I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine
By Roger Scruton
(Continuum, 219 pages, $17.95)
“This book,” author Roger Scruton claims in his preface, “is not a guide to drinking wine, but a guide to thinking it. It is a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice. Its argument is addressed to theists and atheists, to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, to every drinking person in whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment … [M]y purpose is to defend the opinion once attributed to Plato, that ‘nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by gods to man.'” That’s quite a lot to do in less than 200 pages of actual text but, in his florid, erudite, extended-bravura fashion, Professor Scruton makes a pretty good job of it.
Readers capable of both intelligent thinking and intelligent drinking will find much that pleases and only a little that annoys in this brilliant, idiosyncratic ramble—sometimes brisk, sometimes staggering—through a world of wine occasionally watered down by philosophy. It may be significant that the Prof, an Oxford fellow, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and distinguished monthly columnist for this magazine, chose a few lines from the 14th-century Persian Sufi poet Hafiz to serve as verbal frontispiece to this slender but animated tome:
Come—the palace of Heaven rests on pillars of air.Come, and bring me wine; our days are wind.
Hafiz, a celebrated sot as well as a great poet, is telling us very much or very little here: Wine is the key to the riddle of being? Life and eternity are illusions; only wine is real? Or is it just a pretentious way of saying, “To Hell with everything; let’s have another drink!” A case can be made for any or all of the above…and any or all of the above may be the underlying message of I Drink Therefore I Am. Professor Scruton is more focused in his writing than the inebriate Hafiz was, but there is more than a little of the Sufi or the Dionysian in him as well. He, too, seems to conflate elation with enlightenment, to share the tendency to confuse a sense of exalted dizziness brought on by dervish-whirling, or a state of smugly knowing wooziness brought on by wine, with higher wisdom. Although a much more serious intellect and a much worthier scholar, there are moments when Professor Scruton gives the impression of being to wine what the late, unlamented Dr. Timothy Leary was to LSD: a slightly unhinged, academic cheerleader.
But, there is a huge difference: unlike Leary, Scruton is talented, intelligent, and, beneath all the hype and scholarly pyrotechnics, sensible about most things most of the time. Regardless of one’s own philosophy (or lack of it), anyone who appreciates a good bottle of wine will enjoy the vino-centric portions of this book which, at its best, helps to identify and define the distinct nature of wine in particular, as opposed to alcohol in general:
Wine is not simply a shot of alcohol, or a mixed drink. It is a transformation of the grape.…When we raise a glass of wine to our lips, therefore, we are savouring an ongoing process: the wine is a living thing, the last result of other living things, and the progenitor of life in us. It is almost as though it were another human presence in any social gathering, as much a focus of interest and in the same way as the other people there.
Anyone whose memories include a fond, wine-tinged occasion, will understand and agree with this slightly high-flying assertion. My own mind takes me back nearly 40 years to a villa in Grinzing, a local wine-producing district in the rolling hills overlooking Vienna. Grinzing whites are anything but great wines. Yet, at their best, they can be lively and refreshing with a simple clarity and—for reasons science will never be able to explain—exuberantly, unmistakably Viennese. On that particular sunny afternoon, sitting on the villa terrace overlooking the vines that had grown the grapes that went into the wine I was sipping—and watching my host’s stout Hungarian cook, Illanka, picking the lettuce leaves that would go into our luncheon salad (from behind, when she bent over, Illanka looked, for all the world, like a giant mushroom draped in a Dirndl) the wine, the weather, the setting, and the conversation all seemed perfectly matched. More than that, they combined into an experience that was much more than the sum of its parts, with much of the credit due to the wine.
My host was Robert Stolz, the last of the great Austrian waltz and operetta masters. The wine was “Einzi-Perle,” named after his vivacious wife, Einzi. And the result was a lasting friendship that would include co-authoring the maestro’s memoirs of a life (1880–1975) that brought him into contact with everything from Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, and the last Hapsburg emperor to Berlin in the “Golden Twenties,” Paris in the 1930s, Hollywood in the 1940s, and a triumphant return to his native Austria, where he would continue to compose and direct his own music, producing a unique discography of Viennese light classics recorded under state-of-the-art modern conditions by a conductor who actually knew Johann Strauss Jr. and had seen him conduct.
The friendship that blossomed into a literary collaboration between myself, the maestro, and his charming wife could, I suppose, have happened without that bottle of wine…but I’m not so sure. And anyway, that bright, bittersweet, and ever-so-slightly pétillant vintage was as quintessentially Viennese as my host and the musical genre he embodied. Certainly, it helped to deepen and warm the understanding that sprang up among the three of us on that long-ago afternoon in the hills of Grinzing.
PROFESSOR SCRUTON is at his best when describing this sort of thing; what a reviewer in the Observer described as “wine as the expression of a place and a community…the nuances of intoxication and…the social beneficence of buying rounds.” He is also a master of the thumbnail sketch, capturing the temperament and lineage—the nature—of individual wine types and varieties. Witness this concise profile of Germany’s excellent traditional Rieslings before modern mass marketing started doctoring flavor and alcohol volume:
…the Riesling grape has been trained over centuries to produce slow-maturing wines of immense subtlety. These wines, which come to us in beautiful bottles bearing the names of historic villages of the Rhine and its tributaries, owe their aromatic complexity and their seemingly immortal freshness to an alcohol content so low that maturation is only just achieved. The new culture of excess has as little time for such wines as for the music of Mozart, which they resemble.…In the old German wines you could taste all the virtues that distinguished the German people: their industry, restraint, precision, scholarship and Heimatsgefühl. In the new wines you taste only the vices that they share with us.
If Professor Scruton gives Mozart his well-deserved due, he goes several bridges too far where Richard Wagner is concerned. Indeed, the Prof seems to be nursing the most syrupy aesthetic crush on the Monster Genius of Bayreuth since poor, tragi-campy King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Although Scruton’s writing on Wagner is infused with his usual verve and erudition, both qualities seem misapplied in this case. Besides, in a book as much about wine as it is about philosophy, Wagner is at least 50 percent out of place: in most matters other than music, the man was, to put it plainly, a slob…and more of a beer slob than a wine slob at that.
Witness this account by a foreign diplomat who was present at an 1870s soirée honoring Wagner at the Berlin Fest-Saal:
…the long-wished for moment began for his feminine adorers. The great ladies of Berlin would allow no one to wait on the Master but themselves, and the bearers of the oldest and proudest names in Prussia bustled about with prodigious fussing, carrying plates of sauerkraut, liver sausage, black puddings, and herring-salad, colliding with each other … [one of them exclaiming] “Aber, allerliebste Gräfin, wissen Sie nicht dass der Meister trinkt nur dunkles Bier?“
Which—sorry about this, Professor Scruton—means, “But, dearest countess, don’t you know that the Maestro only drinks dark beer?”