The debate about whether wine tasting has objective standards too often assumes a mistaken picture of how taste works. The mistaken picture is something like this: Wine has chemical properties that produce flavors that are fixed features of the wine itself. When tasters report characteristics of the wine they either get it right or not. If a wine is said to have ripe blackberries, fig and chocolate aromas, either the wine has those properties or it doesn’t.
But I doubt that this is the right picture. The biggest drawback is that it cannot explain why there can be multiple, legitimate interpretations of what a wine has to offer. Wine critics often disagree about the properties of a wine; the standard picture assumes that all but one must be wrong. But that goes against what, for me at any rate, is a common experience. Two critics disagree about a wine and I can see the point of both of them. Just as a work of art can support multiple interpretations, so can a wine.
So what is the right picture? I think it goes something like this. The flavors and aromas in wine are caused by substances in the wine that have the ability to effect us. But the flavors themselves don’t exist in the wine independently. There are no flavors or aromas until they are sensed by sense organs and processed by the brain. Flavor is a relational property—a relation between a wine and a taster. Yet we know that neural processing is influenced by all sorts of things—the background music, our mood, expectations, past experience, etc. When we drink wine we don’t confront a series of raw sensations but sensations already shaped by personal and environmental factors which will, of course, vastly differ from person to person.
Does that mean that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective? No. Not at all.
Flavors are produced when wines and tasters intersect. But wine lovers seldom taste or learn to taste in isolation with no communication between them. Flavors are always experienced in relationship to a community within which those flavors have meaning—wine media, salespeople, tasting groups, friends, and family all influence how and what we taste.
When someone describes a wine as “zesty”, what determines whether that is an accurate description depends on whether it can gain a suitably wide consensus. If a diverse collection of differently situated, experienced tasters agree, then the wine is appropriately called zesty. But that agreement is not arbitrary. It comes about because the conversation has focused our attention on something in the wine that is potentially shareable, and, if we are open to that experience, and what others say about it, we might come to agree about the zesty wine even though we didn’t originally sense it.
Through this process of testing personal taste against a broader consensus, flavor notes that lack the potential to be shared, that are idiosyncratic or merely subjective get eliminated as implausible. Tasters who claim to taste them may indeed be tasting what they claim to be tasting, but the property lacks the capacity to be shared and thus cannot support a consensus. We can identify and eliminate bad (meaning thoroughly subjective) interpretations.
When consensus is achieved it is not merely because the tasters are being influenced by each other, but because the wine has the power to effect various quite different individuals in the same way, even if in the beginning they may interpret the flavor quite differently. This is especially true of properties like “zesty”—relatively easy to identify.
When we rely on the judgment of others we are also learning about our own inclinations and we begin to see where our palate differs and where it agrees with the broader consensus and thus become more practiced at identifying what is shareable about a wine.
Taste is accomplished through a collective effort that provides a frame of reference, direction, and helps put sensations into words so we can more easily recall them. Without that collective effort, our ability to perceive is very limited.
Tasting notes are not just about informing consumers about wine. They are aimed at creating a shared sensibility. Thus, the wild taste descriptors some wine reviews employ play the role of shaping that consensus by identifying novel features of a wine that may be potentially shareable. It is a intervention in the process of making taste, not an attempt to identify a flavor that already exists.
So what about those vast disagreements between expert tasters? Multiple interpretations of the same wine exist because we are not always motivated to seek consensus. As wine lovers we have different values, we look for different things in a wine, and we all have slightly different comparison classes in mind when evaluating a wine. (A white Burgundy may be “zesty” when compared to a California chardonnay, but a bit flat when compared to a Chablis.) But more importantly, there is absolutely no reason why we must all agree. Multiple interpretations make wine more interesting, not less. There are few consequences to our disagreements so the process of consensus formation is short-circuited, especially when the properties in question are more difficult to discern.
As long as we can eliminate the bad interpretations, we have nothing to lose and much to gain from letting many flavors bloom.