“Philosophy for Sommeliers” isn’t to say that there is an exclusive area of study reserved for those quirky specialists dubbed “Sommeliers,” but rather in the practice of wine service there may be some philosophical musings that best unfold challenging concepts and better construct ethical attitudes in service. Roger Scruton in his rather distinct and British fashion said it best: “By thinking with wine, you can learn not only to drink in thoughts but to think in draughts.”
When I started my wine training amidst an awesome and vast collection of knowledge and experience to be had, the best way I knew how to approach it was through a primarily philosophical experience. In other words, I had to preform what I new best as “conceptual analysis.” However, in what way could wine be philosophical? After all, our musings may be short had if and only if we are concerned with the “that-ness” of wine. Wine is a material object with chemical components and thus investigation seems to be left with the sciences. Wine does however level to more existential areas of the human experience.
First there was the way in which I had to organize my thinking: the “natural order” of things; the process of fermentation, grape varietals, growing regions,etc. These are in my view similar to what Aristotle considered as ‘first principles,’ the basic and primary principles that count almost as the basis of proceeding knowledge. Then came the sort of “experiential” aspect of this: unveiling just what exactly is being had in the glass from (i) the varietals, (ii) the growing region, (iii) the taste “profile” of the wine given (i) and (ii), and so on and so on.
When it comes to these various details in wine, sommeliers have ‘shortcuts’ so to speak with the language they impart. I’d encourage you to read a professional review or the tasting notes of a higher-end wine (say $150) by a wine professional (CSW, CWE, Sommelier, whatever). You’ll notice practically another language being spoken; all the while referring to the viscosity or alcohol content of a wine, its tannic structure or dryness, its aging and its style and so on. Some descriptors of wine that I regularly use for example:
herbacious – Wines that smell of fresh herbs (basil, oregano, rosemary, parsely)
limpid – A wine that’s luminous and bright
minerality – Lick a stone; you got it.
leather – Notes of leather usually left behind the wine from oak aging.
volatile – talking about acidity, almost vinegaraic.
high tone – refers to big aromas that are sometimes otherwise not pleasant.
viscosity – rich and concentrated
masculine – Full-bodied red.
lush – Wines that are rich, soft and velvety.
earthy or gravelly – Wines with an earthy smell.
Familiarity with these descriptors by all means comes with time and experience. The importance of the sommelier – as it seems – lies within his or her understanding of these descriptors and the profile typically associated with a wine or a varietal that’s grown in a specific region of the world. The nice thing about these descriptors is that they can be organized in that similar ‘hierarchical’ way that I mentioned before: More general descriptors of aromas would be things like vegetation, fruit, nuttiness, spice, florality and so on. From there, you could elaborate on what kind of vegetation (fresh vegetables like green beans, mint or bell peppers or can/cooked vegetables like artichoke and black olives?) or on what kind of fruits (drief fruits? citrus?) or on what kinds of flowers (rose? orange blossoms?)
Language and the World
Why do this? Because tasting wine in the form of “objective perception” includes multiple facets of analytical experience that involve more than mere pleasured evaluation. The wine’s overall evaluation is grounded in the drinkers sensitivity and perception, acuity or “sharpness” as well as his memory and careful attention; and even after all this has been done, the entire experience is unified into one aesethetic description.
Language is important in wine because there can be a discernment between what are known as “objective” and “subjective” qualities in wine. Simply put, wine has a chemical makeup. Whenever you smell cork or wet newspaper from a bottle, or an overwhelming aroma of honeydew from your Sauternes, or even sometimes a barnyard smell, these can all be attributed to various chemical explanations – the wet newspaper from 2, 4, 6, trichloranisole (TCA, or “cork taint,”) the honeydew smell from botrytis (plant parasite or fungi) and the barnyard smell from brettanomyces (a genus of yeast).
These are the objective qualities that can be detected due to the wines influence and chemical makeup from fermentation. However, the more challenging qualities – and hence, room for mistakes – are the subjective ones. These are familiar as “characterizations,” that is to say, personal assessments gathered from an experience of what’s actually there in a wine.
For example, I can say that Johann Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion was “pastoral” and his Suite for Cello in G Major was “lively.” These are characterizations I’ve personally made about these two pieces of music. They are assessments insofar as I’ve experienced the music and drawn something from them. However, I’ve said nothing about the song’s “objective qualities” because my assessments rely soly on the posterior analytics of my experience.
Knowledge and Being
The sommelier is allegedly made by what he knows. Yet the staple of sommelier practice resides in what he does in light of what he knows. His actions and disposition are all components of one unique service personality. In a position of service to another he participates in agape; acting and suggesting with humility in light of this context of love. Of course, he does not merely love but he serves. He is in a position of constant relationability; stretching heaven down to the earthly beloved because he himself has already tasted it and must share it with others.
Knowledge must then be understood as grounded in personality. Amidst the vast collection of information cannot be more or “mere” information as its goal or center; knowledge is striving for completeness and will not find satisfaction in this life.
What I find interesting with this point – and I suspect it won’t sit so well with currently practicing sommeliers – is that there is an epistemology (theory of knowledge) being described here that may not be necessarily religious, but surely looks to religion as an example. The example Jesus Christ gave was under a scheme of redemption; transferring new concepts like forgiveness and grace to not merely surpress hate or limit it, but to treat it completely, or even better, to redeem it.
I think this matters because wine is intimately related to categories of soul and body – along with things like philosophy, knowledge and religion – and calls for our attention of thought to them. Religion offers redemptive insight into the grace and knowledge of a sommelier, while philosophy offers an ensuring way to conceptualize and encounter these things seriously.