Wine Tasting, Subjectivism and Nonsense

wine evaluation 2Philosopher Barry Smith’s recent article in World of Fine Wine magazine hits all the right points about the rampant, mistaken view that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. I highly recommend the whole article.

The heart of his argument for a modest objectivity in wine tasting is that even when disagreeing about a wine, we’re nevertheless responding to something in the wine:

Much of the trouble here is the flawed idea that the taste of a wine is purely subjective: wholly a matter of the sensations we undergo when tasting. The idea of taste as sensation has it that what we taste is just a private experience, in which everything is given to us immediately. It allows for no gap between what I am tasting and my experience of it. And yet, as experienced tasters know, a wine does not give up its secrets all at once, or to just anyone. It takes time, knowledge, and experience to figure out what is going on in it….

The experience of flavor depends on inputs that may vary from taster to taster depending on whether one has the tongue of a supertaster, a taster, or a non-taster. Each of us is likely to have a specific anosmia, meaning that we are “blind” to particular odors. (I know of two food and wine scientists who are insensitive to TCA, or cork taint.) It is little wonder, then, that tasting judgments diverge. But this doesn’t mean they are idiosyncractic or inexplicable, nor that they are subjective and independent of the flavors in the wine. Were one to take the line that tastes just were just the sensations of an individual—based on ignorance of the science of the taster—one would readily understand why judgments of taste would seem like mere opinions, answerable to nothing but an individual’s socially mediated responses. But that’s not how things are.

This is exactly right. In fact no one in the business of making or studying wine really believes it’s subjective. If they did they wouldn’t bother doing what they do.

In philosophy we have a concept called a “performative contradiction” which helps explain the problem with the claim that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. Essentially the idea is that actions taken by an individual would make no sense if that individual’s statements were true. For instance, if I were to say “I am no longer capable of forming a coherent sentence”, that would be a performative contradiction since my uttering the coherent sentence contradicts the meaning of my statement.

Similarly, when winemakers or sommeliers say wine tasting is subjective they are guilty of a performative contradiction.

When winegrowers make adjustments to their canopy in order to  enhance ripening they don’t believe wine appreciation is subjective. They believe there is a standard for ripeness in grapes that, if not met, will harm the wine. When winemakers choose to punch down three times a day rather than two, it’s because they believe doing so will improve the wine. There is a level of extraction they seek which can be met or not and not doing so will be a mistake. When sommeliers studying for their exams strive to discern the identifying characteristics of a Barolo from Serralunga they do so because there is a standard they’re trying to achieve, and they can fail to achieve it or succeed.

In each case they are responsive to a standard that is independent of their beliefs about it. These standards are not arbitrary, subjective, or entirely personal. If they were there would be no consequences to not meeting these standards. You could choose any standard you wanted and if you fail to meet it choose a different standard. That just isn’t how we operate.

To believe that wine tasting is subjective is to believe that there is no expertise in winemaking or wine tasting because there is nothing to get right or wrong.

As Smith says, “But that’s not how things are.”

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

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