Wine is for thinking as much as for drinking.
“You could say that wine is as old as civilization,” writes Roger Scruton. “I prefer to say that it is civilization.”
It is a coincidence, but a happy one, that I write my second article on Scruton in as many weeks (the first concerned the environment). I recently finished Scruton’s 2009 book, “I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine.” The delightful book inspired fresh insights, knowledge, and (I’m afraid to say) more elegant prose than I typically indulge in this blog format. The topic is simply too rich to deal with in punchy punditry.
It is also too well covered in Scruton’s writing for me to try to inflict a lengthy summary on you. Read the book for yourself. Instead, I propose to serve you three posts—three glasses, if you will—of (mainly) shorter length, at weekly intervals, sharing reflections I had while I fought to keep up with Scruton’s intellect.
While the other two will focus more on my own thoughts, this first will introduce Scruton’s most central argument: that wine is for thinking as much as for drinking.
Scruton contrasts the social drinking of wine with the individual drinking of other alcohol. The first is focused on intoxication, and creates a desire to smash and destroy. In contrast, Scruton underlines his point about the link between wine and civilization thus:
“When people sit down together in a public place—a place where none of them is sovereign but each of them at home—and when those people pass the evening together, sipping drinks in which the spirit of place is stored and amplified, maybe smoking or taking snuff and in any case willingly exchanging the dubious benefits of longevity for the certain joys of friendship, they rehearse in their souls the original act of settlement, the act that set our species on the path of civilization, and which endowed us with the order of neighborhood and the rule of law.”
As such, wine is not just the expression of civilization in the abstract, but an expression of a place and its people. And new places invite engagement and exploration. Lamenting the identification of wine merely with a variety of grape, Scruton advocates the concept of terroir, in which “the principle ingredient in any bottle is the soil.” He acknowledges that for modern winos, the experience of wine is usually that of drinking the fermented juice of a fruit.
“But that was not my experience on that fatal day in Fontainebleau: with my nose rubbing the nose of Trotanoy I was coming face to face with a vineyard. There in the glass was the soil of a place, and in that soil was a soul.”
For Scruton, this does not simply mean that wine is connected with nature. Wine is not a product of dirt.
“It stands to the soil rather as a church spire stands to the village beneath it: a reaching out towards a meaning which it acquires only if we have the culture and the faith to provide it. …You can no more understand the virtues of a wine through a blind tasting than you could understand the virtues of a woman through a blindfold kiss.”
Because of this (though not only this), wine is the perfect conduit for engaging ideas, and for engaging ideas with people. The typical project of post-Enlightenment philosophical conversation (as indeed for ancient philosophy) has been to engage ideas in the abstract—to talk about what theories and philosophies are best, and to praise or deplore favored or hated philosophers and to overrate both their good and bad qualities. Yet as Greg Forster recently noted in The Public Discourse, societies are (as Burke pointed out) not like machines, but like trees. To move a society in a particular direction, one has to begin from where the society is, rather than acting as though a society with a particular character and history can suddenly become a different one.
Wine, likewise, is the product of a particular place and time. It has a context, and challenges us to engage ideas in context—in a place, and with people. Wine asks us to swallow premise, argument, and conclusion at once; to fit an idea into the life in you, to seek a real application. Scruton observes: “You come to gauge not only its truth and coherence, but its value. Wine is something you live by; so too is an idea. …Wine, drunk at the right time, in the right place and with the right company, is the path to meditation, and the harbinger of peace.”
Thus unlike beer, wine must not only be drunk, it must be drunk right. Alone, by the bottle, with no appreciation for place, for origins, for purpose, for subtlety, wine’s virtues can be lost. But allowing the richness of the wine to permeate relationships with both topic and one’s fellow man is to allow it to do its work.
“Here is one way to do it. First surround yourself with friends. Then serve something that is intrinsically interesting: a wine with roots in a terroir, that reaches out to you from some favoured place, which invites discussion and exploration, and which takes attention away from your own sensations and bestows it instead on the world. Into the aroma that rises from the glass, conjure as best you can the spirit of absent things. Share each memory, each image and each idea with the company; strive for a sincere and relaxed affection; most of all, think of the topic and forget yourself.”
To drink well is to drink socially and intellectually. For me, this raised two considerations. First, it seemed to imply that how a culture approaches drinking can have a profound two-way relationship with its moral and civic health. How we drink both shows and affects who we are. Second, this fact in turn begged a question about how to drink in a culture that had little appreciation for virtue, in wine or in anything else. I will return to each of these questions in turn (with Scruton, of course) in the coming weeks.
(Update: see here for Sediment’s counterargument for why drinking wine alone is good.)
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.