What a Honed Palate Really Signifies

January 2018

I adore listening and watching people talk about taste and palates. For talk of this nature always returns to an idea that our perceptions of things are privileged. People are saved by talk of some logic which holds that preferences are indeed preference: they are subjective, self-dictated, and therefore insulated from criticism. Let’s eliminate that assumption for a moment.

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Talk of palates alludes to a compresence, for we talk about a combination of qualities like ability, sensitivity, discernment. We speak of taste as an ability and a skill of the palate and the sensorial faculties. We speak of a sensitivity of these faculties, for it is one thing to consume, and another deeper, more meaningful skill to taste the tones and parts which make the whole. We speak of discernment as a mental capacity, a critical engagement with a subject which permits the discrimination of its parts and to organise them into our own neat categories. Power of discernment then enables one to distinguish these parts and ultimately identify them with an emphasis on accuracy and exactitude.

Each of these qualities require an increasing degree of skill, all in precise methodological order to then taste. Take an Australian shiraz I consumed and tasted recently: A 2012 Bin 128 from Penfold’s. My ability to consume is obvious, I gulp. My ability to taste is present also. I am able to swirl my glass, aerate the wine, take a sip, purse my lips and inhale some air. I let the wine coat my tongue and I can feel its flavour and texture work on my palate, ready to be interpreted. I can swallow this wine and feel the warm purr of alcohol, letting its length linger and residual flavour hum in the mouth.

I am then able to take this whole experience, and engage with my sensitivities to identify and describe the aged pillowy mellowness of the shiraz’s tannins, the jammy fruity tones of sour cherry and ripe plum on the nose, the tempered fire of black pepper and well-integrated oak which supports the convincing display of juicy red fruits found through an engagement on the tongue.

I can then take these totally empirical experiences and merge it with a mental capacity, and discern these very impressions. Tasting becomes a holistic experience, because sense impressions are combined with a history of experiences – previous engagements with similar wines, aromas, and flavours; and the possession of a certain degree of education – knowledge of wine region, style, winemaking, varietal, …etcetera. It is discernment that is the most advanced facet of the tasting experience, for it relies upon a further engagement with the subject – to look through it rather than just at it (which is done initially).

But where does language fit into this picture? I believe that having a good palate is ultimately a matter of language, for it allows a championship over supposedly ineffable sense experiences. It is only language, and totally up to one’s prowess and accuracy of language, that enables our experiences through tasting to enter a public arena. For in a languageless existence, verification cannot be possible, and through multiple instances of verification we arrive at intersubjective agreement. Through verification we agree that Tabasco is spicy, oaked chardonnay is often buttery, and oysters are briny – a specific descriptor is assigned. Tasting is therefore a language game; to taste and project experiences openly is to grapple language. For if one is able to pinpoint the taste of black pepper present in a glass of Australian shiraz, then this identification becomes valuable only when it enters the extrinsic public realm: to transform an inner monologue by jotting a description on paper; or to declare pepper’s presence by directing that descriptive claim towards a bunch of friends consuming that very wine at a dinner party. For if this cannot be expressed, despite it being detected, then it may as well be inert and valueless. For when we sip Alsatian pinot gris, finger pan sauces and add cream and butter to achieve harmony and reduce down for balance and mouthfeel, observe works by Edward Hopper, or listen to Suzanne Vega’s superb Solitude Standing, to indeed demonstrate that one possesses a developed, rigorous, and well-honed palate, all one really has to do is succeed at this language game. For if we cannot locate the exact language for the phenomena (strong form), or if we are faced with the inability of expressing accurate language for the very phenomenon we experience (weak form), then it is valueless. Private intrinsic experiences are sentenced to confinement – they cannot be liberated and released into the external world without language.

If this conception is entertained further, the assumption that sense impressions ought to be maintained as infallible and insulated by secure epistemic security can be challenged. Our experience of a sensible subject can align with external reality. For wrong impressions can be defeated; there is that which is in actuality – a realism about beliefs, and that is confirmed by verification based on intersubjective agreement. For one’s impressions will be met with mistrust if no one else can detect the very impression one holds and defends unweariedly. It is then nullified. And as with most games, there is a manner of winning. To win at this game is to align with the intersubjective majority, or in other words, consensus. And despite there being no objectively flawless measure to confirm that amongst multiple perceivers the same object is viewed, we can bite this qualia bullet and accept that the contents of an object, be it Ravel’s Boléro, Caspar David Friedrich’s sublime Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, or Guerlain’s Shalimar, are stable entities. And hence they are fixed – the ability to intake the sense impressions they project are uniform amongst perceivers. It is a matter of trained ability and discernment, and thus language, to fully realise what is being perceived: that is what constitutes a honed palate. For we accept that the Pâté en Croûte dipped in mustard that I taste will taste the same for each and every other person. Therefore, to demonstrate that a honed palate exists, language is necessary, for demonstration and verification is not possible without it, and a relatively adept degree of ability and discernment is also (obviously) necessary. It is through the accurate/correct demonstration of sense impressions and hence the skillful and careful use of language that permits verification based on intersubjective agreement.

I have decidedly emphasised that the compresent components which constitute taste: ability, sensitivity, and discernment, also strongly hinge on the existence and use of another compresent component: language. This is the unspoken and ill-forgotten element of the palate, for to discuss taste on an extrinsic level indeed requires language. Language has the power to turn private experiences public by identifying something and utilising a unanimous and agreed meaning: a certain flavour and sense impression so redolent of plum can only come into public existence when that very specific designation is uttered, for that very designation means one certain thing, and it aligns with the private semantic contents of inner mental states triggered by unique sense impressions.

The question that arises from this realisation sticks with me teasingly, for I am left to investigate the limits of language. For when we taste, how privileged are we of these experiences, and how fundamental is language’s role? For what is stimulated? Is tasting more about sense organs and our power of perception, or the critical faculties and our power of recollection and language? Surely both are necessary, but what is that which is being really honed? Our developing minds or our developing senses?

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