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wine-ratingQuestions about the objectivity of food or wine appreciation could be easily resolved if a certain picture of how taste works were true. That picture is this: There are chemical compounds in food and wine that stimulate our taste buds which in turn send signals to the brain that enable us to identify the taste. Both the chemical compounds in the food and the sensitivity of the taste buds are objectively measurable and the signals to the brain bypass the areas of the brain devoted to higher-level cognitive functioning. There is salt in the food, then you taste salt—no interpretation or complex judgment is involved.

According to this view, a wine or food expert would be someone who is more skilled than ordinary people at detecting these compounds and reporting their presence. Because these compounds and our taste sensitivities are measurable, we can determine objectively who the experts are and how much expertise they have. Essentially, the difference between an expert and a non-expert would be a physiological difference in taste sensitivity, much like an explanation of color blindness.

But this is not how we experience food or wine. Although something like this picture may be correct with regard to basic tastes—salt, sugar, sour, bitter, and umami—the world of flavor is more complex.  A restaurant review that discussed only the level of basic tastes in the food would be worse than useless. It is not at all obvious that olfactory sensations, which make up the bulk of what we experience as flavor, are direct, non-cognitive responses to compounds in food. And the interactions of various flavors are not reducible to a simple sensation explainable as a physiological difference.

The problem with this model of food appreciation is that it ignores the well-established fact that tastes are cognitively penetrable—that is, our beliefs about what we are eating or drinking and our emotional states influence what we taste. Memories, personal preferences, cultural beliefs, expectations, mood, atmosphere, brand loyalties, labels, price, the cute chef all contribute to our judgments about what is worth eating or drinking.

So where does that leave the possibility of objectivity?  The worry is that all these cultural and personal influences obscure whatever link there is to the object we are tasting making our judgments thoroughly subjective. Of course, many people are willing to concede that taste is thoroughly subjective. But that would entail that we must accept claims such as “Shakespeare is no better than Jersey Shores”,” a plate of overcooked pasta is just as tasty as a finely prepared Tuscan steak”, “Two-Buck Chuck can stand up to that Petrus”, etc. This concession is just lazy and doesn’t explain our experience.

Philosophers have been thinking about this issue for centuries, not only with regard to taste, but with regard to our perceptual sensations in general. One solution is to note that our experience is intelligible only if we assume it is organized around certain fixed categories that can be understood through conceptual analysis. That is not a bad solution with regard to perceptions of time and space, but our taste experience seems too variable and unstable to be explained in terms of fixed categories.

The alternative is to hold that all these personal and cultural influences can be sorted out and set aside by careful reflection and training allowing the real, objective features of the object to shine through. But there is too much disagreement among experts who engage in careful reflection to persuade skeptics.

So what is the solution? There is no bright, shiny solution because there is no reason to think our taste mechanisms have evolved in a way that enables their separation from memory,  individual variation, cultural influence, etc. But what we can do as critics is reduce the signal of these factors in order to focus on what is intrinsic to food or wine.

For instance, most wine critics agree that wines ought to be judged according to their balance, structure, typicity, complexity, power, elegance, etc. Why are these more important than the attractiveness of the label, the social signal sent by owning the bottle, the price, or how the wine makes you feel? The first group of criteria tells you about the wine; the second group does not. The first group of criteria keeps the focus on fermented grape juice; the second loses that focus. Disagreements between critics within those criteria inevitably raise questions about personal preference but that is neither pernicious nor misleading if such disagreements highlight features of the wine we might not have noticed.

Objectivity in this context means something like “respecting the object for its intrinsic features”, a moral imperative rather then an epistemic state. It seems to me, that is what we want out of a critic, whether it is criticism of wine, food, books, or art. It does not involve pure impartiality whatever that would mean, but rather a kind of bounded impartiality that attempts to wall off irrelevant factors while keeping intrinsic factors front and center.