Are We Training Wine Tasters or Cyborgs?

robot wine tastersIn my series on the nature of wine criticism, I’ve been arguing  that part of what distinguishes wine criticism from other kinds of wine evaluation is that the critic is not simply describing a wine, but communicating her response to it.

The critic wants the reader to understand that the properties of the wine she identifies are worthy of attention and invite a response, whether positive or negative.

In this post I want to sharpen that distinction between describing and responding via a thought experiment:

Imagine two wine tasters who taste the very same wine and give identical descriptions of it.

One taster is a human being who finds the wine delicious and thrilling. The other taster is a cyborg who experiences no qualitative mental state or pleasure but is programmed to identify properties of the wine via taste and aroma sensors and report on them using appropriate wine critical terminology.

Wouldn’t we want to say that the cyborg doesn’t really understand the wine? It doesn’t get the point of the wine (or wine in general) even if it recognizes that some feeling it can’t experience is appropriate. The point of wine tasting is to savor the wine via a qualitative state, not just to compute an outcome from the wine’s chemical properties and an index of appropriate wine terminology.

Even if the machine were to give a more accurate description of the wine than the human taster it would still be the case that the human taster’s response to the wine was superior. Since the cyborg can’t feel anything, it doesn’t grasp what wine is about. If wine doesn’t produce an enriching experience it has no point.

What this thought experiment shows is that aesthetic experience is central to wine appreciation and criticism. This makes me wonder whether the tasting grids and tasting methodologies of the wine certification programs are really training people to taste wine. The focus on “getting the wine right” seems much like the cyborg’s passionless description. How much enjoyment one gets from the wine is an afterthought if mentioned at all. There is a place for purely objective tasting but it’s a very small corner of the wine world.

This is the thought behind my approval of Hannah Fuellenkemper’s recent polemic about the poverty of our wine language.

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