Recently, I pointed to success at passing the tasting component of the Masters of Wine exam as evidence that wine tasting and wine quality are not purely subjective. If it were, success on these exams would be random and arbitrary which they clearly are not.
Another bit of evidence for the same conclusion is more historical. We agree that some wines taste better than others because that agreement is based on focused investigations through several centuries by thousands of individuals, who could make a living only if they convinced others that their product is better than their competitors.
Through hundreds of years, generation after generation, particular plots of land have been carefully cultivated separating out the inferior vineyards from the successful ones with success determined by whether people buy the wine or not. Over that time, viticulture and winemaking techniques have also been tested, again weeding out what works from what doesn’t with everyone searching for an edge that will sell their wine.
The view that winetasting is subjective and wine quality arbitrary cannot explain those countless, independent decisions made under conditions that crucially matter for the survival of their communities.
Is it plausible to think these decisions were made by flipping coins or taking wild, uninformed guesses? Isn’t it substantially more plausible to think these decisions were usually based on a shared sense of what counts as good wine that was continually honed through innovation after innovation because it mattered that they get it right?
Obviously there were mistakes made along the way and corrupt motives often held sway—wine communities are human communities after all. And obviously there are different conceptions of quality, several ways for wine to be delicious. But it is implausible to think there was no concept of quality informing these decisions.
No doubt there have always been sharp disagreements about wine quality. But through trial and error some people win debates and some people lose, because some wines taste better than others. Over time the frauds, hucksters and incompetents are found out and eliminated.
There is an in eliminable subjective dimension to wine preferences, to be sure, but given sufficient time, independence, and incentives to improve, the merely personal and idiosyncratic that are unsupported by a concept of quality are less likely to be reproduced.