Wine Talk is About Communication, Not Objectivity or Accuracy

wine-descriptions-for-new-world-barbera-wine When wine is mentioned in the news (outside the columns of regularly-featured wine writers) the topic is all too often the unreliability of wine reviews. Wine critics are accused of being influenced by price and are notorious for their inconsistent judgments and cavernous disagreements about the same wine, as in this recent assessment. The implication is that wine is wholly subjective and the very idea of wine expertise should be discarded.

I’ve discussed the objectivity of wine tasting in the past (here, here and here). Some of the criticisms of wine tasting are misleading; others are simply misguided. As wine critic Steve Heimoff argued recently, the fact that there is a subjective dimension to wine tasting does not mean that wine criticism is useless. What we want from the critic is his/her personal opinion, not a scientific analysis.

Why don’t people get so upset about restaurant critics or movie critics? You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE. That’s because restaurant reviewers don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion.

Well, neither do wine critics.

Steve is exactly right. But I want to take his point one step further and suggest that, in many contexts, values such as accuracy of description or consistency of judgment are not primary—wine critics are aiming at something else.

The ultimate point of wine reviews, especially the descriptive part of the review, is not to accurately describe the wine. If it were, wine criticism would be an abject failure since critical descriptions of the same wine by different critics can be worlds apart. Instead, what the wine critic is trying to do is get the reader/drinker to taste what the critic is tasting. The critic is using words to call attention to features of the wine that another taster—perhaps less experienced or inattentive—might miss. The purpose is to direct the the reader/taster’s attention, to share an experience.

This conception of critical communication is from an academic paper written many years ago by philosopher Arnold Isenberg who was writing about criticism in the visual arts. In discussing critical remarks about the “wave-like contour” of a line in a painting, Isenberg writes:

Now the critic, besides imparting to us the idea of a wavelike contour, gives us direction for perceiving, and does this by means of the idea he imparts to us, which narrows down the field of possible visual orientations and guides us in discrimination of details, the organization of parts, the grouping of discrete objects into patterns. It is as if we found both an oyster and pearl when we had been looking for a seashell because we had been told it was valuable. It is valuable, but not because it is a seashell….And if communication is a process by which a mental content is transmitted by symbols from one person to another, then we can say that it is a function of criticism to bring about communication at the level of the senses; that is, to induce a sameness of vision, of experienced content. (Original in Philosophical Review, 1949)

Wine criticism has a similar intent. When a wine critic refers to for example “road tar” in a wine, he/she is pointing to a feature that may or may not resemble road tar. But the description is directing our attention to something the critic wants us to taste and is proposing that we call it road tar. Of course, the more precise the description, the more successful the directive is likely to be. The point is not that critics should ignore accuracy. The point is that the reader/drinker is moved to search for and hopefully find something she may have missed, or could not describe, prior to reading the description. The aim is not objectivity, and accuracy is just a means to an end. The goal is to communicate an experience.

Metaphorical descriptions of wine—as sexy, brooding, or flamboyant—or evaluative terms, such as elegant or graceful, are even more useful in getting an audience to focus on relevant features. The fact that another critic might use a different word to direct our attention is largely irrelevant. Since each of us has different tasting histories and different habits of talking about those experiences, which description works best to direct attention will be a matter of individual differences.

If, by pointing to the flamboyant personality of a wine, I get someone else to describe it as lively, I’ve done my job. We have a common referent despite the different meaning. Of course, if she describes that same wine as mute and closed, there is obviously egregious miscommunication.

So critics are not striving for objectivity. We are instead striving for awareness, mutually focused attention, and shared experience.

Wine scores, of course, are a different matter. They don’t attempt to shape our thoughts or experience. Their purpose is to help consumers find a bargain, gain advanced knowledge of quality, or provide marketing points for wineries—a purely commercial rather than aesthetic function.

To be sure, wine scores are useful to consumers but if wine criticism were to reject the tasting note in favor of an exclusive reliance on numerical ranking, the purpose of critical communication would be lost.


  1. Turns out, however, that the sorts of wine descriptions offered by critics are extremely bad at communicating (critically or otherwise) about wine. Some of the classic results on this are reported in Adrienne Lehrer’s lovely book, Wine and Conversation.

    One that sticks in my mind is an experiment where taster A gives descriptions for three wines, and taster B has to pair up each description with the wine that taster A had characterized with that description. Both tasters are allowed as much time to sniff and swirl as they need. That’s at least one interesting and plausible way to operationalize communicative success (or at least a minimal floor for it), I would have thought. So how well did subjects do? Poorly. Unrelated subjects were at chance on this task. Subjects who had been members of wine clubs and talking together weekly about wine were at chance. Students in tasting classes in the UC Davis enology program were just above chance, but only just. I don’t see any reason to think that there’s more successful communication going on between wine critics and their audiences. (I’m going from memory here; I hope I haven’t screwed up the details too badly.)

    Obviously this kind of test doesn’t get at the only useful notion of communication, but it doesn’t make one especially optimistic about arguing for the importance of wine criticism by appeal to its communicative utility.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      You are remembering those experiments recounted by Lehrer well.

      But later in the book she refers to Isenberg and has this to say: ‘”Suppose two individuals are drinking wine together and A says to B, “Do you notice the earthy quality, especially strong in the aftertaste?” IF B then notices that property, A ‘s communication has succeeded, even if wine experts would deny that the property in question was earthiness. And if two different individuals C and D, are drinking the same wine, but C calls this property chalky, and D thereby notices the same property, then C’s communication would succeed as well. Suppose further that E describes the very same property as metallic and successfully gets F to pick it out.? In all cases, if the speaker gets the hearer to notice something, then the communication is successful. Semantically, earthy, chalky, and metallic contrast, so from a standard, normative scientific point of view, they cannot all be right. But with respect to critical communication, the point is that the question of correctness is irrelevant. The only thing necessary is accord.”‘ (p. 214)

      This is the point I was trying to make. Utility is in the directing of attention; not in accurate description. And it seems something like this is going on in art criticism in general. Great works bear not only different but sometimes conflicting interpretations. So the important of critical communication cannot be that one of them “gets it right’.

      1. Hi Dwight:
        What you say sounds v plausible as far as it goes, but I don’t think it defuses my worry. My worry, raised by the sorts of experimental results I alluded to and described by Lehrer, is that A’s utterance to B may not (in general) succeed in causing B to notice/attend to the very same property A had it in mind to direct attention towards. I agree that if there is attentional convergence on a property, then there’s a kind of communicative success/accord even if the lexical descriptions on offer don’t literally apply. I’m raising the concern that (given the evidence) the antecedent of that conditional might go false a whole lot more than we think, and so undermine even the kind of utility you were pointing toward.

  2. Hmmm. I suppose whether that counts as failed communication depends on what one thinks is the purpose of critical communication. Suppose the purpose of critical communication in the arts is to generate as many interesting and plausible interpretations of a work (or a wine) as possible. Suppose then that A’s utterance to B causes B to attend to a different property than A had in mind. As a result, B is able to supply an interesting and plausible understanding of the work. Is the utility of the communication thereby undermined? Of course, in some contexts, where truth is the aim it would be, but it isn’t obvious that communication in the arts always aims at truth. I’m not sure what I think about this.

    1. Of course no one owns the word, but I wouldn’t have described the scenario you envisage as an instance of communication. Indeed, I would have called that kind of non-meeting of the minds a paradigm of a communicative failure. None of which is to deny that it could result in interesting new thoughts in A’s or B’s heads. No?

  3. Speech act theory is not my field of expertise, but it seems if speaker A offers her description as a conjecture with the intent to stimulate B’s imagination, then the speech act succeeds as a perlocutionary act. The case for successful communication would be strengthened if it could be shown that this is a convention within the art world. But I don’t know how plausible such a theory would be.

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