Melvyn Minnaar: The loneliness of wine

By , 3 February 2021

It’s one of those silly questions asked by an acquaintance or stranger who wants to corner you out of naughtiness or, more seriously, is concerned about your private habits: “Do you drink by yourself?” We’re talking wine obviously, the follow-up then is whether you’ll pull the cork when there’s no-one else around.

I, for one, have no qualms. But sharing is good. I believe in the generosity of wine.

Blessed are those of us, who during the past year’s times of lockdown and loneliness, had the comfort of partners, a hold-out supply of wine, and the diligence to handle complicated issues of anxiety and threatening depression in a world that never should have been thus. But let’s spare a thought for those who had and have to survive in a single boxed environment.

The odd irony of the alcohol ban then and recently (restrictions which, if better designed and implemented, I support for the right reasons) is that some people who would have found some solace in a nice glass of wine, was denied that small panacea. After the last bottles under the stairs or aging in the custom-cooled cellar ran out.

(I’ve mentioned before the ‘good’ of wine in this piece about the poet Uys Krige’s two-hander play Die Lewe is Alleen Draaglik As Jy ’n Bietjie Dronk Is. Also Sir Roger’s thoughts – see below.)

Wine functions and finds meaning within an ancient culture of sharing. In fact, one can consider wine essentially as ritual (in which it often features formally), as libation of, and for, the link between people when they gather for whatever social reason. Its ancient history ties it to the religious, to the gods and to God. The Dionysian symposia imply wine and numerous voices in debate. The Christian communion is a public sacramental ceremony.

But on a mundane level, show me the wine lover who doesn’t want to share – to let a mate in on the joys and excitement of the wine in the treasured bottle.

Like so many things in the greater scheme, since March last year, the pandemic overturned that simple construct of wine as pleasure shared. To many, I suppose, the answer to that question about the lone drinking moment would be “Yes”. On your own, with your one glass and one opened bottle.

This was a time to give that glass special, individual attention. Not only was it the upsidedown-ness of the whole world in a cloistered environment that compelled this attention, but the material uncertainty of having another glass, buying another bottle, encountering another wine in the future. In other words, dealing with the loneliness of wine.

Which then turns on the philosopher in the wine lover.

There are not many of them around in the Cape winelands, but the subject of wine as serious object of intellectual discourse has tickled the minds of significant thinkers, going back to the Greeks.

Possible best known of contemporary philosophers who considered the meaning of wine is Sir Roger Scruton who died last January at the age of 75 after a colourful career. He thought and wrote about many subjects in, let us say, the aesthetic sphere, including wine. His great contemplative ode to wine is the 2009 good read book I Drink Therefore I Am.

It’s a title that cheerfully acknowledge whatever decision you make to open your finest bottle in this restricted time of lonely drinking, it will be fine. (Also a clever answer to that silly, opening question above.)

Scruton’s amusing words and musings sidestep the subjectivity/objectivity argument that bogs down many a debate about wine judgement. He had no scruples and nominated “intoxication” as an aesthetic experience: “Intoxicating drink is a symbol of and a means to achieve an inward transformation. From ancient times wine has been allotted a sacred function. It enters the soul of the person drinking it” (reported by Jamie Goode here).

Two other British philosophers worth reading who have taken on the task of pursuing the quest to find wine’s existential significance are Barry Smith and Cain Todd.

Smith is a director at the University of London who, in 2009, edited a series of essays in Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. He also heads the deliciously named Centre for the Study of the Senses at the university. The Philosophy of Wine: a Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication (lovely!) was published by Cain Todd in 2010. Todd is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University’s department of politics, philosophy and religion.

Todd, in particular, is a holdout for Scruton’s idea of wine’s aesthetic significance. In a 2012 essay he wrote: “I defend the aesthetic interest and value of tastes and smells by showing that descriptive and evaluative judgements about wine are subject to strong normative standards of evaluation and interpretation.”

You can read more here.

May I suggest this as further reading for a lonesome one-person wine drinker, as well as those wine judges so sure about themselves awarding points.

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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