Is Wine Flavor in the Wine or in the Mind Part 2

wine chemsitryYesterday I linked to and briefly discussed an interesting interview with Barry Smith, a philosopher who works on taste and flavor perception and is a wine lover as well. In the first part of the interview he makes an important distinction between the qualities of wine and our preferences for them claiming that we disagree about subjective preferences but tend to find more agreement and more objectivity if we bracket preferences and focus only on the features of the wine.

In the second part of his interview he briefly lays out a model for how to think about objectivity in wine tasting. But first some background to set up the problem he’s trying to solve. He doesn’t define what he means by “objectivity” but I suspect he has in mind something like this: An objective judgment is a judgment that accurately tracks features of the external world. The question is whether our judgments about wine quality are at least sometimes objective in that sense.

On the one hand, flavor depends on molecules, and taste would seem to be a matter of our sensory mechanisms accurately tracking these compounds in a wine. To the extent a wine taster is accurately tracking chemical constituents of the wine she is tasting objectively. But those who think wine is subjective seem to think our sensory mechanisms aren’t reliably connected to objects in the world. How things seem to us individually is just how things are. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards for judging wine quality according to subjectivists.

It would seem that in order to answer this question about objectivity we need a scientific inquiry that would connect the molecules in wine to the subjective impressions of tasters. But given what we know about the mechanisms of taste, this is a hopeless task. Taste is not a direct perception of a compound but involves very complex mental processes that unite several perceptual modalities into a unified impression of flavor. Taste, smell, and tactile impressions combine with visual and auditory stimuli as well as input from emotions, beliefs, and mood to give us an impression of what something tastes like. It thus seems like flavor is formed in the mind and is subject to a variety of influences unique to each individual. Moreover, the subjective impressions reported by tasters are all over the map and produce  contradictory results not only between individuals but for individual persons from one time to the next. There is room for individual variation because people have different thresholds for detecting molecules and well as different histories, associations, and environments that influence what they taste.

The idea that there could be laws that connect molecules in wine to these unstable individual experiences seems implausible. Yet, in the absence of these law, there is nothing else for wine tasting to be about except how individuals form their own subjective flavor  perceptions. Individual sensory perceptions seem so unstable and widely variable that It looks like the subjectivists have won this debate.

But not so fast.

Smith argues that we should think of flavors as intermediaries between compounds in the wine and our individual reactions to them.

What I say is, you need an intermediate level. We need a level in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions, and this is flavour. Flavours are emergent properties: they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry. Then these flavours are things which our varying and variable perceptions try to latch onto. Each flavour perception is a snapshot of that flavour. We don’t even want to think of it as static: we want to think of a flavour profile: something which itself evolves and changes over time. As a professional taster you are taking snapshots in each of your tastings and trying to figure out what the flavour properties of that wine are that will continue to endure and alter as the wine ages. How would it taste if it was a degree or two colder or warmer? You make predictions and then you can go back and sample it later and say, I was right: I figured that it needed another hour in the glass and needed to be one degree warmer and it would change like this. The thing about which you are making the predictions is flavour. This is what depends on but is not reducible to chemistry. Now you have two tough jobs instead of one, with this intermediate level. One task is to say, what is the relationship between the chemistry and the flavours that emerge. The second task is what is the relationship between individual flavour perceptions and flavours? These two jobs need to be done independently, but they have to reach the same terminus. Having this intermediate level gives you the job of saying how does my individual experience as a taster lock on to flavour, and how does the chemistry give rise to flavour. Don’t try going from the chemistry to perception, you need that middle level.

Smith is claiming that in addition to the objectively-observable, chemical constituents of the wine and the private, individual taste experiences of tasters, there is a third, intermediate object that is just as real as the chemical properties of the wine. This intermediate object is a dynamic flavor profile that each taster is trying to identify, yet is independent of our individual psychological experiences. These intermediaries are caused by the chemical compounds in the wine but there is no purely chemical description of them since they are emergent properties that depend on human  perception. They are the intersection of chemical properties and human perceptions but not reducible to either. Thus, our individual perceptions are tracking something—this intermediary object called flavor that is relatively stable and not dependent on individual perceptions.

The upshot is that individual variations in taste experiences, whether between individuals or between taste experiences by the same person, are different ways of perceiving the same thing. Each taste experience is a snapshot of a larger whole that is the wine’s flavor. Thus no one ever experiences the wine as a whole; it’s never present all at once but transcends each individual taste experience. When I taste apricot or perceive balance, I’m sensing a larger whole that is given to me via those impressions on the way to grasping it as a whole.

How do we know whether our individual perceptions are tracking this intermediate object. Well, we don’t know for sure, but when we make predictions about the wine and how it might be perceived under a variety of circumstances if those predictions are confirmed that is an indicator that we are tracking the wine’s flavor. (It strikes me that if a consensus were to emerge about a wine among knowledgeable critics that also would indicate, without guaranteeing, that we are tracking flavor but Smith does not mention this.)

When the chemical properties of wine interact with human perceptual mechanisms flavor emerges. That flavor is not dependent on my perceptions or your perceptions. If you or I were to cease existing, the flavor of a wine would still exist as long as human beings can taste wine. In that respect flavor is like a dollar bill. A dollar bill is real, as real as a tree or rock. But it’s value as a medium of exchange depends on human practices. If human beings didn’t exist it would just be a piece of paper. Yet it’s value is not reducible to the chemical constituents of the paper nor is it reducible to your individual willingness or my individual willingness to accept it as payment.

So what is the cash value of Smith’s hypothesis? It provides grounds for rejecting radical subjectivism about wine tasting by clarifying what wine tasting is about. Wine flavor is not something that happens within each individual taster. It is an objective feature of a world in which human perceptual mechanisms function in a particular way. When those perceptual mechanisms are functioning properly and sources of bias are reduced that interfere with their functioning there is no reason to think human beings are incapable of accurately recognizing wine flavor. It is difficult to do so and we make many mistakes. All individuals judgments are defeasible and judgments about personal preference have no claim on objectivity. But it leaves much we can say about which flavors are present, whether a wine is in balance or not, has a long finish, is tannic or soft, etc.


  1. Bravo! This level-headed summary of Barry Smith’s analysis of flavor and objective judgments nicely exposes the confusion behind the flawed conception of wine flavor and assessment held by gun-ho subjectivists. The intersection between the chemical properties of the “external world” and human perceptions are both operating on a level of objectivity; for example, the yeast known as Brett is a chemical substance (which contains ethylphenol). It is added to some wines to provide character and complexity.
    When someone tastes a Brett-laden wine, the experience “emerges” as interplay between the chemical components and the individual wine taster’s “sense-impressions”–Smith claims this amounts to “tracking” an intermediate object. One of the known, identifiable and distinctive flavors to emerge is what is described as “barnyard” (earthy, stinky and funky). This would be the objective process that Smith talks about. The subjective comes later–whether the wine is good, high-quality, or mediocre and whether, perhaps, that particular wine is a good example of that style of wine (malbec from Mendoza, Argentina for example)

    It seems that Smith’s re-examination of objectivity allows us to rethink a number
    important issues concerning wine. By emphasizing the objective elements in wine, we can recognize that flavor profiles and the language we use via descriptors (silky, aromatic, full-bodied, etc) to describe and evaluate wine have a solid foundation accessible to the general public. If this were not the case and some form of radical subjectivity about wine were true, the wine enterprise as we know it would degenerate
    into mere opinion, subjective taste and personal biases. Our standards, excellence, quality and knowledge (via wine education) would be of little or no value in a world
    of subjectivity. In fact, the entire business of pricing wines would need to be overhauled since prices clearly reflect an extensive list of “objective” factors such as vintage, terroir, grape varietal, weather, equipment, techniques, etc. which produce the
    distinctive objective features in the wine (fruit, tannins, acidity, sugar, alcohol, etc). We could operate wine stations with large pumps that offer red wine, white wine and
    champagne all available at a fixed price per gallon

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