When he was offered a diplomatic post by William III, John Locke declined on very particular grounds of personal unfitness: “I know noe such rack in the world to draw out mens thoughts as a well managed Bottle.” Therefore the king should instead choose someone “that could drinke his share, [rather] than the soberest man in the Kingdom”.
This image of wine as an instrument of torture does not encourage us to see in Locke an enthusiast for the pleasures of wine. Nor, indeed, do the philosopher’s views of pleasure give us more grounds for hope. A manuscript fragment on happiness begins promisingly by stipulating that “the happiness of man consists in pleasure whether of body or mind, according to everyone’s relish”, and notes that “at the right hand of God, the place of bliss, are pleasures for ever more”. But it concludes with the chilling reflection that what “men are condemned for is not for seeking pleasure, but for preferring the momentary pleasures of this life to those joys which shall have no end”. This disposition to refer all pleasure to calculation is echoed in another short manuscript entitled Thus I Think, which again begins brightly by acknowledging the principle of hedonism: “Tis a man’s proper business to seek happiness and avoid misery.” But Locke then ranks his pleasures very strictly, and resolves not to be “deceived by the flattery of a present pleasure to lose a greater”. Wine, alas, is one of these lesser, beguiling, present pleasures: “Drinking, gaming and vicious delights will do me this mischief, not only by wasting my time, but by a positive efficacy endanger my health, impair my parts, imprint ill habits, lessen my esteem, and leave a constant lasting torment on my conscience.” It is not surprising that someone who stood guard over gratification in this way might acquire the reputation of being “a master of taciturnity and passion” — this at any rate was the character that John Fell, the Dean of Christ Church, gave Locke when he was required to report on him to the authorities, and to explain his failure to entrap Locke into expressions of disaffection towards Charles II and his domestic policies. Yet wine drinkers do have reason to be grateful to Locke, even if his philosophy is uncongenial. Between 1675 and 1679 Locke, already troubled by asthma and bronchitis, lived in the south of France where it was hoped the climate would alleviate his ailments. To begin with, he lodged in Montpellier, returning to England four years later by way of a leisurely tour of the south west, taking in Toulouse and Bordeaux, before heading north to Paris, and then home to England. Before he set out on his travels Locke was already a trusted associate of the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, and while abroad he did not forget his patron’s interests and enthusiasms. Shaftesbury had a scheme to re-settle Huguenot refugees in Carolina. During his time in France Locke made notes on the cultivation of vines and olives, and prepared a short memorandum, dated February 1, 1679, designed to assist his patron’s project. Observations Upon the Growth and Culture of Vines and Olives was intended only for private circulation within the Shaftesbury family, but it was eventually published in 1766. It contains fascinating details — deplored by Locke himself in his dedication of the work to Shaftesbury as “French trifles” — about wine-growing in 17th-century France, many of which anticipate some of our current fashions. One of the most controversial aspects of modern wine-making is the use of astrology to determine when to perform certain operations related to the making of wine — typically, by observing and following the phases of the moon. Some producers who follow this doctrine certainly produce sublime wines — I would single out the Castello di Argiano in Tuscany, whose Brunello di Montalcino has a finesse and power which is quite exceptional, and whose proprietor, Signor Sesti, is guided by the heavens in the manipulation of his wines. But in so doing he is following the peasants of the Languedoc, who (Locke reports) “plant their vineyards in February; and they choose the quarter before the full, as the fittest time of the moon to do it in”. Another modern wine-making fashion, involving arcane rituals redolent of primitive religions, is bio-dynamism-a doctrine created by the Austrian theosophist Rudolf Steiner. Most sane people would find the theory undergirding bio-dynamism hard to accept, and some bio-dynamic practices, such as burying a cow horn full of manure in the vineyard at the autumn equinox, then digging it up six months later and using it as the basis of a liquid fertiliser, seem like pure superstition. But there were similar superstitions abroad around Montpellier in the 1670s, because Locke was “told that a sheep’s horn buried at the root of a vine will make it bear well even in barren ground”. He prudently added: “I have no great faith in it, but mention it because it may so easily be tried.” In other respects, Locke’s notes bear witness to essential truths about viticulture which have never been lost to sight. For instance, the wines of the Côte-d’Or show the importance of a well-oriented slope for the production of the very best wine, and also demonstrate that vines grown in a valley may crop more heavily but yield a less generous and interesting product. The same fact had been noticed by the winegrowers of Provence in the 1670s: “They plant their vineyards both in plains and on hills with indifferency; but say that on hills, especially opening to the east or south, the wine is best: in plains they produce most.”
Perhaps most interesting, however, at least for drinkers of fine claret, are Locke’s comments on the property which is now known as Château Haut-Brion (but then known by the name of the proprietor, M. Pontac):
The vine de Pontac, so much esteemed in England, grows on a rising opening to the west, in a white sand mixed with a little gravel, which one would think would bear nothing; but there is such a particularity in the soil, that at Mr. Pontac’s near Bourdeaux the merchants assured me that the wine growing in the very next vineyards, where there was only a ditch between, and the soil to appearance perfectly the same, was by no means so good.
The wine of Haut-Brion had already been praised by Pepys; hence perhaps Locke’s comment about its being “so much esteemed in England”. More interesting is what Locke reports about the “terroir“. The neighbouring vineyard, over what was then evidently a ditch, and is now the road to Arcachon, is La Mission Haut Brion. It is still a very different wine from Haut-Brion, although it would be a very confident judge who would condemn it today with the phrase “by no means so good”.