Knowledge and Appreciation

A great wine or meal is a sensuous storm, a blizzard of carnal confetti. But this sensuality that expresses wonder does not remain on the surface providing only deliciousness. One of the significant features of the food revolution is that we are drawn by sensory pleasure to apply our cognitive faculties. We cannot get maximum enjoyment from the sensory features of food or wine without factual knowledge about origins and the context of production. The proud display of this preoccupation with what outsiders perceive as irrelevant minutia is part of what gives foodies and wine geeks the reputation for snobbish elitism. Yet such knowledge is essential to full appreciation of food and beverages— certain pleasures are unattainable without such knowledge. Furthermore, the role of knowledge in appreciation is relevant to the question of whether cooking and winemaking are arts, because art, unlike mere entertainment, is cognitively demanding. Genuine appreciation involves knowledge of how a work of art is put together and how it relates to other works. If food and wine can be art, then they should exhibit similar cognitive demands. If, however, sensory enjoyment of wine or food does not require knowledge, they may lack the complexity and cognitive significance of a genuine art.

In the arts, knowledge of the techniques involved in artistic production, along with theories about art, enhance sensory experience. Knowing what artistic movements were in process at the time a work was created will make us more sensitive to certain features of the painting in comparison to earlier works. For example, the impressionists of the late nineteenth century were not concerned only with painting pretty pictures. They were focused on how different atmospheric conditions modified the appearance of light. This complex interaction of light and atmosphere is easy to pass over in the absence of some understanding of what the impressionists thought they were doing. Similarly, our sensuous engagement with a building can be influenced by knowledge of its age, which makes us more aware of the depredations of time. By focusing on a building’s age we experience how transitory grandeur is, how quickly brilliance can fade, and how age can mute rough edges or soften boundaries. Thus, knowledge of age directs our attention to texture and the beauty that arises from destruction.

Knowledge directs our attention to features we might otherwise miss. Through intimate knowledge of how a painting was created, we become acquainted with how color is mixed and applied and how different brush sizes cause different effects on the canvas. The smell, texture, and weight of the paint and the properties of the canvas gain their own resonance and remind us of the materiality of painting, a struggle to control physical materials that have their own recalcitrance. This knowledge of the process of painting not only guides our perceptions but also gives us an understanding of how an artist has worked with or against the opportunities and limitations made available by her materials and genre. Thus, through knowledge of process we acquire an affection for a work that influences our sensuous enjoyment of it.

In fact, the ability to have a sensory experience at all may depend on knowledge. To the uninitiated, the music of Arnold Schoenberg sounds like noise with no discernible pattern of musical composition. However, listeners who learn the logic of the twelve-tone row (the kind of musical scale employed by Schoenberg) and become practiced at discerning the complex musical patterns enabled by the abandonment of conventional harmonic structure are able to experience genuine sensuous beauty.

Thus, in the arts, there cannot be a sharp distinction between cognitive understanding and sensuous pleasure. They work together to enable appreciation. Knowledge aids appreciation through directing our attention to relevant aesthetic features, through creating feelings of affection for a work that enhance sensory experience, and by making us aware of patterns that otherwise might be unavailable to us. (I’m ignoring the sort of knowledge that is essential to understanding the meaning of a work of art, which I discuss in detail in the next chapter.)

Is there a comparable relationship between sensuous pleasure and knowledge with regard to wine or food? According to philosopher Kent Bach, the answer is no, at least with regard to wine. Regarding art appreciation, Bach writes:

In the case of art and music, this is a very complex ability generally requiring at least some formal training and historical knowledge, including familiarity with other works and, in the case of music, other performances, to go along with perceptual acuity. Acquiring such knowledge leads to aesthetic appreciation by enhancing one’s ability to notice features and relationships that would otherwise escape one’s attention. No such knowledge is required for appreciating a wine. Even the best wines are not works of art. They don’t have cognitive or emotional content. Their aesthetic value is provided entirely by the aromas and flavours that they impart.^17*

Thus, according to Bach, practice at discerning flavor and texture patterns may be necessary for appreciating wine, but knowledge of wine regions or winemaking processes are not necessary for sensuous enjoyment.

I’ve already argued that the emotional dimensions of food and wine are more extensive than Bach allows. He is equally mistaken about their cognitive dimension. If certain kinds of sensuous enjoyment are more readily available when we have relevant knowledge of the practice of art, I see no reason why knowledge of the practice of winemaking would not yield a similar sensuous engagement with wine. This argument holds for knowledge of how food is sourced and prepared as well. Knowledge of how grapes are grown, facts about the geography and weather conditions that influenced the grapes, and knowledge of winemaking practices can direct our attention to particular flavor profiles in wine in just the way knowledge of an artist’s intentions or the age of a building focuses our attention on the relevant aesthetic features of paintings or buildings. The taste of a wine is a complex whole with many dimensions, some of which are obscured and partially hidden by dominant flavors. Wine knowledge helps unravel this complex whole and enables us to gain greater sensory awareness of its elements. The same can be said for foods if their flavors are sensitive to growing conditions or to cooking methods.

Are these sensory features unavailable in the absence of knowledge? Are we utterly unable to sense them without deep knowledge of production processes? I think the answer is probably no, but we are less likely to focus on them or be aware of their existence, and less likely to appreciate them in the absence of knowledge that makes production factors stand out as significant. I might be able to sense the difference between a mild vanilla flavor note and a rich coconut aroma in a Cabernet. But without knowing the significance of the decision to use French or American oak, I’m unlikely to pay attention to the difference in flavor. It is less likely to provoke attentional focus without the influence of knowledge.

Furthermore, knowledge of grape-growing and winemaking practices gives us a palpable awareness of the challenges of winemaking and the materiality of the process, and enables us to assess how well the winemaking operation performed given the challenges of climate and geography. If the materiality of paint yields a kind of affection that enhances our sensuous response to a painting, I see no reason why a similar affection for the material dimensions of wine would not enhance our sensuous response to the wine. In fact, we know that affection makes us perceive other humans as more beautiful; a similar enhancement to the sensory pleasures of wine would also seem a natural response.

Finally, although flavor notes and tactile impressions may be, in principle, individually discernible without substantial cognitive engagement, I doubt that a finely honed, discriminating sense of balance, structure, elegance, or finesse is likely without knowledge of what is in balance or what the elements of structure are. In fact, it is not obvious that the detection of balance, structure, elegance, and finesse are wholly sensory responses. Just as unity, symmetry, and balance in art require a grasp of how complex elements fit together as a whole, so do these notions when applied to wine. This holistic judgment, while in part sensory, would seem to require an intellectual grasp of relations, again indicating that a sharp distinction between intellectual and sensory pleasures is untenable.

In summary, just as in the appreciation of art, knowledge aids appreciation of wine and food through directing our attention to relevant aesthetic features, by creating feelings of affection for foods and beverages that enhance sensory experience, and by making us aware of patterns of flavors and aromas that we might otherwise pass over. The sensory and the cognitive are not distinct faculties but work together to create this sense of wonder that is at the heart of our fascination with food.

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