It never fails to set my teeth on edge. I’m focused on trying to “get” this pinot with strange vegetal notes in front of me, and emerging out of the random background chatter I hear someone prattling on about how wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. I restrained my natural proclivity to try to set her straight. But I am always puzzled by how easily people accept this view even though they really don’t believe it.
Does anyone dispute that the way wine tastes is a function of its chemical composition? Cabernet tastes different from Sangiovese because their chemical constituents differ. We taste green apple in wine because of the malic acid. Chardonnay smells buttery because of diacetyl compounds. The drying sensation from red wine is caused by tannin, etc. Everybody knows this.
These chemical components are in the wine; they are not mental fabrications or imaginative flights of fancy. When winemakers want to shape the flavor of a wine, they don’t have a séance or sleep with a dreamcatcher. They change the composition of the wine. If in wine tasting we are responding to objective features of the wine, then wine tasting is not thoroughly subjective.
Granted there are many factors that can interfere with our detection of these components. We differ in our sensitivities to them and various biases can distort our perceptions. So there is always an issue of whether in a particular case we can know we are tasting characteristics of the wine. Wine aromas are sometimes faint and vague, and our ability to remember aromas and consistently assign the proper names to them is limited. But these are obstacles to objectivity; they don’t make it impossible to achieve. Wine evaluation invites even more subjectivity since it is inevitably bound up with our preferences.
But the ability of experienced tasters to perceive basic features of a wine is no more subjective than our ability to perceive color or shapes. Tastes are not a property of the subject alone but are a response to objective features of the wine. To the extent we can track changes in these objective features we are in touch with something beyond our subjective states.