Beyond Subjectivity and Objectivity in Wine Tasting

by Dwight Furrow

It seems as if everyone in the wine industry proclaims that wine tasting is subjective. Wine educators encourage consumers to trust their own palates. “There is no right or wrong when tasting wine,” I heard a salesperson say recently. “Don’t put much stock in what the critics say,” said a prominent winemaker to a large audience when discussing the aromas to be found in a wine. The point is endlessly promoted by wine writers. Wine tasting is wholly subjective. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards of correctness for judging wine quality.

But no one in the wine industry actually believes this. Everyone from consumers and retail salespersons to wine critics and winemakers must distinguish good wine from bad wine and communicate that distinction to others. Ask any winemaker why she controls fermentation temperatures, and she will respond that doing so makes better wine. If wine quality were wholly subjective, there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron; quality control an exercise in futility; wine criticism just empty talk; price differentials based on nothing but marketing.

So what’s going on here? Why the self-deceptive denials and sotto voce acceptance that wine quality is a meaningful concept. We could speculate about why we’re so enamored with subjectivity—freedom from constraint in matters of taste I suppose. But it’s been going on since the 16th century, if we can blame Descartes.

As difficult as it is to know what reality is like “in itself” without the contribution of conceptual categories, it’s equally difficult to explain how our subjective states organize themselves into clearly delineated, stable thoughts without the contribution of “reality.” It seems like there must be cooperation and collaboration going on between mind and world.

The problem is that subjectivists have a powerful argument to support their view—wine experts disagree profoundly about how to describe and evaluate individual wines. All parties to this debate assume that if a wine has a determinate set of objective properties, then expert opinion should converge on a consensus about what those properties are. When that consensus fails to emerge, the inference is that there is no common object that the experts are tasting, only differing perspectives governed by differences in background, biologically set thresholds for detecting flavors, and individual preferences.

To the extent the argument for subjectivism is based on the fact of disagreement, it is compelling. But I think all of this is mistaken because we are too quick to endorse the underlying assumptions that get this debate off the ground. The problem is that these terms “subjective” and “objective” don’t capture reality very well. We assume these are fundamental ontological categories roughly co-extensive with mind and world. Once we make that assumption, we’re off to the races trying to sort each experience into one of those two boxes. I want to suggest it is not so straightforward to divvy up reality in this way, and we ought to refrain from doing so if we want to understand wine appreciation or the appreciation of any aesthetic object.

Suppose we borrow from 20th Century pragmatist William James and think of a wine and the people tasting it as a stream of experienced relations rather than objects and subjects with properties. Instead of assuming the difference between mind and world is just given in experience, James treats what he calls “pure experience” as only potentially subject or object. Experience is not yet definitely one or the other. This means we understand aroma and flavor notes as a function of situations and contexts rather than properties that attach essentially to subjects or objects.

When we taste wine, our experience is as much a product of contingent circumstances as it is the result of chemical compounds directly causing subjective states. The aromas, flavors, and textures we experience are influenced by weather, the contingent interaction of aromatic chemical compounds with atmospheric conditions, bottle variation, the food being served, the glassware we use to drink the wine, the music being played, public discourse about wine that we have assimilated, our memories of past experiences with wine, and our moods. Some of these factors are more or less subjective; others are more or less objective.  But we don’t know whether our experiences belong in the “objective” box or the “subjective” box. The experience itself isn’t labeled with either and the explanation for our experience cannot be determined without further investigation. There is no reason to push the elements of experience into either box since in any case they are the result of a complex set of relations.

Furthermore, a wine will show different dimensions depending on the purpose of the tasting activity. A critic tasting in a controlled environment, the winemaker at the blending table, the student taking a tasting exam, friends gathering for dinner, patrons of a wine bar, or participants in a tasting at a winery are experiencing wine is vastly different contexts. The critic is tasting a partly decontextualized wine in an antiseptic environment and is influenced by the need for speed and to write tasting notes that are intelligible to her audience. The student sitting for an exam is tasting a wine in a context where their impressions are shaped by current tasting norms and the range of acceptable descriptions they’ve been taught. The winemaker is relating a wine to past vintages, other batches of the same vintage, her ideal of what the wine should taste like, and her knowledge of how the grapes were grown, harvested, and vinified. Tasters at a wine bar or winery are influenced by music, conversations, and atmospheres, all of which are continuously changing. Each situation imposes different constraints on the tasting experience and regulates the scope of our attention and the range of responses we can have to a wine.

None of these various perspectives are privileged. Thus, none of them represent a canonical description. They serve different purposes and show different dimensions of a wine. There is no reason to think the critic or the student or the winemaker is getting at the “real wine.” The “real wine” is the totality of manifestations in the various contexts in which it can be tasted. The “being” of a wine is best understood as a collection of intersecting series of events rather than a fixed object with determinant features.

If we look at a wine in this way, unexpected properties that don’t fit tasting norms or expectations are not necessarily mistakes but are likely to be part of the ontology of relations that constitute the wine. They are properties of an event, the coming together of contingencies, not a determinate feature of the wine or the mind. Individual tasters are not so much right or wrong as they are limited or expansive in what they can perceive in the context in which they taste. The goal of tasting is to miss nothing of what the wine has to offer. This means that we must be on the side of objectivity and subjectivity at the same time. Normativity arises from a desire for rich experiences rather than a demand for correctness. We want our individual differences to draw features from the wine even as we view the wine in its intersection with the experiences of others who might share our experience.

This doesn’t mean no one can make mistakes. It means we don’t know whether a mistake has been made without additional experience or an investigation. Furthermore, in many contexts, it doesn’t matter. Consider an analogy. Does a poet care if different readers get a different meaning from their poem? In fact, most welcome such disagreement because the point of poetry is to take on a variety of meanings. There are better and worse ways of reading a poem but there is no single right way to read one.

Why then should we insist that a wine has a single canonical description?

Of course, in some contexts, correctness does matter. A winemaker must sometimes treat a wine as an object with objective features in order to make good wine. Students sitting for an exam must view the wine as the product of an intersubjective consensus regarding tasting norms, since they will be judged based on their knowledge of those norms. Wine critics, if they are to have credibility, must be as unbiased as possible and strive for a description that is within an acceptable range, although there is much leeway for interpretation. These are special circumstances in which we might we push our experience more toward the objective box.

However, it is especially important to note that treating a wine as an object with objective features risks filtering out much about wine that is meaningful. Even in contexts where accuracy is paramount, one must be alive to ephemera and the indefinite, the status of which—objective or subjective—is undecidable. “Ephemera” and “the indefinite” refer to aromas that come and go, aromas that hang in the background and are barely detectable, the wine’s rapid, complex movement through stages as you taste, the changes in the character of a wine as it ages, and the emotional resonance of a wine.

Because they are ephemeral and indeterminate, they don’t announce themselves as objective or subjective. They lack the definition to assign them to categories with any confidence. Thus, attempts to do so have no claim on “correctness.” If we insist on dismissing the ephemeral and indeterminate as subjective, we will not look for them, since they are just someone’s fantasy unrelated to the object. If we deem them “objective” and demand agreement about them, since such agreement will not be found, we again dismiss them as subjective, and will not consider them essential. Yet, the ephemeral, indefinite properties of wine are the most alluring dimension of wine—they are the reason wine lovers love wine. They give wine mystery and explain our devotion to tracking its variations.

The sour cherry note in a Chianti is ubiquitous and persistent, its presence subject to a wide and deep consensus. You can safely push that into the objective box if there is a reason to do so. But the hint of violet on a particular Chianti may be much harder to discern. It may come and go depending on conditions. It may be faint enough that some tasters won’t pick it up. Is it an objective or subjective feature? There is no way to know. Yet that violet note may be crucial to our enjoyment, and it may be crucial to what makes that wine distinctive.

As noted, sorting experiences into “objective” or “subjective” boxes only matters in certain contexts. Those contexts matter. We want our winemakers clear-eyed and objective about measurable quantities of X in the wines they make. We want students of wine to take seriously the many dimensions of wine that are stable and determinate. We want critics to decisively distinguish good wine from inferior wine and give good reasons for doing so.

But we don’t want this pursuit of the clear, determinate, and conventional to make it harder to experience the ephemera, the anomalies, the breaks with convention that make wine interesting.  The problem with taking the mind and reality to be comprehensive and determinate categories into which we can sort experience is that it blocks the possibility of finding different relational patterns, of viewing a wine as being part of different streams of experience that enrich the role that wine plays in life.

Let me use a concrete example to explain what I mean. The term “minerality” seldom appeared in wine descriptions prior to the mid-2000s. When tasters began using it as a descriptor, soil scientists screamed claiming, rightly, that minerals usually have no flavor and, in any case, they aren’t transmitted from the soil to the grapes. Since the use of the term was not sanctioned by science, thus excluding it from the “objective” box, had we put “minerality” in the “subjective” box and dismissed it as fantasy, we would have missed out on what has become an enormously useful descriptor to characterize certain wines with a stoney or saline flavor.

Similarly, if we assume that responses to bitterness are objective reactions to individual, genetically induced sensitivity to the PROP molecule (6-n-Propylthiouracil), we will be less likely to investigate the degree to which such sensitivities are malleable and subject to education, cultural difference, and preference changes.

All sorting into categories is done for a purpose. “Objective” and “subjective” like the correlative distinctions “mind” and “reality” are not comprehensive “givens” but ways of sorting experiences that depend on context and relations.

In most contexts, and certainly in wine tasting, our understanding is enhanced by not forcing experiences into either one.

For more on the philosophy of wine, visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love