Only an empiricist really understands wine tasting!

I always knew that one day I’d find links between my all time personal hero, Isaac Newton, philosophy, and wine tasting! Here we go, can you see the links too:

Only recently have I “joined up” these dots discovering that Newton (the alchemist) and Locke (the philosopher) were friends, and that Locke was influenced by Isaac’s view that everything could only be understood via evidence and experience. This is empirical science, and as I read more and deeper I mentally added more to my list of links as I pursued my hobby of collecting wines. I eventually started to believe that it takes an Empiricist to really understand wine tasting! But where to begin?

Let’s begin with THE question:

“When you taste a wine, is the actual “taste” inside the wine or inside yourself, is it something subjective or something objective?”
That’s one heck of a question and seems to oscillate between the scientific and the philosophical, the physical and the metaphysical! As an example, we’ve probably all experienced those moments drinking a wine when somebody says “I’ve got some peach there, you got it too?: Peach? I’ve got mango and pears!” So how can this be; surely a peach is a peach, a pear is a pear and we all know what they taste like, so what’s going on? ……..Oh heck this is difficult, I’ll move onto something important! This IS going to get easier, I promise!

Wine Tasting and Empiricism

The basic premise of empiricism is that ALL knowledge stems from personal experience, and that the experiences referred to by empiricists are principally those arising from the stimulation of the sense organs—i.e., from our sight, sound, touch, smell and taste sensations. So, this philosophical approach gives rise to the tabula rasa or blank slate theory of human development; we are born as empty as a blank sheet of paper and build our OWN knowledge of the world through our OWN sensory inputs and experiences. This theory has had numerous proponents across the ages, from Aristotle, to John Locke to BF Skinner and beyond.
Now let’s add the objective/subjective bits; imagine you and I are both looking at the same glass of wine, we look at it and we KNOW it is red (unless one of us is colour blind) this is indisputable because of the way light is interpreted by the human brain ….. it’s objective! Next, we hold the glass up to our lips and KNOW it is liquid, not a solid, not a gas …… it’s objective again, no difference in the tactile interpretation. So far, interpretation by us is arising from our clearly equal knowledge/past experiences/brain function, we have both “seen red” and “felt liquid” previously. (We also have “language”, the words red/liquid, to describe and communicate these sensations to each other) Now we swirl the wine around our mouths and swallow, THIS is the point at which our previous sensory experiences will diverge, the chances of us both having tasted this specific bottle of wine under identical conditions are infinitesimally slim, but even so, the range of chemical molecules in the wine sending signals to our brains is massive. What happens now is much more to do with things happening inside US than with things inside the WINE. Subjectivity takes over as we desperately seek to find that peach flavour the other person has got, even though we know what a peach tastes or smells like. Think how a dog has a phenomenal sense of smell that we cannot hope to match as they sniff their way around the garden or fields! We cannot detect what the dog smells and nor can we detect that damn peach …. but hang on, I’ve got mango here, how about you!!!?
To recap, sight and touch are objective (relatively) when it comes to wine, but aroma and taste are heavily subjective from one person to another. This is what frequently confuses, irritates and often intimidates ordinary folks like ourselves when worrying about what someone else thinks about a wine, whether that person is a wine waiter, a wine maker or a wine writer. Stop worrying about it, YOU are just as right about aroma or taste as they are, you get mango they get peach ….. who cares!
However ……. a few aspects of wine tasting DO seem to be more universal or objective and these are Sweet/Dry, Acidity, and Tannin (the taste that seems to dry your mouth and make you pucker). These are the elements I always try to focus on when I’m tasting and assessing a wine together with generalisations about fruity, floral, earthy. We can probably all sense fruitiness vs earthiness vs floral in a wine so TRUST your judgement, it’s YOUR experience that counts, especially if you’re in a winery and tasting. Don’t worry about the Fruit Salad Bingo of the professionals, you have not had the same experiences as them, and you will enjoy/hate and buy/discard based on this alone. However, back to the empiricist philosophy … and the 17th Century philosopher who categorised our sensory experiences into two types, followed by David Hume, and then to modern times with Barry C Smith.

John Locke 1632-1704 .. (The mind at birth is like a blank slate, waiting to be written on by the world of experience)
“Among Locke’s simple ideas is a distinction between those experiences that are primary qualities of objects and others that are secondary qualities. The distinction divides those qualities thought to be essential and inherent to all objects and those that are apparent only on account of the effect that the objects have on our senses. Primary qualities include solidity, shape, motion or rest, and number. Secondary qualities are those such as scent and taste. These are secondary because, according to Locke, they do not inhere/reside in the objects themselves, but are causally produced only in our minds by the effect of an object’s primary qualities upon our senses. Another way of conceiving them is to say primary qualities are objective (really exist) and secondary ones subjective (only exist in the minds of observers).”
David Hume (1711–1776)
Hume followed on from Locke and is the philosophical hero of modern day sceptics and empiricists, again renouncing all knowledge except for that which can be gained from the senses.
Barry C Smith (Professor of Philosophy, University of London)
Professor Smith is the editor of Questions of Taste, The Philosophy of Wine, in which philosophers and wine professionals have been invited to contribute short essays. Contributors include Sir Roger Scruton, Andrew Jefford, Jamie Goode and several others, each with different perspectives on wine ranging from pure philosophy, to professional tasting, and to elements of neuroscience. They examine the relationship of a wines qualities and our prior knowledge, science and conscious experience, subjectivity and objectivity, cognitive and sensory aspects of taste, the role of language in describing a wine, and the value of drinking and discussing wine with others. Each chapter is a single viewpoint essay and makes for fascinating and very enlightening reading if you want to get into the the science and mind’s interpretation of wine tasting.

Let Me Encourage You!

Whether Professor Smith is an empiricist or not I have no idea, but I have used much of the content of his book, plus an empiricist approach for my article here as it serves a useful purpose to firstly open up thinking and discussion, but secondly to encourage novice wine tasters and appreciators. My goodness do you need encouraging! There is a world of history, geology, culture and friendships out there if only the wine profession would get off their bloody high horses of tasting wines and describing them as if they had just discovered relativity, time travel or how to cure cancer! Novices need encouraging to visit vineyards, to experiment in different grapes, to join wine clubs, and to travel where “thinking local and drinking local” is part of everyday experience. Be an empiricist, and if the guy next to you says “I’ve got peach, have you got peach?” just reply with “That is pure empiricism, I’ve gone beyond the peach and got kumquats from Kerala, probably the hybrid variety!”
To help you further, do sign up to follow my blog, I’ll be writing a follow up article shortly to advise you of the process to use to taste a wine and the best phone app to use to guide you. Very simple, no empiricist philosophy or fruit salad bingo nonsense! Cheers!
Wine frogs


Categories: Philosophy, Tips, Wine, Wine with Philosophy

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12 replies

  1. Fantastic! I’m so happy I found your blog. Very interesting post, I just wonder if we can really divide things into either objective or subjective. We may both agree that the wine is red and is liquid, but we may be experiencing “red” and “liquid” in different ways, connected with our personal experience and knowledge of those qualities. How red is it? How liquid is it? I think a completely objective observation may be quite impossible.

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  2. Locke remains my favourite of all the philosophers, just ahead of Rousseau.
    It always worries me when a wine bottle tells me what flavours to look out for. I like to make up my own mind. I like the taste of clay that leaks from the chips in the jar. I like the taste of aluminium from the house wine jugs in Greece. I always avoid a wine that claims to have tastes of chocolate!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for a stimulating post! Your brief summary of Locke and his primary and secondary qualities is of particular interest. There appears to be some judgement in his defining the objective left brain stuff as primary, and the subjective right brain stuff as merely secondary. He could have expressed it the other way round, ie that the subjective is primary and the objective merely secondary. How different history might have been!


    • Yes, quite arbitrary really. But I’m very uncertain as to how much of “taste” perception is “mind” rather than “brain” anyway. Can someone’s sensation of peach flavour in a wine be really ascribed to any brain region at all? Unlike the visual cortex for colour of a wine, where is my sense of peach located and how to explain that your equivalent brain centre doesn’t get peach at all!



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