Sharp disagreements among wine experts about the virtues of a particular wine are common. One critic thinks a wine is flabby and disjoint; the other thinks it is superb. Is there a way to settle such a dispute or are we forced to say there are two different, yet permissible ways of experiencing the same wine?
One thing we know is that some of what we experience in a wine is a response to objective properties of the wine. We taste apple in wine because of the presence of malic acid (among other compounds); vanilla because of the presence of ethyl vanillate, etc. The perceived weight on the palate is a function of extract, residual sugar and or alcohol. When we taste we can fail to discern those objective properties. Novice wine tasters have trouble discerning flavor components in wine just as you might fail to taste the hint of rosemary in a sauce until someone points it out to you. All of this is well-established by science.
It is of course true that we can be misled and seem to taste something that isn’t there. This is common when blind tasting in a group where comments by others may influence someone to misidentify the features of a wine. Furthermore, we can be influenced by price, reputation, expectations, personal relationships, emotional commitments, etc. in ways that mislead us. But this is not evidence that wine tasting is subjective—in fact quite the opposite. If there is such a thing as real expertise in identifying the properties of a wine, then it must be possible to get it wrong. If tastes were entirely subjective there would be no right answer to the question of whether chocolate ice cream tastes of chocolate. No one really thinks that. The fact that expert wine tasters get it wrong so often is evidence that wine tasting is harder than identifying the presence of chocolate—not that it is subjective.
So tastes are not so entirely subjective that our experiences of them have no relationship to an object.
However, each of us has a unique tasting history and a set of expectations based on that history from which there is no escape. We can’t step outside our past and taste something independently of its influence. So the taste of wine (or anything else) is partly dependent on objective features of the world and partly dependent on how our view of those features has been shaped by past experience. The crucial question then is how much of a distorting lens is that past experience. Does it lead us to lose touch with the world or not? This is where systematic learning, the constant calibration of one’s taste to well-established standards, and a disciplined focus on getting things right comes into play. Prejudices can be overcome and influences can be identified and prevented from having a distorting influence if one works at it. And the more knowledge you have about wine regions, vinification processes, etc. the more you can use that knowledge to shape your tasting experience to conform to objective properties of the wine.
The fact that some people after years of study are able to pass the very rigorous “Masters of Wine” program (there are currently only 312 worldwide) is evidence that tasting expertise is real—they are not consulting oracles or hallucinating their answers.
But none of this entails that there is a final, authoritative answer to questions such as whether the 2009 Haut-Brion is superior to the 2005. Objectivity in matters of taste is a matter of degree. We can through disciplined practice learn to overcome some of our prejudices, but there is no escaping some biological differences and there is no escaping personal history. An objective judgment is one that as much as possible tells us more about the object than it does about our peculiarities as individuals. All judgments will reflect some of those peculiarities but if the judgment allows us to more fully grasp the nature of the object the judgment is reasonably objective.
What is most misleading are the terms “objective” and “subjective”. Our language suggests any judgment must be one or the other. But in fact all judgments are a matter of degree—more or less objective or subjective. Part of what makes wine tasting fascinating is that it is a complex mix of objective judgment and subjective impression.