by Dwight Furrow
The vexed question of wine tasting and objectivity popped up last week on the Internet when wine writer Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic. Smith, co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses at University of London's Institute of Philosophy, works on flavor and taste perception and is a wine lover as well. He is a prominent defender of the view that at least some aesthetic judgments about wine can aspire to a kind of objectivity. His arguments are worth considering since, I think, only something like Smith's view can make sense of our wine tasting practices.
The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind”. On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person's response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one's subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.
The problem with the subjectivist's view is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality–wine education would be an oxymoron. In fact our lives are full of discourse about aesthetic opinion. The ubiquity of reviews, guides, and like buttons on social media presupposes that judgments concerning aesthetic value are meaningful and have authority even if enjoyment and appreciation are subjective. In such cases we are not just submitting to authority but we view others as a source of evidence about where aesthetic value is to be found. Wine tasting is no different despite attempts by the media to discredit wine expertise. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find even among experts?
The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:
I think when critics say it is all subjective they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be a difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don't see why critics couldn't be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can't they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it's not to your taste.
This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they agree substantially about the features of the wine while disagreeing about whether they like them or not.