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  • Alice’s Discriminating Palate
  • Kevin W. Sweeney

Frustrated at not being able to follow the White Rabbit through the tiny door into the garden, Alice picks up a “little bottle” labeled “Drink me.” She, in Lewis Carroll’s words, “ventured to taste it, and, finding it very nice (it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast), she very soon finished it off.” 1 A drink with such an unusual assortment of flavors might strike some as fanciful, although perhaps no more bizarre than other things in Wonderland. Yet Alice’s report, I say this with a smile, sounds like a fairly accurate evaluative description of a distinctive style of white wine—a high-extract, large-format Chardonnay, probably a Grand Cru white Burgundy such as a Corton-Charlemagne.

Nevertheless, some might object that the terms used to describe what Alice tastes (pineapple, toffy, etc.) sound more like idiosyncratic associations than accurate positive descriptions. Wine rarely contains pineapple juice or toffy. In other areas of criticism, idiosyncratic association is usually warrant for discrediting the objective basis of a critical evaluation. Claiming that a portrait is a good painting because it reminds me of my grandfather condemns the judgment to being no more than a subjective preference. If wine tasting as an aesthetic practice is based upon fanciful associations, regularly using terms such as Lewis Carroll introduces, then it would seem to be open to a similar charge of subjectivity. Thus, there is a philosophical point to Carroll’s description of Alice’s “little bottle.” By presenting a defamiliarizing description of what Alice tastes, Carroll draws attention to the seemingly idiosyncratic character of aesthetic encounters with the gustatory. In so doing, he raises the philosophical issue of the grounds for making objective critical judgments about what we taste, particularly about wine. [End Page 17]

The extraordinary vocabulary of wine tasting has provoked suspicion in both popular and philosophical circles for centuries. In Hume’s famous example taken from Don Quixote, Sancho’s kinsmen are mocked not only because they offer differing evaluations of the wine. 2 They are also, I suggest, laughed at because the tastes of leather and iron are seen as the subjective associations of pseudo-experts. While “leather” and “metal” are not unusual terms in the lexicon of wine tasting, to those initially ridiculing the kinsmen’s judgments, such terms seem to be no more than private associations. 3 Of course, the kinsmen show up their mockers once the key with the leathern thong is found; however, in the Wonderland example, the issue remains of what would count as supporting a judgment ascribing seemingly idiosyncratic tastes such as “roast turkey” or “hot-buttered toast” to a wine—that is, in the absence of a soggy turkey sandwich at the bottom of the wine barrel.

At one time, philosophical reflection on our valuative experience of food and wine played a central role in philosophical aesthetics. In the eighteenth century, many theorists held that our critical appreciation of the arts and Nature was metaphorically based on gustatory experience. Critical judgment, referred to as “fine taste,” was modeled upon a fundamental characteristic of alimentation, the valuational nature of gustation. The hedonic assessment of eating and drinking—gustatory acquaintance conceived as the relishing of flavors, as pleasurably responding to the qualities of what we ingest—was considered the metaphorical basis for all critical appreciation.

In Spectator #409, Joseph Addison draws attention to the “very great Conformity between that Mental Taste . . . and that Sensitive Taste which gives us a Relish of every different Flavour that affects the Palate.” 4 Voltaire, in his article on “Taste” in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1757), also metaphorically links gustatory relish with critical experience. This metaphorical taste, he claims,

is a quick discernment, a sudden perception, which, like the sensation of the palate, anticipates reflection; like the palate, it relishes what is good with an exquisite and voluptuous sensibility, and rejects the contrary with loathing and disgust; like the palate also, it is often doubtful, and, as it were bewildered, not knowing whether it should relish or reject certain objects; and frequently requires...

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