How To Be An Epicurean Sommelier

Seeking pleasure in life is natural. It’s a goal we all strive for and there’s a lot to be said about pleasure from a philosophical point of view. Pleasure has become synonymous with being an epicurean, someone who likes indulging in luxury, fine meals and experiences. Yet this view misses the point of what true Epicureanism is in relation to food and culinary experiences like wine tasting and more.

From the perspective of being a sommelier, Epicureanism has some interesting connotations and in this article you’ll learn how to embrace the philosophy the next time you’re serving customers.

What is Epicureanism? 

Epicureanism is a school of philosophy founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus in 307 BC. Epicurus and his followers have got a bad rap over the centuries, with Epicureanism being wrongly associated with hedonism. This comes from the basic principle of Epicureanism that pleasure is good and pain is bad. Therefore, you should do everything you can to avoid pain and do everything you can to lead a life of pleasure. 

The Epicurean notion of pleasure is far more nuanced, as John Sellars points out in his excellent book The Fourfold Remedy

“He [Epicurus] drew on a number of distinctions between different kinds of pleasure. One of the most important was between what he called active and static pleasures. We might think of this as the difference between pleasure gained from a process or an action and the pleasure of being in a certain state or condition – doing versus being. 

For instance we might distinguish between the active pleasure of eating and the subsequent static pleasure of being full up and no longer hungry. Although we might enjoy the process of eating, Epicurus argued that the reason why we eat is in order to reach the state of not being hungry. 

Our goal is not the pleasure of eating, but overcoming the pain of hunger.”

To take the example further:

“Active pleasures can vary in quantity – you can always eat more and more. But the state of contentment you reach when you are full and no longer hungry cannot vary at all. Once you are full, you are full, and if you keep eating you won’t become even more ‘not hungry.’ You won’t add any further static pleasure. Indeed, you’ll probably end up with indigestion, generating pain rather than more pleasure.”

In other words, there is a limit to the amount of pleasure you can feel and Epicurus believed the limit is reached with static pleasure. 

The key takeaway here is that Epicureanism is about moderation and finding a healthy level of pleasure that doesn’t lead to overindulgence across physical or mental activities.

Using Epicureanism as a sommelier 

I find Epicureanism to be a useful philosophy to bring into the craft of a sommelier because it promotes moderation for the sommelier and the people who’re being served. 

I’m passionate about Japanese sake and operate as a sake sommelier so there is always a temptation to drink my bodyweight in the stuff. For the purposes of educating people, leading with an Epicurean approach is going to be much better for teaching how to appreciate sake and enjoying it in the long run.

With that in mind, here are four Epicurean tips for sommeliers across the food and beverage industry. 

1. Focus on what is natural and necessary 

Epicurus believed it was important to focus on what is natural and necessary, which is food, water and shelter from the elements. 

For people who want more than these things, such as interesting food and unique wine, Epicurus said that is also fine because these wants grow out of basic desires for food and water. The Epicurean view of those things are natural but not necessary.

When put into a sommelier context, focusing on what is natural and not necessary could be used as a way to promote moderation to your guests. Yes, it’s natural to enjoy having a few glasses of wine at a tasting, but it isn’t necessary to knock back five glasses and make an ass of yourself in front of friends and family. 

2. Friendship makes everything taste sweeter 

Friendship is a key pillar of Epicureanism, with Epicurus taking the view that having a friend to enjoy an experience with can provide a great deal of mental pleasure. In his book, Sellars notes:

“Physical pleasures are fast and fleeting. The good meal is forgotten a day later. But the mental pleasure derived from good conversation with friends over the same meal is something more likely to stick with us. Indeed, reflecting back on that conversation can generate further mental pleasure for us here and now.”

Leading a wine tasting or a cheese tasting is a great way to strengthen the bonds of friendship between people. When talking to guests, consider:

  • Asking them to compare tasting notes among themselves
  • Make them laugh 
  • Encourage them to speak about any emotions that come up when tasting certain food or drinks

3. Host a tasting event outside 

The centre of Epicurus’ teachings was a place called The Garden, which he set up with a friend in Athens. The Garden became a place of communal living, self-sufficiency and experience sharing and nature has always been a key motif in Epicureanism.

This provides plenty of inspiration for you to get creative with your next event. You might consider hosting a drink and food pairing event in an outdoor space like woodland or a private garden.

You could even choose a green space that ties into the natural ingredients used for the food and drink. 

4. Don’t fear failure  

Coping with death and grief is another vital part of Epicureanism and Epicurus taught that we should have no fear or anxiety about death because it’s natural. We can only suffer if we exist and the Epicurean view of death is non-existence.

According to Epicurus “one who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born.” 

This attitude can be applied to the fear of failure in your role as a sommelier. You might be nervous talking to people for the first time. You might feel you don’t know enough about a certain wine or that you need to know all the answers. 

This kind of mental pain is something Epicurus would counsel against and suggest there is mental pleasure to be gained from conversing with people and reminding yourself of the fact that you’re learning as you go.

Key takeaways 

  • Epicureanism teaches moderation and that there is a limit to the amount of pleasure to be experienced. Otherwise, it only leads to pain.
  • Sommeliers can incorporate Epicurean techniques to teach moderation while providing exciting and memorable experiences to guests.
  • Philosophy is subjective and whether you agree with Epicureanism or not it’s worthwhile to learn new things.

A rival school of thought to Epicureanism is Stoicism and you can learn some useful Stoic techniques in How To Be A Stoic Copywriter.

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