Skepticism about the value of wine criticism is ubiquitous, as I detailed in this post last month. But pushback against the wine-tasting-is-bunk meme is gathering steam. Perhaps all the major media publishing this drivel will offer a retraction soon.
This article by Jonathan Lipsmeyer at Gargantuan Wine identifies the problem. In response to the charge that wine tasting is subjective, Gargantua simply grants the point—What form of criticism is not subjective? Imagining a gaggle of critics discussing a painting by the pointillist Seurat, he writes:
Not unlike our wine critics, no two critics would describe the painting in a completely similar manner. An integral part of the problem is that the galaxy of stimuli is so vast that it’s difficult to circumscribe — a seemingly infinite body of descriptive text could find its source in this one painting. And invariably, some critics would contradict elements of others’ description — perhaps the emotion conveyed; the nature of the colors; or the Pandora’s box that is the intention of the artist.
And yet, in spite of this, each critic would be contributing legitimate information. Each critic would be elegantly articulating a thoughtful impression. And — barring questions of integrity and candor! — each critic’s description could be considered equally valid, as it invited reflection, cultivated appreciation, and brought greater understanding.
In all other forms of criticism, we accept the fact that critics will be offering their own unique point of view. While it is in principle possible for others to share that point of view, most people don’t—that is what makes the critic interesting and her writing sufficiently original to bother reading. Yet with regard to wine, this role of the critic is denied by the naysayers, usually without argument.
There are nuances that Lipsmeyer alludes to but doesn’t discuss. Like all human perception, wine tasting is only partly subjective; it is also rooted in reliable connections between our perceptual mechanisms and reality. If wine tasting were wholly subjective we couldn’t intelligibly discuss wine at all. And in fact there is wide agreement among experts about some aspects of wine—Lafite is more complex and has better balance and depth of flavor than 2-Buck Chuck, 2005 was a great year for Bordeaux, Barolo’s tend to have lots of tannin. Anyone who disagrees is spouting nonsense.
The question of to what degree wine tasting is objective is an interesting philosophical question because it forces us to get clear on the various factors that influence taste and it is important to recognize that some methods of tasting will be more objective than others. But what we want from wine criticism is not a recounting of facts but an overall impression of the wine and an evaluation. In the end, these judgments will rely on our personal histories, unique biological factors and personal preference—there is no getting around that. But that doesn’t distinguish wine from most of the rest of life.
As Lippsmeyer says,
So much ire is founded in what seems to be a green-eyed jealousy that “these critics say they taste things that I sure as shit can’t”; so, the naysayer concludes, “it must all be worthless”. Curiously, other forms of cultural currency are spared this onslaught.
Why winetasting is singled out as being uniquely subjective is a mystery for which I have no answer. Perhaps taste preferences are so closely tied to personal identity that expert opinion is experienced as a personal affront.