Subjective Tastes and Mixed Messages: Is the Wine Industry Harming its Image?

wine class This post from Steve Heimoff got me thinking about how the wine industry steps on its message when writers and salespersons insist that wine tasting is subjective.

Heimhoff was wondering whether the market for high-end Napa wines is collapsing.

Yet there has to be a tipping point at which Napa no longer can sustain so many overpriced wines. I don’t expect Napa itself to understand where the tipping point is, or will even recognize it when it comes: Napa is very, well, Napa-centric, as perhaps it should be; but it does tend to see the world from within its own rarified bubble.

There is some anecdotal evidence from retailers that the tipping point has already occurred, which is not surprising given the increasingly competitive global wine market.

But if the wine industry wants people to pay premium prices for their best product, why do they insist on telling people that wine tasting is subjective? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a wine tasting in which presenters don’t encourage patrons to trust their palates, insisting that there is no right and wrong when tasting wine and that the views of a novice are every bit as valid as the views of an expert.

I understand why they do this. Wine can be intimidating. It is a complex field and the factors that contribute to quality are sometimes hard to detect. If it seems too time consuming or difficult to gain knowledge, people may conclude that it is not worth the effort.

But nothing is more likely to discourage people from adding to their wine knowledge and experience than the claim that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. Because if wine tasting is subjective these claims follow logically:

(1)There is nothing more to a wine than what I can immediately sense.

(2) Sensations provide us with no basis for drawing conclusions about the world.

(3) Therefore, there is nothing in the wine that my sensory experience must detect, and thus no contrast between how things seem to me and how they really are.

(4) Each person’s sensory response is utterly unique to her and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste it as well since there is nothing out there to be tasted.

(5) Therefore, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality

(6)When winemakers taste wine in order to make decisions about wine quality, they are engaged in an empty, pointless exercise.

If you believe these claims, then why on earth would you spend $20 let alone $100+ for something that cannot promise greater quality. Claims 1-6 entail that if you happen to like the $100 bottle more than your Trader Joe’s bargain wine it is just an accident unrelated to wine quality.

Of course, none of the wine industry spokespersons really believe any of this—it is utterly incompatible with wine scores, wine criticism, tasting notes or the commitment to wine quality that drives the best winemakers to succeed. If there is no such thing as wine quality, why do oenologists spend tens of thousands of dollars on university degrees so they can learn to make good wine?

I can’t help but think the pervasiveness of this meme that wine tasting is subjective is slowing the growth of wine appreciation since it encourages a kind of lazy complacency with whatever swill one happens to drink today. If Napa producers are losing market share, perhaps they have only themselves to blame.


  1. Hi Dwight:
    Agreed completely that the endlessly repeated subjectivist mantras in wine tastings are oversimple, implausible in lots of ways, and largely at odds with the narrow commercial interests of the industry-associated folk who (among others) spout them. But I just want to note that at least some of the conclusions that you say “follow logically” appear not to. (Or maybe they do, but not without building a lot more into the objective/subjective distinction than the standard platitudes one hears at tastings seem to warrant.)

    For example, I would have thought you could be a pretty thoroughgoing subjectivist without accepting (1): you could hold that there’s oodles of faultless disagreement between reactions in different subjects while allowing that the reactions are highly mediated, top-down, judgment inflected, post-sensory, etc.

    Similarly, subjectivists of all sorts will deny (2) on the grounds that each taster’s subjective reactions license for her conclusions about both herself (I’m having this subjective reaction) and the wine (this wine occasions in me this subjective reaction) — and since the taster and the wine are both parts of the world, she gets to draw conclusions about the world.

    As for (3), different subjectivists have different strategies for drawing the seems/is distinction, but here’s at least one. Suppose I get my subjective reaction, and infer from it that the wine is such as to occasion in contextually relevant subjects/circumstances the kind of reaction I am occurrently having. That inference is fine if I am a contextually relevant subject in a contextually relevant circumstance. But since I can form false beliefs about the latter, my projective inferences made thereupon will seem true but be false.

    (4) seems to me to build in a kind of extreme subjectivism — one on which there is no interpersonal/inter-circumstance iteration of subjective reaction. But I don’t see that a subjectivist qua subjectivist has to be committed to that.


    As I say, none of this is to deny your main point that the standard subjectivist claims made at tastings are at least careless, probably false, and maybe incoherent….

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for commenting. I perhaps was not as clear about (1) as I should have been. My point was that, for the subjectivist, further exploration of the wine aside from the immediate hedonic response will not produce any greater understanding of the wine.You are right that subjectivism is compatible with our tastes being mediated by various cognitive processes. My point was that there is no reason for the subjectivist to be concerned with any of that. I take it one reason we want an understanding of the mediation is because we are concerned with cognitive biases that might influence judgment. But for the subjectivist (at least of the sort I am addressing) there is nothing to be biased about because there is no normative standard.

      As for (2) well I agree the taster is “part of the world” when “the world” is described from a third-person point of view, but that is not the point of view being adopted by the subjectivist regarding the wine. She is focused on her subjective reaction to it. The whole question of what, regarding the world, can be inferred from one’s subjective state has vexed the whole subjectivist tradition from Descartes through phenomenology. As to inferences about the wine, I suppose the subjectivist could argue that the wine possesses a disposition to cause “in me this subjective reaction”. But I don’t see how that would be informative given that there could be no independent confirmation of the dispositional property without also admitting that there is a “correct” way to detect it, which I take it is a denial of subjectivism (at least of the sophomoric version under discussion).

      As to (3) and (4), to adopt a seems/as distinction, or admit an interpersonal iteration of subjective reactions is to admit the existence of a normative standard for judgment which the casual dismissal of normative judgment at wine tastings seems to preclude. This is indeed an extreme for of subjectivism, which as you rightly note, it was my intention to point out.

      1. Hi Dwight:
        It’s your blog, and of course you can construe ‘subjectivism’ however you like. But I worry your arguments may apply only to the least interesting/sophisticated forms of the view — forms that don’t do the things that even subjectivists want them to do, that aren’t seriously defended by anyone, and that certainly don’t automatically fall out of the casual things that people carelessly say at wine tastings.

        Suppose we allow that the subjective reactions in question can be mediated, cognitive, etc, contrary to (1), as I suggested. You say a subjectivist shouldn’t be concerned with that since she won’t recognize any normative standard that the mediation or cognitive influence (etc) pulls her away from. Even granting the latter point, arguendo, note that that doesn’t show that a subjectivist shouldn’t be concerned with the mediating factors. She might very well be interested in understanding the nature and structure of the subjective reactions she thinks are central to the evaluative process. Why shouldn’t she be interested in that?

        As for (2), I don’t know why you say the attribution of the disposition to cause the subject’s occurrent subjective reactions would be uninformative. Even granting (again, arguendo) your supposition that the subjectivist can’t allow for independent confirmation of that attribution, it seems like the subjectivist should say that the attribution is true and novel, hence informative. In fact, as Mark Johnston points out (“How to speak of the colors”), this new informative attribution allows for a kind of highly valuable epistemic contact with the world that non-subjectivist views can’t capture: on a kind of secondary quality theory on which the detected properties just are the dispositions to cause subjective reactions, the subject who undergoes such reactions thereby gets a kind of direct epistemic contact with the very essences of properties of external objects. (Johnston talks about this as valuable from an “ethics of belief” perspective.)

        Regarding (3), and contrary to what you say, the strategy for making a subjectivist appearance/reality distinction I described is completely orthogonal to there being a normative standard for judgment. It depends on there being a conversationally relevant sort of subject. A subjectivist can surely accept that without claiming that that subject’s responses are in any way normatively binding on anyone. But then the point is that, if she makes an inference from her own subjective reaction to a claim about what would be the subjective reaction in the conversationally relevant type of subject, she can go wrong. Hence the subjectivist has the resources to account for error. (This is only one way. There are others.)

        Similarly with respect to (4). The idea that it’s all about subjective reactions doesn’t by itself take any stand on how much interpersonal/intrapersonal iteration of subjective reactions exists. But if a subjectivist thinks there is significant iteration, that claim doesn’t tell us anything at all about whether there are normative standards or how they bear on individual subjects. Hence a subjectivist can allow extensive iteration without ipso facto committing to normative standards. No?

  2. Jonathan,

    I think we are having a disagreement about the relevance of the loose talk in wine tasting venues for sophisticated versions of subjectivism.

    Here is one version of subjectivism: Evaluative terms (good, bad, right, wrong, beautiful etc.) convey no property of the object they refer to but express a fact about the psychological state, accessed via introspection, of the person uttering them.

    This I think is the proper definition of the word “subjective” used in such loose wine talk. And my comments refer to this kind of subjectivism.

    Here is another version of subjectivism: A person’s evaluative perspective, under the right conditions, determines what is right, wrong, good, bad, beautiful, etc for her.

    With this second version, much depends on how “evaluative perspective” and “under the right conditions” are unpacked. But it seems to me on any sophisticted unpacking, “evaluative perspective” will include a host of causal and normative contraints that, although part of an agent’s psychological state, are much more than that–they make reference to facts about a (shared) external reality. In fact, I have a (co-authored) paper, which I think is close to being accepted, which argues there are conceptual connections between evaluative perspectives (governed by care, not mere desire) and truth tracking. In other words “under the right conditions” includes some notion of objective constraints.

    Is this still subjectivism? It still fits the second definition but surely not the first.

    With regard to wine tasting, surely one’s evaluative perspective will govern judgments about wine. If someone likes fruit-foward, powerful, tannic wines, their ultimate verdict about a wine will be different from someone who prefers soft, elegant wines with finesse. That seems like subjectivism. But for sophisticated tasters they may well agree about the features of the wine and disagree only in the ultimate verdict. They distinguish their preferences from the objective features of the wine. I don’t see that kind of distinction in the loose talk in wine venues, hence my judgment that such talk is pernicious.

  3. Hi Dwight:
    We agree that loose talk in wine venues doesn’t distinguish between more and less plausible forms of subjectivism. But we are disagreeing about what the options are. I think you see roughly two views: an anything-goes unconstrained subjectivism, and a more constrained subjectivism where subjective reactions have to be disciplined by objective (viz., not subject-involving) facts and public norms. I think that dichotomy ignores an important family of intermediate positions.

    The first form of anything-goes subjectivism you describe is, as you say, deeply implausible. In fact, I doubt it is coherent, since if subjects have their reactions to objects, then presumably those objects have dispositions to cause such reactions, and then these dispositions are at least apt targets for evaluative concepts/language.

    But the main point I’m urging on you is that, if you don’t like the first view (as neither of us does), that doesn’t force the adoption of a view that makes appeal to binding norms and objective (/not subject-involving) constraints.

    For there are stable intermediate positions that take evaluations to be constituted by subjective reactions, that allow the rejection of your (1)-(4) in ways I described in earlier comments, that allow us to make informative attributions of the relevant qualities to the object, that allow for errors in attribution, and so on. And you don’t need objective features, truth tracking, and the like to get these benefits. There are different ways of telling something like this story. E.g., plausibly Locke, McGinn, and Johnston run views of this type. I also think of my own view on color as falling under this heading. And Andy Egan has offered a completely other way of doing it in terms of centering features. The large number of different options here makes it all the more important not to dismiss the whole constellation of views out of hand. (Though obviously my view is better than the alternatives…;>)

    We agree that the loosely subjectivist slogans uttered in wine venues are typically indiscriminate between the alternatives. But I take it the interesting issue then is to find out whether there’s a way of working out any sensible view that respects the motivations people have in mind in such settings as much as possible (without falling into mistakes such as your (1)-(4)). I claim that the various intermediate forms of subjectivism I alluded to above make at least a good start on this project.

    1. So I take it, given your references to Locke and McGinn that tastes are a secondary property on your view. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by why that view is called “subjectivism”. If “red” refers to a disposition under certain conditions to cause me to see red then there is an objective fact about the tomato–that it has certiain physical properties–and an objective fact about me– that I can experience red under those conditions and in the presence of the tomato–that fully explains why I see the tomato as red.

      It isn’t obvious why the property red is less real than primary qualities or less an objective property of reality. But it does allow for blameless disagreement without falling prey to 1-4, which I suppose is its virtue. It has been awhile since I have looked into this literature. I don’t really have an objection to talking this way at least with regard to some properties.

      But it seems to me secondary properties only get us so far with regard to aesthetics. Secondary properties presuppose some kind of supervenience account don’t they? But I doubt that most aesthetic properties–“elegant”, “dynamic”, “graceful” etc–are supervenient. At least there will be no general account of what the underlying disposition is that gives rise to these properties.

      1. First, though I have some settled views on color, I don’t really know what I think about taste, and in this exchange have only ever commented on what is compatible with what, and what theoretical options are available. I’m not ready to commit about tastes.

        Second, I agree completely (and have said in print) that the secondary quality theorist’s dispositions in objects are bona fide properties of those objects. The reason I take it that this kind of view about (say) redness counts as a kind of subjectivism is that it allows that redness is a property partly constituted in terms of the reactions of subjects. And it will deny that that is the case about (say) squareness.

        Moreover, the view in question does at least some of the things people seem to want a subjectivist view to do, eg to allow for blameless disagreement. Plus, as it sounds like we’re now agreeing, it does so without committing to (1)-(4). So far so good.

        Do secondary properties, construed as dispositions to affect subjects, “presuppose some kind of supervenience account” that can’t be told about aesthetic properties such as elegant? I need to hear more about the worry here. Initially my reaction is that we would extend the view to elegant by saying that the latter is a disposition to cause characteristic elegance-reactions in appropriate subjects in appropriate circs. Inter alia that does seem to presuppose that there are such characteristic elegance-reactions, which I suppose is open to doubt. But as far as I can see what I’ve said so far is utterly agnostic about both whether the reactions (if they exist as a type) supervene on anything, or whether the dispositions to occasion them supervene on anything. No?

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