I’m working on a longer article to show why the studies that purport to show that wine expertise is bunk are misleading. But this article from the Guardian last summer entitled “Wine Tasting is Junk Science” was in the news again recently because of philosopher Alva Noë’s piece on NPR so I wanted to make a quick point about these headlines that periodically appear.
I don’t know anyone who thinks wine tasting is a science or that even expert wine tasters can achieve the level of accuracy required for scientific testing. Certainly every expert I know admits the difficulties of wine tasting and readily grants that we often get it wrong. The fact that wine experts are inconsistent in their evaluations is no surprise to anyone who pursues wine tasting seriously.
There is plenty of science that shows that our response to wine is influenced by all sorts of contextual factors—weather, temperature of the wine, the order in which you taste the wine, the kind of music playing in the background, price, reputation, one’s mood, conversations about the wine around you, and most importantly, past experience. This doesn’t make wine different from anything else. All of our judgments are influence by these factors.
Expert wine tasters are people who have training and experience but who also try as much as possible to reduce the influence of some contextual factors. But we only succeed to a degree.
The deeper question is why people insist on scientific objectivity when we evaluate wine. We don’t expect scientific objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. The disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren’t we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different?
I suspect what we are witnessing with all this skepticism about wine tasting is the corrosive influence of the point system in evaluating wine. It is a handy device for consumers but it leaves the impression that wine evaluation is subject to mathematical precision. But nothing could be further from the truth. A wine that receives 95 points is judged on a particular day in a particular context. There is no reason to think a critic (or a different critic) would assign exactly the same score in a different context, in comparison with a different flight of wines, under different social and environmental conditions.
What we want from critics whether of music, art, or wine is a judgment made in light of their vast experience, one that can show us something about the object that we might have missed without their commentary. That can be accomplished independently of whether the critic is perfectly consistent or objective. We want the critic to have a certain kind of bias because it is that bias that enables her to taste what she does.
Some people seem to be psychologically invested in the “wine tasting is bunk” meme. I wonder why?