July 23, 2020

Sometime back in mid-April, in one of the gloomiest weeks of the early lockdown, a domestic revolution took place in the utility room of the Rectory. The chest freezer was banished to the garage, and the little nook into which it had neatly sat was repurposed as a cellar.

Cellar is too grand a description. Amazon delivered, and I assembled, a wooden wine rack that has space for nine rows of seven bottles. But cellar I call it. And a couple of times a day, I pop in there just to see that everything is all right with the world.

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I blame Roger Scruton for my ruinously expensive new passion. Back in January, I wrote a kind of obituary to Scruton, trying to say something about his philosophy of place as captured in his life-long devotion to the grape. That started it. Sure, I have always enjoyed a glass of red or three. But since lockdown began, and the pubs and restaurants have closed their doors, I have started to order in from places like the Wine Society, and to make a point of thinking more carefully about what I am drinking. As I began to read more, I began to spend more. Now it’s become a full-blown obsession.

Only last night, I lay awake at 2.30am, my mind going round and round about the possibility of getting a few bottles of the second wine of Château Leoville-Barton. Thank God my membership of ‘the Left’ has been cancelled. It is something of a relief to have given up running away from the fact that I am a bourgeois cliché.

So please excuse the puppy-dog enthusiasm of the recent convert. But thinking about wine has come to be a lot more pleasurable than reflecting upon the miserable state of the world outside. From joyless woke fun-sponges micro-policing our vocabulary for signs of non-compliance, to the genuinely terrifying treatment of Muslims in Communist China along with the realisation that this virus is now in it for the long term — there has never been a more compelling time to retreat back into the domestic bosom, with wine as the evening comforter.

But instead of quaffing it back indiscriminately, I decided to take it seriously. After all, if you spent 30-odd quid going to a play or a concert, you would expect the experience to be enhanced by a certain amount of developed knowledge and by concentrating hard on what was being offered. With plays and concert venues shut down, it makes sense to focus aesthetic attention on something that can be enjoyed within the domestic sphere. And wine is therefore an obvious candidate.

In theory, I see no reason why taste should be, aesthetically speaking, the poor relation of the senses. But can a bottle of glorified grape juice really repay the sort of attention that I have set aside for it? Can there be anything like the sort of emotional and intellectual complexity that one finds in a great opera in, say, a great bottle of Bordeaux?

I started this journey with a considerable degree of scepticism about the sort of thing that people would say about fine wine. Can they really taste leather saddles and lychees and iron fillings in there? And why would you want to?

“Words help us to notice things,” writes the celebrated wine critic Michael Schuster, in his excellent companion for the novice winetaster. It is sensible but often disregarded advice. Indeed, as he goes on to argue in Essential Winetasting, words have a capacity to direct our experience to notice things that might otherwise be lost in the cacophony of sensory stimuli that constantly bombards us.

In this context, Schuster makes a persuasive point about the philosophy of phenomenology.

“The capacity of our senses to perceive far exceeds our ability to articulate all the sensations we can experience … and, of course, we do not need the words to have the experience. But once acquired and linked to the appropriate sensations, words help us locate and identify them subsequently. And when we taste with a wide vocabulary, an active search of the mind generates the words, which in turn capture and crystalise the sensations.”

Schuster’s description of words picking out, and thus drawing attention to, sensations that might otherwise be lost in a flood of sense data reminded me of the opening section of Matthew Crawford’s excellent The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. Crawford describes the experience of being in an airport departure lounge, with screens and advertisements and tannoys constantly bombarding your attention. In such a world, to retain some sort of custody of your senses feels like a form of freedom, a resistance to the cacophony of information that dulls us into some sort of miserable stupor.

Wine tasting is a focused activity, a training in attention. What I learn from others schools my taste, and helps me to notice distinctions that would otherwise have been lost on me. And in these distinctions, the complexity – indeed, the character – of the wine is brought out. And I use character advisedly. Because I am also aware that the sort of skills that I am learning from expert tasters can be applied more generally in the moral life.

Iris Murdoch famously described moral seeing as “attention” — a kind of disciplined concentration on the specific and individual good in other people. And, as she knew, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It takes work.

Lockdown may have helped many of us with our culturally induced attention deficits. It has slowed us down and invited us to pay closer attention — to our gardens or to our children or to what is in our glass — in a way that we mustn’t forget when all this is over. And paying attention in the small things is good practice for paying attention to the more weighty moral issues when they come along.

I am making big claims for serious wine tasting, I know. And indeed, I was chastened in my new found enthusiasm for the analogy between appreciating wine and appreciating people the other week when I tweeted out how thoroughly I had enjoyed a bottle of Château Phélan-Ségur 2014 only to reliably informed that this was also one of Hannibal Lecter’s favorite vineyards. Indeed, Dr Lecter also appreciated wine and appreciated people – but, of course, he appreciated people in a rather different way.

But as I sit out in the evening sun and drink something as intoxicating as Phélan-Ségur, I cannot help but feel I am experiencing some small intimation of the heavenly banquet. Angels are dancing all over my taste buds, showing me the beauty of things I had never noticed before. The glory of God captured within a small draught of brick red liquid. Indeed, how did I miss that there may be a pretty big clue in the fact that our Lord chose to reveal himself in wine?