Honesty in Wine: An Inquiry – Part 1

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truthA recent debate in this blog’s comments with Matthew Sherlock of Kits Wine Cellars has prompted me to address a big and difficult question in the world of wine: what is honest wine?

This is a loaded question, and one filled with many potential biases, opinions and, sometimes, accusations. I do not want to write something in this vein. Rather, I propose to address the question of honesty in wine by looking at what we mean when we say ‘honesty’. What exactly are we trying to say? And, what have others tried to say when they’ve used this term?

Importantly, this is not a treatise on biodynamics in wine, although I will address that topic. Instead, it is an inquiry into what may distinguish some kinds of wines from others in ways with more intellectual complexity than a blueberry versus a raspberry.

In my perusing of dictionaries, essays, and literature I have noted varied associations with the word honesty, not all of which coalesce into a single meaning. Some might say that to be honest is to be genuine, to be characterized by truth, and importantly, not to be misleading. Others might consider honesty as authenticity, sincerity, equity, and fairness. And still others have conjured up connections with integrity, uprightness, and dependability.

Along these lines I propose to divide my investigation of honesty in wine into three categories: honesty and truth; honesty and morality; and honesty as virtue. Accordingly, this ‘article’ will comprise a series of three posts, each dealing with one of these aforementioned aspects and investigating how these associations help us to understand the relationship between honesty and fermented grapes.

I begin the series with a look at honesty and truth.

Part 1: Honesty and Truth

We’ve all read the latin maxim in vino veritas, or ‘in wine, truth’. I cannot hope to uncover all possible dimensions of this argument in a simple blog post. Philosophers have been debating such questions for thousands of years. What I do hope to accomplish, however, is suggestive – a suggestion as to how one might conceive of the relationship of these two concepts insofar as they impact wine making and appreciation. And mostly, as with every post in this series, I hope to facilitate thought and discussion about wine that goes beyond the tasting note, beyond that limited mode of comparative analysis, and towards something more robust, and perhaps more contemplative.

I want to discuss this topic in relation to an important distinction in ancient Greek philosophy between techne and episteme. I will focus mainly on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, but will try to keep everything grounded.

Techne is traditionally translated as ‘craft’, whereas episteme is traditionally translated as ‘knowledge’. One engages techne when learning how to perform a task based in the world, such as being a doctor, or, more akin to us wine folk, being a farmer. One engages episteme when considering the essence of things, say as a pure scientist might do when looking at the fundamental properties of chemicals.

The big debate in ancient Greece was about how these two ideas connected to each other. Did one gain access to truth simply through episteme, or was some form of techne also required? Could one influence the other?

These questions are important to us because they highlight the connection between the craft of farming and of wine making, and the knowledge of the deeper meaning of these activities.

So, whereas crafts require knowledge of specific skills, such as how to grow healthy grapes, they also involve knowledge of the function or goal of the application of skills, such as producing wine. Knowing the craft (techne) of wine making is not enough to have access to the knowledge (episteme) of winemaking. That requires deeper reflection on the meaning of what one is doing when growing grapes and making wine.

Honesty, insofar as it means genuineness or truthfulness, requires not just techne as craft, as knowledge of what to do, but also episteme as knowledge of the goal, of the meaning of the craft. And importantly, this meaning cannot derive simply by connecting the craft of wine making to some other craft, such as commerce.

Rather, meaning has to come from the basic components of the craft at issue – in this case, grape growing and wine making. In other words, one’s knowledge of the craft of grape growing and wine making, in order to be honest, must include some form of knowledge or reflection on the nature of that craft itself, the patterns of its existence, its history, and its role in culture and society.

To avoid stilted claims to ‘authenticity’ and absolute notions of truth, we could say that an honest wine, in its truthful capacity, does not mislead the wine drinker as to its historical, cultural, and social particularity – in other words, as to the knowledge of the reasons for the craft. This is the same principle as knowing where your food comes from, as taking care for the products you consume, and thinking about their histories and the processes employed to create them.

The meaning of the craft of making wine must appreciate how that craft mingles the natural and the cultural in order to produce an object that is not abstract or minimally defined, but which is rich, particular, and emphatically an expression of craft and knowledge, of techne and episteme.

Thinking about a bottle of wine simply as a consumable object, for pure pleasure, or for pure commerce, belies the particular series of events that have come together to produce it and make it possible. In other words, such minimalist thinking misleads. It is not genuine because it does not connect the consumer with the forms of knowledge that constitute the underlying complexities of a bottle of wine.

This suggests to me that a wine’s honesty cannot solely be determined objectively, as a product of a certain set of processes (whether they be organic, biodynamic, low cropping, etc.), but must also be determined subjectively, by the wine drinker’s willingness to engage in a bottle’s particular history.

Thus, if a wine is to be honest, insofar as honesty relates to truth, it should not obfuscate its history, trump up its origins with puffery and false claims, or seek to prevent the wine drinker from taking those subjective steps into thinking beyond the immediately apparent.

What sort of wines are these? I am not so sure that this question is easy to answer, and it may vary from person to person, even as it cannot derive from purely relative subjectivity.

Perhaps it is this demand put upon an honest wine by the claims of truth that pushes us to consider how to situate a wine and its particular history in the common world – in other words, to consider the moral dimension of honesty. It is this question that will constitute the second part in this series.

Posted in: Honesty in Wine

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  1. Honesty in Wine: An Inquiry – Part 2 « Just Grapes - [...] first post in this series discussed honesty in wine in relation to honesty as truth. In that post I…

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