Thinking about Objectivity and Wine Tasting

wine tastingAlthough the belief that wine tasting is subjective is common even among wine professionals, no one in the wine industry really believes it.

Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. Ask any winemaker why she controls her fermentation temperatures and you will hear some version of the claim that doing so makes better wine. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality. Wine education would be an oxymoron; quality control an exercise in futility; wine criticism just empty piffle.

The most telling fact about the existence of objective judgments and genuine expertise is the fact that many wine experts successfully pass the rigorous Master of Wine or Master Sommelier exams. To pass the tasting portion of the Master of Wine exam you have to sit for three 12-wine blind tastings, each lasting two and a quarter hours, in which wines from anyplace in the world must be assessed for variety, origin, winemaking, quality and style. They aren’t consulting oracles or hallucinating their answers. If you don’t know your stuff, you don’t pass, period. If wine tasting is wholly subjective what explains their ability to pass the exam?

However the fact that wine expertise is real does not quite secure the argument that judgments about wine quality are objective. This is because, too often, reasoning about wine quality is circular. (This by the way is a well known problem in philosophical aesthetics.)

Here is the problem:

How do we know what wine quality is? The best answer is that competent, qualified judges determine what wine quality is—the folks that pass the MW exam for instance.  But how do we know they are the competent judges? They’re the ones who can identify wine quality.

That is a logical circle. A is true because B is true. But B is true because A is true.

The problem is we need an independent account of what wine quality is. One way of solving this problem is to point to a consensus. If all competent judges come to agreement about wine quality, that is evidence that their judgments are objective.

As we know from debates about wine quality, competent judges come to vastly different conclusions about the value of the wines they assess. Although there is broad consensus in the wine world that a Chateau Lafite from a good vintage is of higher quality than your bottom shelf $8 Chianti, more fine-grained judgments elude the consensus necessary to avoid the circle.

Something to ponder for the weekend.

2 comments

  1. Excellent column, Dwight. Of course there has to be an element of subjectivity in any discussion along these lines. Certainly, individuals have differing thresholds of perception on any number of elements. That alone should give pause to those who claim objectivity. But there are also the differences in what we actually enjoy, which are only partly based on our sensitivities to those perceptions.

    Which why people, even experts, will disagree. And why we should encourage consumersto explore the world of wine free from imposed opinions…open to many viewpoints

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