How to Be an Objective Wine Critic

critical wine tastingIn the debate about whether winetasting is subjective or objective we need more nuance. One side claims wine tasting is subjective because we can’t agree on wine quality. The other side claims there are objective, chemical components of wine which explain wine flavors and aromas about which we can be correct or mistaken. Both sides are right but express only partial truths. There are objective and subjective dimensions to wine quality.

The problem with the objectivist view is that a collection of chemicals doesn’t add up to beauty, finesse, complexity, or any of the other aesthetic concepts used to describe wine. But that needn’t leave us mired in subjectivity.

That we have different responses to wine is inevitable given our biological, cultural and personal differences. What matters is that in our tasting we adopt a form of play that creates space where something indeterminate or unusual can be sensed that can disrupt our expectations and give us a clearer view of a wine’s quality. But this will work only if we engage the wine as we would a work of art; our own sensory and emotional experience is itself an object of reflection. In other words, we should consciously embrace our perceptions of unfamiliarity, confusion or even dislike in order to open up opportunities to taste what we might have missed. Embracing displeasure and questioning pleasure are essential elements of the process.

Of course in the end the wine must give pleasure in order to be positively evaluated. But the process must involve some questioning of the assumptions we bring to the table when we taste.

Responsible wine criticism involves taking a critical approach to wine appreciation in which we become aware of our perceptions and feelings and experience them as experiences, a form of self-relatedness  in which  our reactions are part of the wine’s meaning. This is different from an attempt at pure objective description. There is no attempt to ignore or discount one’s personal reactions but to look at them as something which themselves must be assessed.

We evaluate not only the wine but our assessment of the wine.

Obviously, this kind of critical reflection doesn’t guarantee a quality judgment. There are no guarantees. But critical reflection is essential to any account of objectivity that has a chance to succeed.

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