This is a review of the book The Aesthetics of Wine by Douglas Burnham and Ole Martin Skilleås.
You can currently buy new copies online for around £55.00. I got a used “as-new” copy for £25-ish via Amazon, which I thought was good value. It is a slim volume of just over 200 pages, and obviously priced with the expectation of a small market. For me personally, a lot of the book’s value will be as a work of reference – to be able to check on various issues I might come across at some point in the future, and to use the references to access the original articles if necessary.
The first chapter sets the scene very nicely. It defines the key concepts and lays out the basic arguments for wine being an aesthetic object, promising that detail will be explored in later chapters. But it was in those later chapters that I began to lose the thread of the plot. It might well be just me and my non-philosophical attitude, but I found it discussing many things I was not so interested in, and failing in what I was most interested: a critical examination of the evidence, rather than opinion and received wisdom.
I now know a lot more about aesthetics than I did before I read the book, but I am afraid I finished up not really caring whether wine was a valid aesthetic object or not. Life is too short and it is certainly not the most important aspect of wine for me. If a wine is interesting, tastes good in my opinion, and I can enjoy it with good food and company, that is usually enough. Like most people who write tasting notes, I use descriptors from the language of aesthetics, but that is about as far as it goes with me and the aesthetics of wine. I am also aware that wine very much an object of commerce, and feel that a lot of aesthetic wine language is actually thinly veiled investment advice and marketing.
If you know me at all, you are probably aware that I very much think that wine appreciation is essentially subjective, right from the most basic perceptions of flavours through to the evaluation of quality. But I am prepared to allow a degree of inter-subjectivity. Thus I was very interested to see the topic of inter-subjectivity broached by the authors. However, I was hoping for more evidence to be presented for inter-subjectivity in wine. It seemed to be assumed rather than demonstrated. What is the level of agreement between experts, even within a relatively narrowly defined cultural context? I am more and more coming round to the view that there is very little. Certainly experts can be very clever at evaluating the relative merits of different Burgundy vineyards, and Bordeaux châteaux, but their unanimity seems to evaporate when tasting blind.
One of the main reasons for disagreements about wine is, I believe, genetic variation amongst tasters. This aspect was dismissed far too lightly by the authors. It was pointed out that 7% of males (that would be a lower percentage of the population as a whole) are colour blind, and that does not cause problems for the idea of aesthetics in the visual arts. However, they also said that there are dozens of specific anosmias, each one affecting up to 75% of the population. We know that some of those anosmias involve aromas used as wine descriptors, and I suggest that this high prevalence of complex and difficult-to-detect anosmias represents a big problem for the aesthetics of wine. It is very different to the situation with the visual arts and colour blindness, which is far less prevalent and more easily detectable.
My overall impression was that the book was written for academic philosophers rather than wine lovers, even wine lovers with an interest in philosophy. So maybe a lot of my criticism is unfounded, but I expect that it is wine lovers, rather than philosophers, that will be reading here. Like my tasting notes, there is of course a lot of subjectivity in this book review.
I made a few more detailed comments on the UK Wine Forum. Do take a look at if you are interested, and feel free to add to the discussion there, or as comments to this blog post.