Language, truth ... and wine

by Colin Bower (Feb. 2007)


An early reviewer of the writings of DH Lawrence remarked with some degree of accuracy and exasperation: “For Mr Lawrence, everything is always like something else”. In the belle epoque of Edwardian Britain, when a kind of debonair confidence made all knowledge unproblematic, it must have been puzzling for a stolid Times of London reviewer to have a chap come along insisting that things could only be understood by appreciating their likeness to other things.


This probably explains why there was never much writing about wine in those days. Wine is always described as being like something else. This is appealingly post modern. If a chardonnay tastes a bit like a peach, what then does the peach taste like? A chardonnay? And if so, what does either taste like? If you must describe the Van Loveren 2001 limited edition Merlot as being “chocolately”, does it mean that chocolate tastes like the Van Loveren Merlot?  And if we like the Merlot on account if its tasting like chocolate, why don’t we eat chocolate instead of drinking wine?*


These are questions of a profound epistemological weight. They reflect the uncertain status of anything we claim to know and understand.  If I don’t understand the meaning of a word, and I look it up in the dictionary, I see it explained in other words. Those other words, in case I don’t understand them either, are explained by yet further words. There is no absolute point of reference. So where does knowledge begin? Aren’t we all just refracting meaning around from one word to another in a pleasant verbal gavotte to fill in the time as we wait for death?


Such are the existential problems confronting the wine writer. It is my purpose to solve them by describing the experience of drinking a bottle of wine using facts alone. Nothing will be like anything else; everything will be simply itself. Take this wine here, for example. It is a Malbec 2004, from the Ashanti estate, in the Western Cape near Paarl.  This is a fact. See, already I prove my point. (Did I write “Western”, by the way? By what galactic point of reference can it be considered “western”? Planet Earth is round; where does “western” begin and end? Does the infinitude of the universe, of which the Cape is a part, admit of having a western end?). But anyway, here I go opening the bottle. Fact. I pour the wine into my glass, and it gurgles, pleasantly. Fact. Well, OK, fact spiced up with “pleasantly”, no more than a little adverbial seasoning. Although now that I think of it, I see that “gurgles” likens the sound of my pouring wine unto a babbling brook. Oh dear – “babbling”? Is “gurgling” like “babbling”, or is “babbling” like “gurgling”? This gavotte is an intricate dance. What colour is my wine? It is red, deep red, with a hint of beetroot, and yes, if you look at the wine where it touches the glass, a suggestion of brown is apparent, because this wine has done a little aging. Fact.


Fact? But what then is “red”? Can you describe what “red” is in words? Well, only if you make it like something else that is red. In fact, red is, to use the name of a band that I believe exists, simply red; it has no meaning of its own, in it adheres no fixed truth, it defeats definition. Red is nothing but a mysterious code word which can never be deciphered. We all speak in a code without ever knowing what the code encodes. Language is nothing but a shadow, and – like the denizens of Plato’s cave - we never get to see the substantive shapes that cast the shadow. We think it makes sense; but what sense does it make? No-one can say what redness is, we can only agree that the colour we see when we look into a glass of Ashanti’s finest Malbec is much the same as the colour of congealed blood, and as a matter of opportunistic convention, we agree to call it red. I’m already beginning to feel the certainty of knowledge evanesce, and I understand the infinite regression by metaphor of Lawrence’s world.


I swirl the wine in the glass. Ah, see how the wine remains clinging to the sides of the glass. This suggests to me that the wine has a notable sugar content. Now there’s a fact. So, explain again: how do I know that the wine has a notable sugar content? Well, from the way it leaves legs on the inside of the glass after being swirled around. Legs! There’s another metaphor for you, one you can’t get away from, moreover, because if I tried to explain “legs” in scientific language, the attempt would fill half a page, and you probably still wouldn’t know exactly what I meant.


What does the wine taste like? Like? Why, the metaphorical approach to truth is already embedded in the question! We do not ask: “what is the taste?”, we ask: “What does it taste like”. The question predetermines me to provide a metaphorical reply, so I will: like a black velvet ball gown that hath been delved a long age in my grandmother’s bottom drawer, or, say, like the inky ejaculate of a Pacific tossed squid (for instance).  “Ah” I hear you say, “but you strain credibility, for it’s impossible to taste a ball gown, and as for a squid’s ejaculate – come come, be reasonable”. Be reasonable! That’s my whole point, there is no reason to this business of describing things. If I can’t say what the taste of a banana is, but only what it’s like, and what it’s like will in any case only be like something else, then what difference does it make if I compare my Malbac with the taste of things no-one has ever tasted, like ball gowns or squid ejaculate? I am merely obeying the metaphorical imperative.


I’ve had to give up on so-called facts. They don’t exist. It took wine writers to prove this to me. Nothing is ever knowable for what it is. Admit it, you can no more say what a taste is than you can say what a colour is or what a feeling is.


I’ve drunken quite a lot more from the open bottle in front of me whilst wrestling with this problem (wrestling?), and with the challenge of describing my experience by reference to facts alone, but my resolve - to say nothing of my capability – now seems somewhat diminished. One fact that I think I’m sure of is that I’m feeling strangely euphoric right now, and it doesn’t matter much to me any more what this Malbec is like at all.  Apart from the fact that it is spare, regal, well-structured, and delivers more than it promises (that glowing feeling that enshrouds your consciousness 30 seconds after you have swallowed -  that is what it delivers). And so I pose myself the question: what, after all, is truth? The answer is quite simple Mr Wittgenstein. The veritas is simply in the vino.



* Along with the Ashanti Malbac also mentioned, Van Loveren 2001 limited edition Merlot  is a pretty good South African wine. You can substitute your own preferences in order to get the flavour of the piece.


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