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. Read more »

Wine and Music Pairing: A Next-Level Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

The evidence that pairing music with wine can enhance one’s tasting experience continues to mount since I last visited this topic in 2017. A research team headed by Q.J. Wang showed that, in a winery tasting room, wines tasted with a soundtrack chosen to enhance oak-derived flavors were rated as significantly fruitier and smoother than the same wines tasted in silence. Master of Wine, Susan Lin wrote her thesis on the effects of music on the taste and mouthfeel of Brut Non-Vintage Champagne. And Jo Burzynska’s published research includes a paper entitled “Tasting the Bass,” which investigates the effects of lower frequency sound on the perceived weight and body of a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a Spanish Garnacha. The study also measured the influence of pitch on aromatic intensity and the perception of acidity.

This recent research is on top of the earlier studies in which test subjects show statistically significant agreement about which wine goes best with music samples presented to them (cross-modal correspondence); and that the right music can influence specific aspects of the tasting experience, such as perception of sweetness, flavor notes, perceived acidity, and level of astringency (cross-modal influence).

For instance, in one study by British music psychologist Adrian North, subjects were offered a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay. After rating the wines along four dimensions—powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, and mellow and soft—they tasted the wines while listening to music chosen to highlight each dimension. Both wines were scored significantly higher on the powerful/heavy metric by those who listened to the powerful/heavy music (Orff’s Carmina Burana) and the same effect was found with the other dimensions tested. The music had similar effects on both red and white wines and was independent of whether the subjects liked the wine. There is now almost 30 years of research leading to the same conclusion. Music can enhance our appreciation of wine. This is not surprising given the evidence that all variety of environmental and contextual factors from weather to the sound of popping a cork influence the taste of a wine. Read more »

Review of “Epistenology: Wine as Experience” by Nicola Perullo

by Dwight Furrow

Epistenology: Wine as Experience is a peculiar name for a peculiar book, although its peculiarities make it worth reading. Coined by the author, Nicola Perullo, Professor of Aesthetics at University of Gastronomic Science near Bra, Italy, the term “Epistenology” is a portmanteau blending enology, the study of wine, with epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge. The book is hard to categorize, which is precisely its point. Although a philosophy book about wine, it is not so much about wine as it is an attempt to think with wine, using wine as a catalyst for making connections to persons, atmospheres, and imaginative play within pregnant moments of immediate, lived experience. Although a serious work of philosophy, it only occasionally names other philosophers and refers to no previous work in the philosophy of wine or aesthetics, while advancing an intriguing alternative to professional wine evaluation and conventional wine education. It is avowedly a narrative of the author’s personal journey with wine and the lessons to be drawn from it. Derrida’s idea that every philosophy is a way of “justifying our lives in the world” is the book’s guiding light. Read more »

A Remedy for Tired Wine Tasting Notes

by Dwight Furrow

Last month I argued that wine tasting notes don’t give us much information about how a wine tastes. Most tasting notes consist of a list of aromas that are typical for the kind of wine being described. But we can’t infer much about quality or distinctiveness from a list of typical aromas. Whether a Cabernet Sauvignon shows black cherry or blackberry just isn’t very important for one’s enjoyment. The basic problem with this approach to describing wine is that a list of individual elements does not reveal how these elements interact to form a whole. We get pleasure from a wine because the elements—aromas, flavors, and textures—form complex relations that we taste as a unity. But our wine vocabulary does a poor job of describing that unity.

This unhelpful approach to tasting notes has a history. Aromas are caused by compounds in wine that can be objectively determined. Thus, there are well-established causal relationships between compounds objectively “in the wine” and the subjective impressions of well-trained tasters that enable standards of correctness to be applied to wine tasting. These standards provide the wine community with a definable, teachable skill grounded in facts about wine. The development of that skill and the standards of correctness that enable it is a worthy goal, but this tasting model leaves the aesthetic experience of wine out of the picture.

What then is the alternative? Read more »

Wine Appreciation as an Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

In giving an account of the aesthetic value of wine, the most important factor to keep in mind is that wine is an everyday affair. It is consumed by people in the course of their daily lives, and wine’s peculiar value and allure is that it infuses everyday life with an aura of mystery and consummate beauty. Wine is a “useless” passion that has a mysterious ability to gather people and create community. It serves no other purpose than to command us to slow down, take time, focus on the moment, and recognize that some things in life have intrinsic value. But it does so in situ where we live and play. Wine transforms the commonplace, providing a glimpse of the sacred in the profane. Wine’s appeal must be understood within that frame.

Thus, wine differs from the fine arts at least as traditionally conceived. In Western culture, we have demanded that the fine arts occupying a contemplative space outside the spaces of everyday life—the museum, gallery, or concert hall–in order to properly frame the work. (A rock concert venue isn’t a contemplative space but it is analogous to one—a separate, staged performance designed to properly frame music that aims at impact and fervor rather than contemplation) With the emergence of forms of mechanical reproduction this traditional idea of an autonomous, contemplative space is fast eroding, allowing fine art (and just about everything else as well) to invade everyday life.

But wine, even very fine wine, is seldom encountered in such autonomous, contemplative spaces. It is usually encountered in the course of life, in spaces and times where other activities are ongoing. Formal tastings exist but are the exception. It’s rare to taste wine in a context where casual conversation or food consumption is discouraged as would be the case at a concert hall or museum. Read more »

Why Wine is an Object of Love

by Dwight Furrow

From its origins in Eurasia some 8,000 years ago, wine has spread to become a staple at dinner tables throughout the world. Yet wine is more than just a beverage. People devote a lifetime to its study, spend fortunes tracking down rare bottles, and give up respectable, lucrative careers to spend their days on a tractor or hosing out barrels, while incurring the risk of making a product utterly dependent on the uncertainties of nature. For them, wine is an object of love.

But why is fermented grape juice worthy of such devotion? What is the secret of its allure? It’s not only because it tastes good or gets you drunk. Orange juice tastes good but it is seldom an object of love, and there are far more efficient and cheaper ways of getting drunk. My answer to this question is that wine, unique among beverages, displays some of the characteristics of a living organism. This “vitality” exhibited by wine in its production and appreciation has a distinctive aesthetic appeal that accounts for its capacity to draw people to its orbit. Of course wine is also pleasing to drink and a source of alcoholic cheer, both of which contribute to its aesthetic appeal. But it is wine’s vitality that makes it an object of devotion.

What reasons do we have for conceptualizing wine as a living organism? Read more »

What Is the Purpose of Wine Criticism?

by Dwight Furrow

Although wine writing takes diverse forms, wine evaluation is a persistent theme of much wine writing. When particular wines, wineries or vintages are under discussion, at some point the writer will typically turn to assessing wine quality. The major publications devoted to wine include tasting notes that not only describe a wine but indicate its quality, often with the help of a numerical score, and most wine blogs and online wine magazines include a wine evaluation component that is central to their mission.

But if, as readers, we are to make a judgment about whether an evaluation is legitimate or not we must know what its purpose is. What are these evaluations aiming to achieve? Is wine criticism similar to film, book, or art criticism? Or is it more akin to the evaluation of consumer products? The practice of using a numerical score to indicate quality is controversial and much has been written about it. But an assessment of that practice depends on answering this question about the goal or goals of wine criticism. Read more »

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. Read more »

The Community of Lush: Wine, Alcohol, and the Social Bond

by Dwight Furrow

Wine taster

Food begins as a necessity and we tame it so it becomes a civilized want that can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. But wine is a different matter. Wine is not a necessity. Many people neither drink wine nor any sort of alcohol, and for most people who do indulge, it doesn't play the organizing role in life that food does. (Unless of course you write about wine) Yet, the relationship between wine and sociality seems obvious. People get drunk or at least tipsy from drinking alcohol, which loosens tongues, sheds inhibitions, and functions as a social lubricant. Although much day-to-day wine writing seldom acknowledges this, some of the more thoughtful discussions of wine take the relation between drunkenness and sociality as a brutal truth: As Adam Gopnik writes:

“Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including Parker's, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food….Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. It's the ritual context that civilizes the simple need.” (From Gopnik, The Table Comes First)

Since we do not need wine for nutritional purposes, the “need” Gopnik references is the need for a substance to smooth the rough edges of socializing. However, alcohol in general and wine in particular are among many substances that accomplish this. Rituals surrounding tea for instance play this role in many societies. Thus, it isn't obvious why alcohol must play this role. Furthermore, even if alcohol is “necessary” to grease the social wheels, there are many more efficient, less expensive ways of getting drunk than drinking wine. Thus, we must ask how plausible Gopnik's thesis is. Is getting drunk the main reason we drink wine? Does that explain why wine in particular would be associated with sociality?

In fact when we look at how wine is consumed, inebriation plays only a secondary, supportive role in explaining its connection to our social lives.

Read more »