Recently, in the preceding article to be exact, my colleague Hervé Lalau published a very interesting article (in French) with which I am in total agreement. He opened his article with this quotation from the Italian author Mario Soldati. I will of course attempt to translate it for those who do not read French, but I would like to state previously that I totally disagree with what Soldati says here.
« Qui connaît les cépages, sait rarement apprécier le vin: exactement comme les plus grands linguistes savent peu goûter la littérature. Et vice versa (…). Car toute oeuvre d’art, quoiqu’on l’étudie et qu’on doive l’étudier, au fond ne peut être qu’aimée. Et quand on aime, amis, on n’a jamais un sourire de connaisseur ».
« He who know the grape varieties rarely appreciates the wine involved. This is just like great linguists rarely being able to appreciate literature. And vice-versa (…). Because a work of art, even if one studies it, and has to study it, is only there to be liked. And when one likes, my friends, one never harbours the knowing smile of a connoisseur. »
This a a typical piece of simplistic bullshit that constitutes a posture that I would like to discuss here. It poses the question of a supposed incompatibility between knowledge and « spontaneous » appreciation, whilst bestowing, without any justification, a form of superiority on the second form. This reminds me instantly of the Rousseau-based myth of the « noble savage », and I cannot agree with such a proposition that does not hold up to any form of evidence and is simply a political posture that may enlist the sympathy of those so inclined, but does not stand any closer scrutiny.
Esthetic judgements, including those related to the perceived quality of a wine, can be said to be based on two major axes. One of these is individual sensitivity to a specific combination of sensations captured by our physiological apparatus, and the ensuing decoding of these by our brain. The interactions between the two are very complex and are influenced by many parameters. To take a simple example, someone used to eating heavily spiced food will require a far higher level of organoleptic stimulus on their palate to appreciate a dish (or a wine) than another person whose eating and drinking habits have accustomed them to more neutral flavours. And of course there are many more types of interactions. The second axis is what we can call experience (or knowledge) that may bring some people to a form of specialization in literature, music, art or indeed food and wine. This experience brings with it varying degrees of what we call knowledge.
Here I am obliged to refer to personal experience. I have not yet met anyone whose knowledge level of wine is what I consider to be significant and who appears to be incapable of liking or loving a wine and saying so spontaneously. In other words, knowing the grape variety may be irrelevant to appreciating a wine, but it certainly does not prevent one from doing so. So I ask this question: just where is the barrier that Soldati suggests to exist between knowledge and appreciation?
Here I should perhaps declare a form of invested interest. My small company in France that deals with the writing about and the teaching of wine and wine-related subjects is called « Connaître et Apprécier » which if I were to translate it, could read « To know is to like ». I therefore clearly consider that knowledge breeds not only interest, but also appreciation.
I regularly taste wines with many people, either in professional or non-professional situations, and I consistently find that the more people know about wine, the more they appreciate the stuff. Of course they become more discriminating, but this is also true in other forms of esthetic judgement. In my past life I spent several years studying (and practicing) painting. Yet I do not consider that this in any way handicaps my capacity to appreciate or be moved by works of art that I see now. I would say that exactly the contrary is true because my senses are sharpened by the attention I can give to the whole experience, and not just the technical details of a particular work. To continue with my analogy taken from painting, having read the critical essays of Daniel Arasse is no way prevents me from appreciating the painting of Titian, for example. In fact exactly the opposite happens. Having read Arasse’s savant analysis of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (above), I can read things in the pantings that are not obvious to the untrained eye, but the esthetic and emotional responses remains as intense as before. The overall experience is thus enhanced and the critical analysis brought by Arasse enables me (as Hervé mentions with regard to wine) to exchange with others way beyond the very basic « I like/dislike » levels.
It is exactly the same with wine. I would go a bit further in saying that what Soldati says in this quote (and I accept that his words may have been taken out of context) is not only misleading and untrue, but is also symptomatic of a current trend which pretends that all judgements have equal validity, and so we do not need specialists or « experts ». Whilst I wish to maintain the full independence of my own judgement in some fields in which I have accumulated experience, I am very happy to rely on experts in many (most) fields for their knowledge and experience in their specific area. And I am also keen to listen to the points of view of people who have knowledge in the same fields as my own and exchange with them on the topic in question. Wine should be no exception to this general principle and thus I believe that knowledge is useful, indeed essential, insofar as it provides perspective and permits one to relativize and deal with those complex interactions that I mentioned earlier.