Wine contains alcohol, and alcohol gets people drunk. Some people get very drunk and do bad things as a result. Others drink too much too often and develop health problems. Society, generally, has a problem with intoxication, and this is a problem for those who make and sell wine.
In the UK, images of provincial town centres turning into binge-drink-induced war zones on Friday and Saturday nights have heralded the call for more control of drinking. Young adults are turning up at hospital appointments with end-stage liver failure after an adolescence of boozy excess. It’s not pretty.
The shadow of prohibition looms over the drinks industry, as the legitimacy of a drug with such a bad social rap is called into question. Can we justify using for our pleasure a tool that in the wrong hands causes so much pain and trouble? Wouldn’t the right thing be to relinquish our pleasure, in a utilitarian bid to alleviate the high social cost of alcohol abuse?
It’s here where we make the tentative case that not all intoxicants are equal, and that wine is different. It’s a slightly flimsy case, but there is a point to be made here.
Would you drink wine were it not for the alcohol? This is an odd question: in practice, removing alcohol from wine changes it in significant ways – I’ve yet to find a reduced-alcohol or alcohol-free wine that I would enjoy drinking. But imagine that it were possible to remove alcohol from wine without affecting its flavour. Then, the answer is maybe – at least for me.
It depends on the situation. Indeed, in some cases the alcohol is a burden. I really enjoy drinking wine, and I enjoy mild intoxication with friends and colleagues, but I don’t enjoy actually being drunk. And other times I might want to drink wine yet stay sober—for example, if I am driving or I have an afternoon’s work ahead of me. The point here is that we are interested in the properties of fine wines as much as (if not more than) the intoxication they create.
It’s for these reasons—the fact that wine is enjoyed as much for its sensory qualities as for its alcoholic content—that the late philosopher Roger Scruton described it as a “virtuous intoxicant.” A few years back, I heard Scruton talk on the philosophy of intoxication. He began with two questions. First, he asked, is intoxication a single phenomenon? In other words, is the intoxication induced by wine the same as or different from that induced by whisky or cannabis? Then he asked whether intoxication is something that philosophers should even be exploring. If intoxication can be wholly explained in scientific terms, this leaves philosophers with nothing to say.
We are interested in the properties of fine wines as much as (if not more than) the intoxication they create
While science can explain the physiology of the drunken state, Scruton argued, there is more to intoxication than just drunkenness. His idea was that the experience of drinking wine is intoxicating in itself, quite separately from the physiological effects of the alcohol it contains. So when we ask about intoxication, we are indeed asking a philosophical question. We can’t make a direct causal connection between the state of intoxication and wine itself.
Scruton used the analogy of a football fan to illustrate the relationship between intoxication and wine. The excitement of the fan watching their team play is caused by the football match, but it isn’t a definable physiological condition. “Intoxication induced by wine is directed at the wine in the same way that the excitement of a football match is directed toward the game,” he said. But it is impossible to make a direct link between the game of football and the state of excitement in the fan.
Scruton then considered the relationships between our different senses. Thomas Aquinas famously distinguished the cognitive senses of sight and hearing from the “noncognitive” senses of taste and smell, a division that Scruton thought is still helpful today. He distinguished, on this basis, sensate and aesthetic pleasures: “The taste of wine is sensory,” he said; “poetry is intellectual.” Intoxication is considered sensate and not aesthetic. Along similar lines, according to Scruton, “a visual experience is a representation of reality, whereas taste and smell are not like that.” This is reflected in the difference between cogent accounts of paintings and the imprecision of winespeak.
Then we are led to consider some more profound aspects of intoxication by wine. “Intoxicating drink is a symbol of and a means to achieve an inward transformation,” Scruton said. “From ancient times, wine has been allotted a sacred function. It enters the soul of the person drinking it.”
To emphasize the special nature of wine, Scruton offered a four-way classification of stimulants:
- Pleases us but doesn’t alter the mind.
- Alters the mind but gives no pleasure.
- Alters the mind and pleases us.
- Alters the mind by the act of pleasing us.
An example of the first is tobacco, which has some mental effects but doesn’t actively alter the mind. The second is illustrated by drugs that we swallow purely for their effect, taking no pleasure in the drug ingestion process itself. Category 3 are stimulants that are mind-altering and that give pleasure in how we ingest them, such as cannabis or alcohol. The last category includes wine, where it is in the act of drinking that the mind is altered.
Alcohol in general and wine in particular have a unique social function—which is what the fourth class alludes to. Many of the social contexts we have devised are aimed at limiting consumption—and hence intoxication—by controlling the rate of intake. The buying of rounds of drinks in the pub and the circulation of wine at a dinner party are examples of this.
“The qualities that interest us in the wine reflect the social order of which we are a part,” Scruton said. Wine is not simply a shot of alcohol. At its heart is the transformation of the grape in fermentation, followed by the transformation of the soul under its influence. The Greeks described fermentation as a “work of God,” and this notion is reinforced by the fact that humans bring to this process the skill of husbandry: we aren’t actually “making” the wine; we are creating the conditions for it to make itself.
There is “truth in wine,” but this is truth for others: as we drink wine, each of us reveals more of ourself
Truth is an important component of wine, its effect present and revealed in the flavor. Thus wine has a quintessential honesty. There is “truth in wine,” but this is truth for others, and not for us: as we drink wine, each of us reveals more of ourself to others; we talk more, and more openly. Wine is quite unlike other mind-altering drugs, which are dishonest in nature, because they claim to elevate the perception of the user such that the user enters a transcendental realm. These drugs lie in that they tell us about another world outside our own. Instead, wine tells us about the true world, the one we live in, revealing more about it.
I like the idea of wine as a “virtuous intoxicant.” According to Scruton’s view, there is something special about wine: it isn’t like other drinks. As an indirect support of this idea, the consistent and long-standing role of wine in culture and religion does suggest that it is a unique substance.
For a review of The Goode Guide to Wine, click here.