Wine Critics and Their Biases

Wine writer Jamie Goode raises a key question about wine criticism—should critics allow personal  style preferences to influence their judgment?

He thinks style preferences inevitably color a critic’s judgment:

Admirable as this sentiment is, I don’t think this can work in practice. At some level, a critic will have to make a call on style, because some wines force you into this. In practice, even critics who profess to leave their personal style preferences to one side when they assess wine, can’t seem to do this in practice.

Why? Because of balance.

Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call. This makes it quite personal.

He grants that what he calls ”spoofulated wines”—overly-ripe, high alcohol, heavily oaked wines—taste out of balance to him and thus are inherently deserving of low scores; and such differences in preferences explain widely divergent scores among critics.

Thus he concludes “It’s a myth to think that there is some objective measure of wine quality that professional critics can tap into.”

Truth be told, I don’t think a wine critic’s job is to be objective. It is to discover what is beautiful, different, or remarkable, to make readers think about their own preferences, and lead them to discover something they might not otherwise have noticed. To do that, one needs an aesthetic perspective, a distinct point of view, not objectivity.

But it is important that critics avoid certain kinds of biases regarding price, reputation, marketing, or personal connections, and if a critic’s preferences are too idiosyncratic her reviews might not be generally useful so it is an interesting question whether objectivity, when appropriate, can be achieved.

I think Jamie is right at least about the relationship between balance, style, and the role of personal preference. Balance is a function of the relative prominence of the various components of a wine—fruit, acidity, tannin, oak flavors—and the extent to which they seem integrated and unified.  Decisions about how to adjust this balance account for at least some stylistic differences among winemakers as well as differences among consumers and their preferences.

Because balance is an inherently relational concept, an assessment of how a number of independent variables in a particular case are related, there can be no objective measure of it. In other words, the balance point of each wine will depend on its unique characteristics and thus there can be no general rule, scale, or metric that determines balance.

But balance isn’t all there is to wine quality. Complexity, intensity, length of finish,  how much flavor there is on the finish as opposed to merely tactile sensations, and liveliness on the palate are also elements of wine quality. Unlike balance these are more one-dimensional, and at least roughly measurable because they are primarily about magnitude and thus can be represented on a scale. I would hesitate to say these are purely objective properties—differences in physiology and background will produce disagreement about them among experienced critics. But the fact that a single magnitude is being assessed reduces the scope of disagreement and increases the possibility that, through training, diverse tasters can calibrate their judgments to each other.

I might not prefer “spoofulated” wines, but I can nevertheless judge their complexity, concentration, length of finish etc. assuming my bias doesn’t prevent me from attending to these features.

But this raises another more far-reaching issue. The judgments of wine critics may be initially subject to all sorts of biases. But can an attentive, self-aware critic overcome these biases? If a critic recognizes that they prefer certain wine styles to others, and is able to analyze the way such biases influence her judgments, can she overcome the bias?

I’m not sure what the answer to that question is.

There has been a good deal of research on cognitive biases. The work of Daniel Kahneman especially has demonstrated that our thinking is subject to all sorts of unconscious biases that seriously distort our thinking.

For instance, take what Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy”—our tendency to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, and hence foolishly to take on risky projects.  Yet, clearly, if we know about this bias and discipline ourselves to stick with the hard evidence and have the appropriate skepticism with regard to unsubstantiated predictions, we can overcome this bias.

Are taste biases similar?

With regard to criteria such as overall hedonic quality, on the basis of which point scores are awarded, it is hard to see how biases can be avoided. If your judgment is simply a matter of identifying how much pleasure you get from a wine, then personal preference inevitably enters the picture. You can’t pretend to enjoy what you don’t enjoy or gauge how much you would enjoy a wine if only you had enjoyed it. But there is more to wine criticism than measuring overall hedonic quality.

It is common for art, film, and music critics to give positive reviews to works they didn’t particularly enjoy—perhaps the theme makes them uncomfortable, the film or score was too long, the meaning opaque. But the work might nevertheless be complex, moving, interesting, and have integrity. Pleasure is not the only criterion for judging anything and thus personal preference need not govern all our aesthetic judgments.

I see no reason why wine criticism should be different.

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