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.