How to know wine: the epistenology of Nicola Perullo

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We need to find new ways to talk about wine.

In its 188 pages Epistenology: wine as experience (Columbia University Press, 2020), Nicola Perullo, professor of aesthetics at the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche in Piedmont, begins, in a way, by noting that much of wine is best understood by a beginning mind and then , to reach his own, quickly shifts to an emphatically subjectivity and shifting landscape. Reading his book is as physically pleasurable as drinking the wines he regularly lands on.

Its aim is to reconstruct the relationship between you and the wine, and the title, a clear and luminous blend of epistemology and ontologyringing oenologyis a theory born out of his “loss of interest [in] tasting as an acquired education” and in “knowledge of wine”. As opposed to an optical tasting method — mouth and head, but what about the rest of you? —concerned with tannin ranking and assigned flavor list, his theory is a haptic tool available through whole body touch and intuition. Haptics, he writes, concerns “the belly, the head and the feet, without which there would be no wine”. It is not about the “comfortable framework of common knowledge”. And so by design, it’s a book that’s out of control. A review of this one has to get a little lost, read like drinking the contents of a bottle, immersing in a soft haziness that’s sure to guide you to something truer. Wine, it seems to say, is a medium in its own right; what hope do you have, why bother, to translate it into writing or ego?

“How many of those who are scared in life have recently become interested in ‘wine tasting’?” he writes a little in it. A lot, his answer in another part of this cheerfully streamlined book: a frightened crowd filling the oenology courses and the courses of tests, brandishing the resulting certifications, hordes following and perpetuating “the established grids and the grammars given which have nothing to do with wine. He would know about these noisy, shaky tests: the book begins as a chronicle of his own recent experience, a consequence of his years as a wine drinker and wine tasting teacher and judge, as his two worlds of wine (but he hates that term, the whole world is the world of wine, there are no separate worlds) were driven away more and more by distracting discomfort, exhaustion, and a continuous, bodily wine drop. His book is the overflowing result of what he calls “an experience that completely overturned my previous assumptions.” . . . like crossing a frozen river” in a language that seems to work in real time. He proposes it as a printed process, a “radically relational” continuum of “doing and undergoing”, that of the drinker and his wine and of who made it and. . . . It is therefore not a book explaining how to do or know this. To know wine by haptic sensibility means, it dances, “connivance with it” (in related botanical terms, a connivance state aims at contact, “convergent and tactile but not merged”, says the 2001 New Oxford American Dictionarythe one closest to me as I read this), instead.

The first section, “Wine and the Creativity of Touch”, was first published in Italian in 2016, as a result of the year before it. The second part is “Taste as a Task”, published in 2018 and written the year before. “Belligerent and dry, then calmer and suave,” he characterizes them respectively during his introduction, making me wonder which wines were part of the former, what he poured for the latter. The first part is personal and immediate, and in it the language is fluent and hyper-focused, a passage that repels intruders — “illiterate in contact with the earth’s surface, we are fearful and bewildered that we are combined with its materials”, – while still cajoling – “I ask for a willingness to be open and exposed to different movements of language as a continuous reading experience of reading. – and celebrate. It’s intimate and swimming, lost and brave and the lights are there, paths you will see and understand but not always. Perullo wants you to see what sharing is, what touching, living with, like, is. “Be brave,” he writes to all of us. At one point, a bottle of Gravner was drunk. To another, “on a distant evening in Livorno”, a Cepparello that had already been tasted several times, “but this alluded to one of the first occasions to question myself”. A drunken Serragghia in which “the straw hut participated. . . we have desired and imagined. Dare I consider them tasting notes at least until I can think of a suitable term, although perhaps keeping the one we have helps redefine? Part two, breathless, he puts his new process into practice. Together, the parts become a book that is a frantic, wine-response meditation.

Being an expert means having had experiences in the past. And so there is no wine tasting or judging here. No essence of wine. The wine is in the world, where everything is, including you, and where the tasting of your neighbor is rather the experience, each time a “continuous production of twisting knots”. Since “to lead a life is to draw a line”, each of these encounters is made up of your line, that of your companions, of the wine or wines, each one has its own tied story, each one a now. Wine, no matter if it’s “one” you’ve drunk a thousand times before, Perullo recalls, is different as you are each of those times. Those who get stuck at the expert miss the present, dragging their other experiences here and pretending that this tasting is more like that. To replace expert tastings with encounters, encounters each for himself and which Perullo draws in converging lines, disordered or not, around a point which is the act of drinking the wine (you, drinker he warns, no taster, are such a line; who made the wine, some degrees from where and why others), an act rooted in “conviviality, sociality, passion and love”. A bottle of “Rosso Saverio” from Tuscany’s ragged rocky Isola del Giglio “which I drank with a close friend acted on our shared sentiment without the need for a linguistic step, elegantly silent”, is for him an “experiment, simultaneous with a provocation and a confession.” The knowledge about is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for know with but can enrich it later: “the wines were loved by us at that time, and any attempt to build a definitive theory around them is doomed to failure”, he turns around for a moment . Drink imagining touching wine, whole body, and I mean beverage like “spit rejects incorporation”. Produce a language that is tactile or solid things. Knowledge and being equivalent terms, the wine which “is not a product to be measured but an encounter to be encountered” does not have a theme either (“subject of thought”, “text of a sermon”, as well as a word which in Italian relates to to fear) and is connected to everything. There should be nothing to talk about.

After backtracking on spitting, rare among wine books, Perullo still lets the booze in – heady, fantastic understandings of swallowing, who are you with. There is an address to this little-known component of wine writing (write with wine?): in drunkenness, wine is “felt by everything”, because “the free and anarchic language of wine does not require tasting. Rather, it is drinking, in order to explore and create in as many directions as possible. Now he asks his students to write about wine without a tasting chart, without those words they might be armed with and instead describe with gestures, drawings, “coloring leaves or stones or walks, recite verses, or sing, walk, dance,” asks to which “they are usually immobilized by fear.” But only temporarily. Touching the earth, the air, the vine paths, the plants that made the wine, “a dance of joy unfolds.” Perullo writes experience as manifesto, makes writing that is true because it happens.

Unfortunately, there is a flaw in this rich background of knowledge of full-bodied wine. In several places, Perullo writes disability or illness as inaccurate and demeaning metaphors for the breakdowns he goes to. Particularly personal is a puzzling mention of autism with wine: among his linguistic flights – “desks where bottles are placed like seated schoolchildren who have to defend themselves” – there is a stark error in his work against systematic tasters . “They design such complex systems,” he writes. . . and slipping into autism caused by their pursuit of virtuosity as an end in itself. I don’t know what words he meant instead, what he imagines autistic people to be, whether he would like autistic wine writers to be excluded from the practice of epistenology – but that’s the one of the few shocking interruptions in what is otherwise an important read. Let’s give them a chance to tackle a more pervasive problem, follow other advice it can’t provide, like this 2021 help from Kristen Bottema-Beutel, et al, in “Avoiding Ableist Language: Suggestions for Autism Researcher”.

At the end of the first part, the ugliness has temporarily disappeared, and Perullo is rhapsodic, his language has become a grand finale: “the language that springs from the haptic. . . it is the scale we have to talk about the world. The second part, with the explanation of the writing on the wine as a dreamlike haptic touch, comes a smoother surface – he’s right – no less extended to be more immediately narrative. He shouldn’t have included the sources, he notes, but did it anyway: “When we studied and wrote while drinking Serragghia,” he can’t omit, and also thinks of polyphony Georgian supras where “the wine dances silently on the table while it makes us talk and sing”, or for that matter, the osteria of Montemarcello. Sometimes he makes his students dance in silence with wine.

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