Wine, Objectivity, and a Taste for Purple Haze

hendrix Any consideration of objectivity in wine tasting must take into consideration a fundamental fact. Our experiences of taste and smell are not “pure” or “uninterpreted” sensations. Rather, our sensations are influenced by a variety of factors such as previous experience, knowledge, expectations, and cultural influences as well as our individual imaginations. What we think and imagine influences what we focus on, what we taste, and how much pleasure we receive from an experience.

The question is, when we look at how we are influenced by these factors, is there any reason to think our judgments about wine can be objective?

Here is one way in which our beliefs influence what we taste. Our beliefs about how to categorize an object often create expectations that determine what we taste. With regard to wine, this was borne out in an experiment in which expert tasters were given a white wine tainted by red food coloring. All tasters reported characteristics typically associated with red wines. (This result is entirely predictable. Wine tasters are taught to exclude certain possibilities based on color. They were doing precisely what they were supposed to do.)

This is not peculiar to wine tasting. When we listen to a rock song such as Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix we expect to hear a ponderous, repetitive drum rhythm, and Hendrix’s ethereal yet soulful vocals, supported by the incongruity of highly distorted guitars prominently employing electronic feedback playing chords imported from the jazz world. It is easy to discern the aesthetic properties of this song and understand why it helped to fundamentally shape the future of rock music.

However, when we listen for the first time to the Kronos Quartet’s early versions of Purple Haze, played by a string quartet with standard instrumentation, we are unlikely to perceive the aesthetic properties of the work—we don’t know what category to place it in and in order to apprecaiate its quality we have to relearn how to listen to that song in a non-standard context.

Relative to the category “innovative (psychedelic) rock song from the 1960’s” the virtues of Purple Haze are obvious. Relative to the category “standard string quartet repertoire”, its virtues are less than apparent. (Which is not to say they are absent. That is a topic for a different post)

The general point is this: Different categories against which a work of art is perceived will profoundly influence our aesthetic reaction to it. The same is true of wine.

How does this help us understand the objectivity of wine tasting?

Because, at least some of the time, there are correct categories in which to place a wine. Just as it is correct to put Hendrix’s version of Purple Haze in the category “innovative (psychedelic) rock song from the 1960’s”, it is correct to put most Siduri Pinot Noir bottlings in the category of “high-alcohol, ripe, California style”. It is incorrect to put them in the category of “classic Burgundian-style pinot”. This judgment can be made independently of whether one likes the wine or not, just as a knowledgeable music critic can identify the genre of Purple Haze independently of whether they like the song.

What counts as a correct categorization of a wine? The presence of features standard for that category, the fact that a particular wine more readily shows its virtues in that category, the intentions of the winemaker, and the fact that such a categorization is widely recognized by wine experts. And we can define categories in various ways, according to varietal, region, style, vintage, quality, etc.

Once we place a wine in its correct category and judge it against other wines in that category, our judgments can claim a measure of objectivity. Because there is agreement on standard features implicit in the notion of “correct categorization” there is agreement on the criteria used to judge a wine in that category. This does not eliminate all subjectivity or personal preference, but it narrows the range in which personal preference can operate. I may prefer Burgundian style pinots to California-ripe pinots, but if I am judging a California-ripe pinot only against others of the same style my personal preference for Burgundian pinots need not come into play.

Of course, it will often be difficult to properly categorize a wine, just as it is difficult to know which genre to place the Kronos Quartet’s version of Purple Haze. In the wine world today, boundaries are unstable, well-known classification systems are undergoing change, experimentation is rampant, and the popular style of using very ripe grapes tends to erase some distinctive characteristics of certain wine styles. Some of this is good for wine drinkers; but it makes judgment more challenging.

This is why large wine competitions are virtually useless for arriving at objective judgments about wine. Wines of different styles are typically thrown together in these competitions, wines are tasted blind and so judges often lack clues about proper categorization, and thus judges are left evaluating based on personal preference alone.

Thus, the claim that all wine evaluation is purely subjective is simply not true if we are careful to specify the comparison class against which a wine is being judged. The narrower the category, the more clearly we can delineate standard properties of that category, the greater the potential for objectivity.


  1. Hi Dwight:

    I agree wholeheartedly with much of this, particularly the Walton-esque idea that, contra New Criticism types, evaluation of wines/works of art doesn’t make sense except against a category assignment. Two thoughts about this.

    One, as you acknowledge, there are a few difficult questions here about how to understand the process of category assignment. If overall evaluation depends on the appreciation of aesthetic/sensory properties, but which such properties we apprehend depends on the category assignment, it can seem as if you have to make the category assignment prior to making the evaluation. On the other hand, it’s not obvious how you can carry out the category assignment prior to apprehending at least some features. Given this, it is plausible that the decision about categories and features is a package deal — that neither category assignment nor feature assignment is wholly prior to the other. Even if this is right, it leaves open the further question of how we choose between alternative package deals that are in the running. I’m inclined to suppose we favor a possible category/feature package over others at least partly because evaluating this wine/work with respect to it will make the wine/work come off well. I suppose that amounts to a kind of principle of interpretive charity for category assignment. But notice that you don’t want to make the choices so flexible that everything is going to come off well. (E.g., this Two Buck Chuck is excellent qua thin, flavorless wine from CA selling for under $4.) So there need to be some constraints on categories with respect to which we are willing to carry out evaluations; Walton makes some suggestions about this in “Categories of Art”, though I think this remains a tough, unresolved question.

    Two, I don’t understand how you’re inferring from the claim that evaluation is category-relative to the non-subjectivity of evaluation. Even if we agree that a wine has to be evaluated relative to category, and even if we agree that wine w has to be evaluated relative to category C, it certainly doesn’t follow that our evaluations of w relative to C have to converge. (Example: some judges think that Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is excellent relative to the category of 20th century science fiction, and others who think it is crappy relative to the very same category.)
    Perhaps the category-relativity thesis help in putting aside some possible contender evaluations that would otherwise be obstacles to the alleged objectivity of evaluation. (Maybe this is all you had in mind?) But it seems to me that more argument is needed to get us all the way to convergence/objectivity.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jonathan. It seems to me some categories will be based on non-aesthetic properties–varietal, region, etc.–so the decision about which category in which to place a wine will not involve evaluation or judgments about sensory features. Of course you might wish to evaluate categories that do involve aesthetic features so in that case you are right about the “package deal”. The categories we find worthy of evaluation is a practical matter I suspect. It will depend on what we find interesting–in most contexts ruling out “thin, flavorless wine under $4”. But I should go back and read Walton on this issue.

    As to my point about objectivity, you are exactly right. I think category-relative judgments narrow down the possible contending evalutions so there will be a greater tendency toward convergence. But it won’t get us all the way. I’m not sure we want wine evalution to be thoroughly objective; we only need enough objectivity to explain the existence of genuine tasting expertise (if such a thing exists).

    1. Hi Dwight:
      Your suggestion that varietal-/region-based origin properties set the categories for wine is plausible; but it does raise the question why those categories rather than others turn out to be suitable for the purposes of our evaluation. Again, if you just go for a category on the grounds that it makes the resulting evaluation turn out better, then I suspect there are always going to be finer-grained categories that come out higher in the ranking than the varietal or geographically based ones. At this point the line your run about grounding the categories in our interests might be helpful, at least as a practical matter. (At least, this is the line I was running in “Wine Tasting, Blind and Otherwise: Blindness as a Perceptual Limitation”.)

      But this idea is arguably in tension with the kind of objectivity that you say you want to get out of the category-relativity-of-evaluation idea.The worry is that if you don’t share my interests, hence category assignments, then my evaluations threaten to become invulnerable to critical assessment by you. Hence there’d be no persuading, or even genuinely engaging, a critic whose interests, for what ever reason, dictate use of the category *thin, flavorless wine under $4*.

      (This just mirrors the Quine/Carnap dispute about framework- internal/external questions. For the Carnapian, scientists can’t compel others who work in an old, competing framework to adopt the new one, since there’s no shared framework internal to which a rationally compelling case can be made. Mutatis mutandis, it seems to me, with respect to critical evaluations carried out by critics who differ over the category to which they assign wine/work w.)

      1. Granted with regard to category-relative judgment, people who don’t share the category as a source of criteria will find the evaluation unpersuasive if not unintelligible. But it is not obvious the possibility of such disagreement should bother me. My interest in the problem of objectivity is related to an interest in vindicating wine expertise, which is an essential dimension of current winetasting practices and without which much of wine culture would be incoherent.

        But disagreements over which categories are appropriate for wine evaluation doesn’t threaten the idea of expertise. Expertise that is category-relative is nevertheless expertise. Thus, if category-relative judgments tend to reduce disagreement and foster some degree of convergence the best explanation would be category-relative expertise.

        It occurred to me in thinking about your comments that there are at least two issues that need to be disentangled. One is the issue of whether winetasting is arbitrary, subjective, utterly idiosyncratic, and just a matter of personal opinion. Category-relative convergence would help set aside that notion.

        The second is the issue of which categories we should use and the threat of incommensurability when there is sharp disagreement on this, suggested by your reference to Carnap. Here there is agreement that there are standards thus vindicating expertise, but disagreement about which standard to employ–a related but different matter.

      2. Hi Dwight:

        Of course whether and to what extent you should be worried about the kind of disagreement I mentioned will depend on what you want to get out of all this. That said, my concern is that the notion of expertise you end up recovering might be thinner than what is wanted (by you or others).

        For suppose that there is indeed convergence for evaluations relative to a chosen set of categories (though, as noted, merely going category-relative doesn’t guarantee this): relative to some set of categories C1, … , Cn, there is convergence on evaluative features F1, … , Fm. This nonetheless allows that there is another set of evaluators wedded by their interests to C1′, … , Cn’, and convergence wrt those categories on the presence of evaluative features F1′, …, Fm’. Or, worse yet, these guys could converge on applying the evaluative features ~F1, …, ~Fm. Unless we can break the symmetry, it seems that the argument for the expertise of the one group is exactly as good or bad as the argument for the expertise of the other group.

        If the expertise that is vindicated by category-relative evaluation allows for this situation, one might reasonably think it is less robust than the kind of expertise that evaluators of wine (or art, etc) seem to want. (The situation is presumably even worse if you allow the groups to contain only one evaluator — and why not?, but the worry gets going either way.)

        For then we would have an expertise-certified verdict backing Fi, and an expertise-certified verdict backing ~Fi. We would in this case have moved the problem of arbitrary, subjective, idiosyncratic responses from the level of feature assignment to the level of category assignment.

        Anyway, that’s at least one worry about this way of going, it seems to me.

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