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rose drinkerIs wine quality an intrinsic property of the wine or is it an extrinsic property? In other words, is the quality of a wine in the wine itself or is it conferred on the wine by some set of outside factors. Jamie Goode recently addressed this topic. He argued:

The most useful definition of quality is fitness for purpose. We can no more ask someone what the best wine is than we can ask a carpenter what the best tool is: if a nail needs to be knocked in, a hammer is better than a screwdriver.

So in terms of a wine, whether or not it is high quality depends on the context of drinking, the winemaker intention, the person consuming the wine, and the way the wine is served. Wine quality is to large part extrinsic not intrinsic.

I disagree with Jamie’s conclusion although I think his premises are sound.

First of all, I have no problem defining “quality” as fitness for purpose, although I think you could argue that some purposes are closer to the intrinsic nature of wine than others. For instance, using a quality wine purely as an alcohol delivery system ignores much of what that wine is about.

Using the above definition, Jamie argues that the context in which a wine is consumed is essential to determining quality. A crisp rosé on a hot summer’s night will be of higher quality in that context than a full bodied, young, Bordeaux-style wine independently of how well made the red blend is.

How the wine is served, individual differences among drinkers regarding sensitivities to compounds in the wine, and the winemaker’s intention when making the wine all influence perceptions of wine quality.

I agree with all of that but the conclusion of his argument should not be that quality is  largely extrinsic.

If a good rosé is more satisfying on a hot summer’s night than a big Cabernet, it’s in part because features of the rosé make it so. Such a rosé will be light bodied, with high acidity, and with floral and red fruit qualities that we tend to like on hot summer nights. Those properties are  properties of the wine. If no one were tasting the wine, the wine would still have those properties.

Of course our perception of quality also depends on our ability to appreciate those qualities that are in the wine. Yet without the wine and its intrinsic qualities there would be nothing to appreciate. To suggest that those qualities are not in the wine seems to entail that when the bottle is in the fridge and not being tasted those qualities disappear—that is bizarre.

On that hot summer’s night, a big Cabernet also has certain intrinsic qualities. The qualities that make it good on a cool autumn evening are still in the wine during the summer. It’s just that we can’t appreciate them under those conditions. The qualities of a Cabernet are not manifest when the temperatures are too high.

The best way to think about this issue is in terms of dispositions. Just as a glass is fragile even when sitting safely on your table, a quality Cabernet has the qualities it has even when we can’t appreciate them at the moment. Fragility is a dispositional property—the glass is disposed to break if it falls on the floor. The Cabernet has a variety of dispositional properties—it’s full bodied, with warm spice aromas and a long finish generated by drying tannins—which dispose it to being appreciated by wine drinkers when the weather turns cool.

These dispositional properties are intrinsic to the wine. They are in the wine even when they cannot be appreciated at the moment and show themselves only under certain conditions.

Jamie’s right that extrinsic factors are important in determining wine quality. But the intrinsic factors are just as important. Without both intrinsic and extrinsic qualities we would be unable to appreciate the wine. Wine quality is a product of both the dispositional properties of the wine and the dispositional properties of the people who drink it.

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

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