Is Wine Flavor in the Wine or in the Mind Part 1

wine judgingLast week Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic of wine and the objectivity of flavor. I haven’t waded into these waters in awhile so it’s time to revisit the issue.

The question is whether flavors are “in the wine” or “in the mind” . On the one hand, there are chemical compounds in wine that affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms. Those chemical compounds can be objectively measured. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive these compounds. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. Each person’s  response is utterly unique to her and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.

The problem with this view that wine tasting is subjective is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating distinctions in wine quality to others. If wine quality was purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find among experts?

The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:

I think when critics say it is all subjective, they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don’t see why critics couldn’t be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can’t they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it’s not to your taste.

This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. Suckling gives 94 points to a wine; Parker might score it an 88. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they often agree about the features of the wine but disagree about whether they like them or not.

For example, consider these two tasting notes regarding the 1990 Chateau Margaux:

JAMES LAUBE: “A tight, hard-edged and unyielding young wine. Some cedar and currant flavors attempt a coup on the finish, but they’re tightly wrapped in tannin. 86 points.”

JAMES SUCKLING: “Slightly dumb now. Ripe, almost raisiny aromas and flavors that develop a minty, menthol accent. Full-bodied and rich with loads of tannins. Needs time. Better after 2005. 90 points.”{Thanks to Bob Henry in a comment thread for these notes.]

“Tight” and “dumb” mean essentially the same thing–the wine is not very expressive. “Tightly wrapped in tannins” and “loads of tannin” again have similar meanings. Suckling mentions over ripe qualities which appear early in the taste experience; Laube focuses on the finish. They are clearly focusing on different aspects of the wine. But the essential descriptions “closed” and “excessively tannic” are shared by both critics. Both agree that the wine needs more time, Laube calling it “young” and Suckling saying “needs time”.What they differ about is how much to discount the scores given these factors. Suckling is more forgiving than Laube. They seem to agree about what they taste. What they seem to disagree about is their preference for wines that are ready to drink vs. wines that need age.

No doubt preferences are subjective; but it doesn’t follow that perceptions are. Of course, critics sometimes disagree about what they perceive as well, but those disagreements are less extreme than some of the commentary would have you believe.

There is an important philosophical question here: Can you separate how something tastes from whether you like it? It seems that we can. As Smith points out, if we could not separate them we could never acquire new preferences. If you hated broccoli as a child but like it as an adult you must be able to separate taste from liking.

That is a persuasive argument although it could be argued that there was just something about broccoli you didn’t notice as a kid that has now come into focus. Did broccoli as a child taste the same as broccoli as an adult, the difference being you now like what you hated in your youth?Or does the broccoli taste different now? I think the answer to this is not clear. Yet it is a crucial question to answer. If we can separate what we taste from whether we like it then we can view wine criticism as involving two aspects; description which legitimately aspires to something more or less objective, and a verdict which will rely much more on personal taste. A good critic then should be able to keep the two tasks distinct and communicate that distinction to readers.

There is much more to Smith’s interview on this topic which I will cover in a post tomorrow.

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