To Freshmen: Liberal Arts and a Life With Wine

Liberal I'm going to offer a contention I think might piss off a few people:

A liberal arts education is the best foundation for a life of enjoying wine and working in wine.

Yes, I have one; an education grounded in the study of History. But I swear, I'm not defending my choices here.

I was reading a book review in the Times this weekend of a new book by Martha Nussbaum entitled, "NOT FOR PROFIT: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities". The Times reviewer didn't give the book a good review. But still, the reviewer notes:

"The trend in education at all levels and around the world, Nussbaum
fears, is toward rote instruction in “applied skills suited to
profit-making” and away from cultivation of 'the ability to think
critically' and 'to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another
person.' ”

These are the exact skills necessary to properly appreciate a wine and the meaning of a wine (that is, if you don't count the education of your palate.) In fact, the ability to critically think about a wine and its context and the ability to sympathize with a wine's place in the world and your world—no matter how lowly or inconsequential that wine may be—is what allows us to derive meaning, real intellectual delight and even knowledge from a wine in our glass and on our table.

The fact that a wine tastes good to me, or smells interesting, is really a momentary piece of knowledge that provides me very little to think about. But if I'm practices at finding creative ways to contextualize the wine through it's place in the history of wine, the history of this kind of wine, perhaps even the political implications of the wine (consider a wine purposely bottled to have a lesser carbon footprint or one that strikes a strident pose on its back label in support of "natural" wine), or through the wine's perhaps unique and old school character that buck's a trend, then I can advance a more meaningful life in wine.

Creative contextualizing is one of the primary skills one ought to gain from a liberal arts education that demands the student investigate the inner life of mankind and the ways by which mankind tells its story and understands the context of human relations.

This is not to suggest that an education in the hard sciences or the not-so-hard sciences (economics, psychology) can't help one lead a more interesting life in wine. And of course if winemaking is your desired profession, then a little bit of chemistry and biology is going to be pretty important. But these courses of study wont' so naturally lead one to think about meanings as a liberal arts education will.

Of course this suggests that wine appreciation is an interpretive activity—something hard to argue with. And it means too that, then, wine is a subjective experience. Again, no great discovery.

So, if any Freshman are reading this and if you have the idea that wine may become an important part of your life after scholarship, and if you think you may want even to make a career in wine, let me suggest Literature, History, Philosophy, Fine Arts.


31 Responses

  1. - August 16, 2010

    This story got a lot of attention recently:
    I’m looking forward to starting the new semester at SSU!

  2. tom merle - August 16, 2010

    You’re showing your age, Tomasso. I am assuming that not more than 10% of those under 30 have or are planning to get an undergraduate degree in the Liberal Arts. This is most definitely a lost cause, Don Quixote.

  3. Samantha Dugan - August 16, 2010

    Ohhhh I think Arthur is going to have something to say about this.

  4. Thomas Pellechia - August 16, 2010

    Rote learning is at the root of fundamentalism…critical thinking is its nemesis.

  5. John Kelly - August 16, 2010

    “…if winemaking is your desired profession, then a little bit of chemistry and biology is going to be pretty important.” Very true.
    To this I would add some maths: algebra especially, but also some geometry and trig (to calculate tank volumes at least) and optionally some calculus (in order to really understand fermentation curves and heat transfer).
    But I agree that a cultivated aesthetic sense is necessary to elevate a craftsman from a technician to mastery.

  6. Valvekeeper of Must - August 16, 2010

    how can you think critically about anything if you have not acquired factual knowledge?
    oh, yeah, i forgot you can, it’s called blogging.

  7. Tom Wark - August 16, 2010

    Point taken.

  8. Tom Wark - August 16, 2010

    Acquiring factual knowledge goes without saying and is presumed whether one obtains a Liberal Arts or science based education.

  9. Valvekeeper of Must - August 16, 2010

    But without a basis in factual knowledge all pondering is philosophy, which quickly mutates into ideology without the checks and balances if evidence and then we have the same kind of fundementalism Pellechia mentions – just in different colors.

  10. Valvekeeper of Must - August 16, 2010

    make that: “…checks and balances OF evidence…”

  11. Thomas Pellechia - August 16, 2010

    But Valvekeeper, knowledge isn’t just a compilation of facts. If someone isn’t taught to evaluate the facts, he or she hasn’t gained knowledge–only information.
    It takes critical thinking to transform information into knowledge.

  12. Valvekeeper of Must - August 16, 2010

    Of course. You must know how to connect dots. Without dots, there is nothing to connect. Thus both are required.

  13. Steve Heimoff - August 17, 2010

    I’ve always been surprised how many philosophy majors are winemakers. Of course, they graduated in the 60s and 70s — Merle is probably right it’s a lost cause. Are there any sociology majors anymore? English?

  14. Wineeconomist - August 17, 2010

    Tom, I’m lucky to be able to teach a class about wine and society to seniors at the University of Puget Sound, a liberal arts college here in Washington state. You can see how the course (“The Idea of Wine”) is organized here
    I am always amazed at the way that students are able to bring their liberal arts education in the natural sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities to the study of wine. Wine is a liberal art, I tell my students, and I agree with you that the liberal arts are a great preparation for a life in/of/with wine.
    Mike Veseth
    The Wine Economist

  15. ThomsonVnyrds - August 17, 2010

    Since entrance applications have hit an all time high and the competition rates are near cut throat anyhow, I’m gonna’ go ahead and throw this out there to the high school juniors reading the Fermentation Blog and recommend my own alma mater and degree: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo Bachelors of Science conferred by the College of Liberal Arts.
    Book learning done in the classroom – viticulture in the vineyard. Whatever combination you choose of science, mathematics, or liberal studies being well rounded is what will get you somewhere in any industry, not just in wine.
    Jennifer R Thomson, MBA
    Thomson Vineyards
    Chief Executive Assistant to The Farmer

  16. Peter O'Connor - August 17, 2010

    Instead of relying on epistemological clichés like Einstein’s “information is not knowledge”, I would take Claude Shannon’s objective account that “information” is the inverse of probability: the smaller the probability (of a known/predicted event), the higher the information.
    In addition, the empirical methods employed in the natural sciences cannot be applied to the social sciences, because in the former there is a direct connection between facts, and the scientist is merely an observer. In the social sciences, facts are connected to human perceptions (individuals/agents are observers and participants) which influence future facts. Or, as George Soros observed, “in natural science, theories cannot change the phenomena to which they relate; in social science they can”. Attempts to treat social phenomena “scientifically” are defined as “scientism”.
    And the fact that individuals process information (acquire knowledge) efficiently, pursuing their own (subjective) purposes, is praxeological; is an axiom. It is not open to debate.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - August 18, 2010

    That’s your opinion, Peter, or should I say, that’s Shannon’s and Soros’opinions with which you agree.
    Information is only as good as it is close to the facts, and I believe that is what Einstein meant, and it’s what every good journalist comes to understand. Not all information is fact–to prove that point, just read much of what passes for history; better yet, read Fox News. I can only chuckle at the thought that the “Fair and Balanced” crowd owns knowledge because they have been fed the information.
    Knowledge is the thing we attain by using our cognizant powers, by weighing the information, by finding and screening what is passed to us as facts–verifying them. Opinions are not knowledge, but they do sometimes make others sound smart.

  18. Peter O'Connor - August 18, 2010

    Mr. Pellechia,
    My reasoning was purely logical. There is no opinion involved. What you fail to realize, is that there is an inner contradiction in your argument.
    Every branch of the social sciences has to rely on some form of predictable/efficient/intelligent/standardized general human behavior: call it utilitarianism, rational choice, purposeful (human) action, whatever.
    Otherwise it is impossible to construct any theory; empirical or logical.

  19. Robert Cartwright - August 18, 2010

    I have yet to use any calculus to understand fermentation curves in order to calculate an integral or tangent on a curve. Algebra and Trig have been the most useful math that I have used. With a liberal arts degree I know a little about alot of things instead of alot about one thing. This has helped me the most in my career.

  20. Rich - August 18, 2010

    Tom, I see your point, however, I was a liberal arts major (a real one – with a focus on several subjects all rolled together, history, languages, etc.); I even got a Masters in Management, Administration, and Law. But that will not get you a job in a winery as a wine maker or anything close – you might have an opportunity to sweep the floors, clean up, learn the biz, and then, in five-ten years get the opportunity (after you’ve taken some classes at UC Davis or Fresno State) to make some wine…
    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I speak from personal experience – I make some small quantities of wine, market it myself, basically do almost all of it, but also have a day job to support it; I have been consulting winemaker to a few friends – who only let me help because I am a “friend” – but after the wine turned out well, they asked me back. But it would still be virtually impossible for me to land a job with almost any winery.
    These days that “rote learning” is what they want – they want the degree in oenology, preferably from Davis. So, while I get your point, and agree – I believe the majority of wineries – from the boutique to the large still want that rote learner…

  21. @sueguerra - August 18, 2010

    Tom: You sound exactly like me when I tell my kids I want them to study philosophy or major in history or English. The scary thing is that it will end up costing a minimum of 80K and a max of god only knows to go to university so I can understand why people go to school to pursue profit making endeavors.
    So far I have one who went to Italy to do a gap year and is still there (going on 3 years). He will be joined next year by his two brothers. At least this way they can drink in some culture before they start racking up that tuition debt.

  22. Todd Trzaskos - Vermont Wine Media - August 18, 2010

    I think what Tom is trying to say quite simply, is that a liberal arts education arms a person with the tools to analyze information in a way that is not strictly linear, and does not necessarily result in what we might call a “fact”. Facts arent always what they are cracked up to be. They can fail with time, the introduction of new information, and under the light of creative processes.
    Ninety Years ago today women’s suffrage was finally attained…for a long time before that it was socially accepted “fact” that women were not capable of making an informed decision to vote. I don’t think a lab experient changed that…opinions did.
    //Philosophy BA with a strong dose of East Asian Studies
    //Masters in Environmental Law
    //Running a web software company
    //Making wine at home in the cellar

  23. Thomas Pellechia - August 18, 2010

    Exactly, Todd.
    It’s the critical thought process not the regurgitation process that is important to gaining knowledge of any worth.
    And Peter, I don’t fail to realize anything about my position, which I don’t view as an argument. But it seems to me that you value academic constraints and edicts over experience, and that’s likely the source of our often vast chasm.
    My view is of the world and living in it. To me, books should be the starting point not the end of the journey.

  24. Leilanicarrara - August 18, 2010

    If I could quickly insert, Davis and Fresno are not the only two. You’ll need to include Cal Poly SLO for future examples. Our program includes all THREE concentrations for the industry.
    With thanks…and agree otherwise with your points.

  25. John Kelly - August 18, 2010

    IMHO a degree in enology or viticulture is not a requirement to learn this craft. More necessary are general skills of focus and thoroughness, curiosity and a willingness to learn, and mostly a willingness to work. Work hard, get dirty. My most troublesome hires over the years have been recent degree grads – all have too much to un-learn, some have too great a sense of entitlement and expectation.

  26. Rich - August 19, 2010

    John Kelly,
    I agree completely with you John – that is my thinking too. I was just saying that most – most wineries and wine owners don’t have that attitude!
    And to Leilanicarrara: Yes, sorry, I couldn’t list all the programs – Sonoma State is starting, I hear, a world class program! didn’t mean to slight Cal Poly at SLO! or any other program I may have left out!

  27. JohnLopresti - August 19, 2010

    The liberal arts message needs to begin in discerning high schools. Maybe there could be a facebook page with images of what liberal arts college graduates accomplish.
    My impression is that college studies have lessened in intensity, progressively over recent years; though I heard something similar about college from a prior generation of critics.
    I lived in a US state which made wine legal only when the age (the student) reached was approximately that of a second semester Junior, or Senior.
    I have worked with some brilliant UCD graduates, and marveled at their various ways of integrating bioscience, math, history, and even cultural anthropology, into their career development.
    I definitely advise college Seniors not to imbibe of Medoc while typing the senior thesis. It may enhance typing quickness and even accuracy; but the narrative tends to meander, and the subsequent grade awarded by the professor likely will be lower than anticipated by the youthful writer.
    However, a mere thesis is only a phase in an exercise of talents a career will refine, a sequence of work and studies which grow far beyond college “beginnings”, and the many ways to pursue understanding in the creative arts, among which I would include agriculture and enology.
    I don’t know about the philosophy suggestion, though. I think it demonstrably dented several historical figures’ muse.

  28. Rick Tagg - August 19, 2010

    My education has served me well-Psychology and Philosophy. Through my various and sundry career choices,however, learning how to push a broom has always served me well, and mastering a powerwasher has been the most important tool in becoming a winemaker

  29. Carl Helrich - August 19, 2010

    I agree with John Kelly. A liberal arts education may not be a must, nor any degree. But a love of learning about wine with an acceptance of the work involved is required. I was a philosophy major in school–graduated in the 1990s, Steve– and now co-own a winery with my wife. The liberal-arts education taught me how to think, but my personal background taught me how to work. Without the work, there’s no wine. Grapes want to become vinegar without out our knowledgeable intervention.

  30. Donn R. - August 26, 2010

    Why would a liberal arts degree be any better than engineering, or finance, or law enforcement? Wouldn’t any post-graduate degree be good?

  31. Supra Shoes - May 18, 2011

    this question is meant to mark a long-living perceived divide between people who make stuff – a.k.a. the creatives – and people who merely observe and talk about stuff – a.k.a. the strategists. Because, the reasoning goes, creativity is about “producing.” comments and suggestions from grantees indicated room for improvement in communication between staff and grantees. .

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