Should Wine Criticism Strive for Objectivity?

by Dwight Furrow

If by “objectivity” we mean “wholly lacking personal biases”, in wine tasting, this idea can be ruled out. There are too many individual differences among wine tasters, regardless of how much expertise they have acquired, to aspire to this kind of objectivity. But traditional aesthetics has employed a related concept which does seem attainable—an attitude of disinterestedness, which provides much of what we want from objectivity. We can’t eliminate differences among tasters that arise from biology or life history, but we can minimize the influence of personal motives and desires that might distort the tasting experience.

“Disinterestedness” (a barbarous term but it’s the one we have to work with)   refers to a kind of experience in which an object is perceived “for its own sake”, not merely for its usefulness at achieving some other goal. The idea is that in genuine aesthetic appreciation we must consider the object itself without the distraction of practical concerns or personal desires that govern ordinary life. By bracketing or suspending ordinary desires and everyday practical concerns, we are able to have a contemplative, imaginative experience that enables the full range of aesthetic properties of an object to emerge. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher most responsible for this concept, argued that the appreciation of genuine beauty is possible only via disinterested attention, which he thought of as a distinctive type of experience quite separate from everyday experience.

In professional wine evaluation this goal of disinterested attention governs the procedures used in tasting wine. Blind tasting, where tasters do not know the producer, region and in many cases the varietal, is essential to realizing this goal. So is the use of standardized assessment criteria, agreed upon aroma and flavor grids, the practice of spitting to avoid excess alcohol consumption, etc.

Although these tasting procedures have an important role to play, I think in the end they don’t enable the full aesthetic appreciation of wine. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge the genuine insight behind the concept of disinterestedness when applied to art or wine. The value of some works of art and other objects like wine does seem to be self-sufficient at least in some contexts. They are appreciated for their qualities independently of practical considerations such as price, reputation, political influence, historical status or decorative potential. When listening to music I experience the tensions and resolutions as belonging to the music, not to me. When viewing a painting, the world represented in the painting is not mine but the world of the painting itself. There is a difference between suffering an emotion and having that emotion articulated in the work.

This focus on the object is what is right about Kant’s view. And there is some justification for applying it to wine tasting. No doubt when we evaluate wine we should be intensely focused on the wine and its aesthetic properties rather than being distracted by extraneous matters. Casual, wandering attention or attention to the winemaker’s way with words, or a focus on the price or status of the wine will make an honest evaluation of wine more difficult. We must judge wines without concern for personal matters like getting a buzz, loosening conversation, or showing off. Professional wine tasting is ideally set up so these factors don’t influence our judgment. And it is essential to understanding wine’s appeal that it indeed has intrinsic value. Although wine serves a variety of purposes, one primary source of our interest in wine is as an object of pure contemplative enjoyment.

This need for disinterested attention is especially important given that wine is inherently a vague object which does not relinquish its charms without training and effort, part of which involves designing the tasting experience so the proper features of the wine stand out. Furthermore, it has been well documented through various studies that our appreciation of flavor is influenced by all sorts of environmental factors from the music playing in the background to our emotional state while imbibing. The wine itself can stand out only when these environmental factors are screened off through blind tasting in a neutral, non-stimulating environment. Thus, blind tasting when it encourages this attitude of disinterested attention has a role to play in wine appreciation.

But is something lost when we aim exclusively for disinterestedness? In the end, the concept of “disinterest” must be viewed as a limited practical procedure, not an experience that is distinctively aesthetic.

With regard to art, how an object fits into its practical context is often aesthetically relevant. For instance, part of the aesthetic evaluation of religious or political paintings will depend on how effectively they deliver the religious or political message, which cannot be disentangled from the actual desires that people have and the life choices available to them. Architectural works, dance music, and virtually any performance that must capture something of the moment can be appreciated only when considered in light of the actual life experiences that constitute their enjoyment in that moment. Surely such works can be contemplated, but that contemplation presupposes engagement with the circumstances of life.

Such considerations apply to wine as well. How well a wine works with a particular cuisine, the way the properties of the wine intersect with climate, weather and soil, how the production and consumption of a wine intersects with the life of the community that makes it, and how it complements the social activities it accompanies–these are practical matters that must feed into and inform our judgments even as we adopt a contemplative attitude. In other words, not all practical matters can be screened off. No object is purely an imaginative object.

Kant argued that in order for a work to stimulate the imagination and be available for contemplation, reference to the real existence of the object must be suspended. But in this Kant is mistaken. By failing to consider the object as a thing, a physical object with real existence, we miss crucial aesthetic features of the work. Any work of art is an object in a web of relations. It invokes associations with particular persons, their culture and its place therein. But it is also inseparable from the physical materials out of which it is made that shine forth in the work regardless of how they are manipulated by the artist. You can’t subtract the paint from the painting or the stone from the sculpture; their aesthetic properties are a product of the paint, canvas, and stone trying to mean something—that tension has an intensity that can be appreciated only by attention to what Heidegger called the “thingly” character of the work. In other words, origins are essential in aesthetics. You can’t wholeheartedly enter the world of the art object without knowing its source, without recognizing the actual causal forces that operating on the object.

And this clearly applies to wine. In wine we must know the character of the grapes, the influence of weather and climate, the winemaker’s intentions, and the preferences and history of the community in order to know whether a work—a particular wine—reaches its full potential. All of these factors are “screened off” via blind tasting, the practical implementation of disinterestedness. As useful as blind tasting is for certain purposes, it is not a method for full aesthetic appreciation.

To be fair to Kant, he was, in part, motivated by the need to explain how objects that induce powerful emotions could be represented and made available for contemplation and imaginative play if they tapped into our actual desires and real life fears. In confronting what is overwhelmingly powerful, awe-inspiring, or painful in works of art as well as nature, we can’t process our emotional response unless we are at a safe distance from the real object. The object must be imaginative in some sense. Our experience of art differs from ordinary, everyday experience in that, in art, emotions such as fear, joy or anger have no immediate object in our personal lives. What happens in the work stays in the work we might say. We might surrender to the work but in doing so we can un-surrender if we want, lest we run screaming from the gallery or symphony hall—we interpret the feelings rather than fully experiencing them.

But this seems to apply to only some works of art. Some art is precisely designed to break down our defenses, to forcefully induce intense feelings that we then must work through. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road or the film short by David Wojnarowicz A Fire in My Belly are among any number of difficult, contemporary works that engage our actual desires as we experience them. And if we are to decide if the feelings expressed by the work are to be made our own we cannot ultimately view them from a disinterested point of view. The process of integrating them into our lives requires, not the suspension of ordinary desires, but their articulation in light of the work. Some art might benefit from the lack of concern about the reality of the object. But some art depends on experiencing a genuine emotion that can come only from engagement. There is no general approach that is always correct.

In the end, we can deploy intense attention, thoughtfulness, perceptual acuity, and the mystery of aesthetic wonder, without positing a separate mode of experience. Can we distinguish aesthetic engagement from concerns with price, friendship, or politics while at the same time acknowledging that the aesthetic dimension is part of practical, “interested” activities. It depends on how powerful self-reflection is. If I know I might be influenced by price, can I reflectively suspend that concern? Kant seems to presuppose that I can. That is what it means to be disinterested. But this needn’t be a global attitude or a distinct kind of experience. Instead it is a specific mode of attention for a specific work in certain contexts.

I argued recently that the appreciation of beauty involves our motivational states—to find an object beautiful is to desire to have that object in my life and devote part of my life to it. The concept of disinterestedness seems to deny this dimension of beauty since it is precisely a desire for the object that is screened out. To be without interest is to refuse any thought of possessing the object in favor of contemplating it.

But it seems to me the crucial question to answer when evaluating a work of art, a piece of music or a wine is: “How much do I enjoy it when I’m open to being moved by it?” Think about music criticism. It would be hard to answer this question about a particular work without actually being moved by the music, without feeling whether we want to experience this work again and again, to determine if it has staying power. The motivation to explore further is a constitutive part of the appreciative moment.

Appreciation of wine may sometimes require temporarily suspending judgments about cost, reputation, relationship with the producer, amusement, refreshment, social lubrication, etc. But our appreciation so gained must then be integrated with its promise and potential for further engagement and this is an integral part of the aesthetic experience. The beauty is in the eros, the mystery and its pull, not a bloodless analysis of the properties of the wine. The experience is always forward looking; whatever is gleaned from the experience must be integrated with one’s life if the work is to have meaning. It’s that pull that a work has that determines its value. That “pull” cannot be felt from within a disinterested point of view.

Thus, disinterestedness is not the mark of beauty but a tactical maneuver to get focused on the right properties, a manipulation of the conditions for aesthetic experience, not the experience itself. Especially with regard to wine tasting, it may be that conditions have to be properly arranged to enable certain features to appear, but the appreciation itself need involve no special sort of experience disconnected from the rest of life.

Genuine aesthetic experiences are pervasive in everyday human life, from appreciating the glow of morning sun to enjoying conversations to sipping Chardonnay. If we think of aesthetic perception as focused, intense, attention on features of an object that views every feature as potentially relevant there is no situation or object that cannot be experienced aesthetically. No doubt, aesthetic engagement offers us an alternative way of looking at everyday life, which is too often caught up in financial concerns, exploitation, instrumental thinking, time constraints and other limiting factors that prevent us fully appreciating an object. However, engaging with art or other aesthetic objects is not an escape from that world, not a way of disengaging with life’s projects, but an alternative way of viewing those projects. Art and wine meld the world of imagination with practical, everyday experience and for that meshwork to occur we must be fully engaged in practical life.

Disinterest has only a limited role to play in certain situations; it is not an aspiration for all wine criticism.