and useful place, but if we take them to be definitive rather than as opinion, as we seem to be predisposed to do (cf Oxford University research below¹), we demean our distinctive ability to discriminate and assess according to our own unique palate and to the culture in which it is educated. Slavishly following judging paradigms is likely to result in a fashion judgment rather than discernment and from the perspective of a grumpy old man it is my perception that society has become much more fashion-conscious over the last two decades: in its clothes, its cars, the way it talks and behaves, the food it eats and now, even in the wine it drinks. Fashion has several functions: it can be worn as a badge to denote your outlook, views or position in society. It can even reflect insecurity and prejudice or it can be just fun. It may also be regarded as a display of taste and discernment and it is here that we have the contradiction. Fashion is after all about national and even international conformity, and apart from the few who set the fashion, the danger in following other’s views is that of ignoring, repressing or even denigrating one’s own good taste and discernment as predetermined by our own culture and physiology. In this sense, fashion-following is a denial of self, whereas an individual’s holistic discernment is the core of civilised life and culture.
It is acceptable to claim that an objective discussion about objective discussions (about taking pleasure in wine) is a reasonable thing to do, but if we return to the situation that persists with wine commentators offering objective analysis of personal, subjective sensations of pleasure the situation looks intellectually rather more dodgy … I have covered this subject in some detail in the article "the brain is a blunt instrument" Cellar Notes, Spring 2002 (see our website) which includes quotes from Robert Dessaix, talking about the appreciation of beauty as the facility for "wonder" and that "we’ve been spiritually deschooled by the kind of world we live in and the kind of values now dominant … this schooling is about efficiency, power … it’s important not to know everything if you want to have wonder …" In the ancient world this conflict between knowledge and subjective experience did not seem to be a problem. God(s) and religion were also entangled with the world view but the difference between Kerygma (greek: message or teaching) and Dogma (hidden tradition or experienced truth) was clearly understood and accepted. In the religious sense, they were both described by Bishop Basil (329-379 AD) as being essential: he described Kerygma as the public teaching of the early church and Dogma representing the deeper meaning of (biblical) truth which can only be apprehended through experience and expressed in symbolic form. In plain man’s language this is the difference between the intellectual attempts at objective description and confronting the subjective experience first hand. The first is something to read, even discuss and has the potential of being a guide. The second is direct and finally unfettered by knowledge, concepts or prejudgment.
The world changed with Isaac Newton in the 1670’s who believed all things followed a natural physical order and could be described objectively and completely in a mechanistic understanding. He succeeded magnificently in the physical sciences on this basis, and in doing so ushered in the Age of Reason with the assumptions that underpin rationalist argument even today. This is the logical source of the 19th century Industrial Revolution, the incredible material sophistication of the 20th and 21st centuries but it has had little relevance to the individual’s experience and appreciation of the arts and aesthetics. Seeds of the counter to this movement can be found before Bishop Basil where the early mystics claimed the primacy of subjective experience (in God) mysteriously experienced in the "the ground of being". This “is to be approached through the imagination and can be seen as a kind of art form, akin to the other great artistic symbols that have expressed the ineffable mystery, beauty and value of life. Mystics have used music, dancing, poetry, fiction, stories, painting, sculpture and architecture to express this Reality that goes beyond concepts.” (A short history of God”, Karen Armstrong , Ballentine Books, NY,1993.). Obviously mysticism cannot be claimed to be "mainstream" today, but meditation, the route used by mystics for approaching the “ground of our being” has become so – be it acknowledged or otherwise. We now commonly talk about “grounded” individuals, the need to “let it go” and other concepts which clearly point to the adoption and secularisation of meditational tools and understanding in modern living.
All this is a philosophical partial retreat from objectivity, it is about finding a ‘new balance’ between the modern understanding of kerygma and dogma and how to achieve the frame of mind best suited to acquire the necessary ‘subjectivity’ for aesthetic experience. It is an acknowledgement of the need for a “phenomenological” view of life – I am referring to the philosophical tradition which started with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and which includes Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. According to this view² it is the unique relationship between the taster and the wine which is tasted which sums up the experience and it is not possible to separate the two poles of the experience if it is to be truly represented. We owe it to ourselves to approach the pleasurable experience from beautiful wine with wonder and anticipation, without too much knowledge and definitely without prejudice.
¹In some interesting work done by the Virtual Reality Research Group at Oxford University a virtual reality room was designed that could grow or shrink as volunteers walked through it. It was found that even if they enlarged the room by up to four times its original size, subjects failed to notice. They faithfully reproduced all the visual cues that we normally use to judge size and distance – including binocular disparity and motion parallax – yet the volunteers disregarded them in the light of their knowledge based on previous experience that rooms just don’t do that. Conclusion: "If your sensory information is very specific, you’ll go with that … but if it's poor or confusing, you'll go with your prior assumption".
²As Merleau-Ponty writes: The world is not problematical. The problem lies in our own inability to see what is there. The attitude of the phenomenologist, therefore, is not the attitude of the technician, with a bag of tools and methods … etc … Rather it is an attitude of wonder, of quiet inquisitive respect as one attempts to meet the world, to open a dialogue, to put himself in a position where the world will disclose itself to him in all its mystery and complexity.