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wine flavor wheelIf you’ve been reading this blog for some time you probably know I get a case of the furies when someone dismisses wine tasting as subjective. Yes there are aspects of subjectivity when tasting wine, but there are objective parameters that frame the practice of wine tasting when conducted by people with the relevant experience and training. The claim that it is all subjective is lazy and ill-informed.

So I was happy to see Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser weigh in on this topic with a particularly helpful blog post detailing all the dimensions of professional wine tasting and noting where judgments can be expected to be objective.  He also makes the important point that only at the extremes can we say a judgment is wholly subjective or wholly objective. Subjectivity and objectivity are poles delineating a continuum and many judgments will be a mixture of subjectivity and objectivity depending upon where on that continuum a particular judgment lies.

After going through the tasting grid used by certification organizations he concludes:

I used 28 of the 43 total criteria on the deductive grid. My scorecard breaks down as follows:

  • Objective: 15 criteria or 53%
  • Objective-subjective: 8 criteria or 28%
  • Subjective: 5 criteria or 19%

Only 19% of the relevant criteria are wholly subjective. I strongly encourage anyone unsure about this topic to read Tim’s post.

As helpful as Tim’s post is, I think we can go even further in defending the objectivity of wine tasting. The definitions of objectivity and subjectivity are dictionary definitions but they are adequate for my purpose here:

Objective experience: of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers.”
Subjective experience: refers to the emotional and cognitive impact of a human experience as opposed to an objective experience which are the actual events of the experience. … For instance, we are all having a subjective experience whenever we are experiencing pain.”

Notice the first part of the definition of objective experience—“of, relating to, or being an object.” What matters in objective experience is that the experience is reliably connected to the object, i.e. it is appropriately about the object. One of the examples Tim gives of subjective criteria is the identification of fruit flavors. He writes:

Our response to fruit qualities in wine is always dependent on our unique life memories of said aromas and flavors. Hence, my “kiwi” call on a particular white wine could be your Bartlett pear, which might be someone else’s Fuji apple.

This is true as far as it goes. But if Tim identifies “kiwi” and I identify “pear” is there any reason to think both of our experiences are unreliable, i.e. not connected to the object in an appropriate way? It is unlikely that either of us are dreaming or hallucinating. Such a disagreement is compatible with us both having a reliable experience of the wine; our disagreement may be about which word to attach to the experience. By contrast if he identifies “kiwi” and I say “no that’s smoke” then we have reason to think one of us lacks that reliable connection to the object since we are unlikely to be experiencing the same object.

The problem arises because wine is a vague object and aromas often lack sufficient clarity and intensity to mark a distinction between similar aromas such as pear and kiwi. Both of us might in fact be correct, not because our responses are subjective, but because the actual aroma is undecidable between pear and kiwi. Such disagreement is not necessarily evidence of the kind of idiosyncratic response that would render the judgment entirely personal or a product of “individual thought”, which are hallmarks of subjectivity as defined above.

To put the put differently, with regard to most aromas there will be a range of descriptors that supply evidence of being reliably connected to the object because the distinctions between aromas are gradients expressing nuances that are objectively a quality of the wine.

When we toss the words “subjective” and “objective” around we often forget that a purely subjective experience would be an hallucination, dream or an imagining, unrelated to the actual object being perceived. Such a disconnection to reality might characterize novice tasters who lack the training and expertise for wine tasting. It is unlikely to be true of most of the judgments of  trained professionals.

There is of course reason to think some of our judgments really do lack this reliable connection to the object. Many of us may have specific anosmias—particular aromas we can’t detect. And all of us differ in the biologically-influenced  thresholds above which we can be affected by the chemical compounds that cause aromas. When our biology limits our capacity to detect specific aromas then that reliable connection to reality is compromised. This, along with the inherent subjectivity of attaching words to our perceptions, means that the detection of aromas will always be threatened by a degree of subjectivity.

Thus I think it is not quite right to place the detection of fruit aromas in the subjective category; it belongs along the objective-subjective continuum as long as there is no reason to think the connection to reality is severed.

It’s probably worth a reminder that preferences are a whole other story—they are largely subjective and that is a good thing.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit my Monday Column archives on Three Quarks Daily