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December 02, 2009

David Womersley considers if drinking wine is fundamentally different from drinking anything else: I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine - Roger Scruton

Posted by David Womersley

I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine
by Roger Scruton
Pp. 212. London: Continuum, 2009
Hardback, £16.99

In the early 1980s Roger Scruton wrote occasional columns for The Times, one of which developed a not entirely serious (but also far from entirely frivolous) argument extolling the intellectual and academic benefits of drinking wine. By thoroughly familiarising yourself with, say, white Burgundy, you could, for example, acquire a great deal of curious information about history, geography, chemistry, whatever. I remember finding it a very attractive argument, part of its attractiveness being that it was far from conclusive, and so whether or not one agreed with it was, rather courteously, not a matter of coercion on Scruton's part.

But the serious point which underlay the deliberate lightness of treatment was the insight that it is a mistake to view wine as merely a drug. Surrounded as we are by intrusive health "advice" (a.k.a. outrageous and contradictory bullying) which lumps alcohol in with nicotine, ecstasy, marihuana, and heroin, and which is uninterested in differentiating wine from, say, industrial vodka, we sorely need to be reminded of the special place that wine occupies in our civilization, and of the contribution it has made to that civilization. Scruton's new book is an often witty, sometimes moving, exploration of this timely theme.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is a memoir, a kind of Biographia Vinosa, in which Scruton relates how his interest in wine was awakened, and how he came to understand that it was more than just another alcoholic drink. In his case the decisive wine was Château Trotanoy 1945; and we can surely all agree that he fell by a noble hand. But Scruton is also candid about how particular wines have assisted at and with particular turning points in his life. The most crucial of these involved his renunciation of an earlier choice of character, when he was "an arrogant outcast in a university whose name I disgraced", and his assumption of the more modest persona of "a contrite and undistinguished follower of foxhounds" (p. 26). The moment of conversion was graced and facilitated by a fabulous and memorable wine, Château Lafite 1945, "the greatest year from the greatest of clarets" ((p. 27):

Not only was it priceless and irreplaceable, so that pulling the cork was a final goodbye to a mistaken path. It also prompted me to order and unfold my thoughts, to take things gently and in proper sequence, to look back over failure in a spirit of forgiveness and to face to the future with no thought of success.

It would be difficult to imagine that beer or any spirit could have ministered to wisdom in that way. Nevertheless, in the minds of our health professionals, wine is simply another vehicle for conveying alcohol into the bloodstream, and they are either uninterested in or unable to appreciate its distinctiveness.

Scruton, however, is eloquent on why wine drinking is different from, say, drinking cider, and this book is studded with faintly romanticised, but also thought-provoking, evocations of its special intellectual benefits. For instance, it would be easy to respond to prose such as this with a vulgar scoff (p. 115):

Wine, properly drunk, transfigures the world at which you look, illuminating that which is precisely most mysterious in the contingent beings surrounding you, which is the fact that they are - and also that they might not have been. The contingency of each thing glows in its aspect, and for a moment you are aware that individuality and identity are the outward forms taken by a single inner fire, and that this fire is also you.
Prose such as this is not well served by being excerpted in this way, of course. But as I read through the book and accustomed myself to the way Scruton's prose moves easily from jokiness to intellectual plangency, I thought I could sometimes see at least the hallucination of meaning in them. And no, I hadn't been drinking.

The second part of the book locates the drinking of wine in a set of arguments and expositions about the good life - what sustains it, and what threatens it. I found this slightly the less successful half of the book, although the section entitled "What to Drink with What" is a nice parody of the often fatuous advice concerning what wine to serve with what food, being instead a list of suggestions of what wine to drink while reading which philosopher (e.g. Nietzsche is to be accompanied by "a finger of Beaujolais in a glass topped up with soda-water"). Scruton's emphatic philosophic preferences are entertainingly on display here.

As one might have hoped, there are some worthwhile practical tips to follow up. "Faithful Hound", a South African red blended from Bordeaux's varietal palette of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, but with a very un-Bordelais dash of Malbec thrown into the mix, is well worth seeking out; although you will also have to track down some either extremely courteous or extremely stupid and ignorant guests to serve it to if you want to repeat Scruton's experience of being congratulated on giving his friends Château Léoville-Lascases. A G Wines are selling the 2004 for £11.99 a bottle.

A good recommendation, too, is Scruton's advice to look for examples of a white Pernand-Vergelesses from the lieu-dit "Les Noirets", which lies at the foot of the hill of Corton and is thus the neighbour of the fabulous white burgundy grown there, Corton-Charlemagne. According to Scruton, Pernand-Vergelesses "Les Noirets" possesses (p. 37)

the fine clean aromas and deep nutty richness that are the hallmarks of a noble white Burgundy.
Good examples are made by the Domaine Maratray-Dubreuil, the Domaine Rollin, the Domaine Ludovic Belin, and the Domaine Rapet. Moving to Italy, D'Angelo's Apulian red, the Aglianico del Vulture (Aglianico is the grape variety, which tastes a bit like Nebbiolo; Vulture is the area, an extinct volcano in Basilicata) is hard to find, but worth it when you do. Majestic are currently selling another D'Angelo Aglianico, the Sacravite 2007, for £7.99 a bottle if you buy two.

Lastly, if the economic crisis has driven Yquem, Climens and Rieussec from your cellar, you could do much worse than follow Scruton's advice and replace it with a good Monbazillac, Château Septy. It is nothing like as subtle a drink as good Sauternes or Barsac. But it is properly sweet (or, as Scruton has it, it possesses "all the E major sonority of a golden Sauternes"); and it has none of that harsh afterburn you sometimes get with Monbazillac.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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