I’m still recovering from the brain cramps I get when trying to fathom the point of Alder Yarrow’s claim that food and wine pairing is a sham because it violates the norms of pre-modern Europe. (My Part 1 is here) But I will soldier on because the mid-section of his post trots out the hoariest of canards from the wine populist’s bag of treats. Taste is all subjective, he claims, so there is no point in making recommendations on what to eat or drink. Need I point out that this is coming from someone with thousands of wine reviews under his belt. What is the point of wine reviews if taste is subjective?
Here’s the offending introductory passage:
Contrary to the impression conveyed by “authoritative” tasting notes and numerical scores from experts, not to mention what you might see MS candidates trying to do in movies like SOMM, science increasingly suggests that the experience you have when tasting a wine is uniquely your own.
Science shows nothing of the sort.
He goes on to provide the usual liturgy of variables that influence what we taste—biological differences in our sensitivity to chemical compounds, the complexity of saliva, the influence of environment, price, and reputation, the company you’re with. These are all well-established influences on what we taste; those are the facts. But the conclusion that taste is purely subjective simply doesn’t follow from these facts.
Yes, we are all unique in our biological constitution. But the differences are typically not large and there is a great deal of overlap in our sensory equipment. There is simply no evidence that people vary widely in their natural ability to taste. We are dealing with statistical norms here, tendencies, not absolutes. This is why recommendations from genuine experts are worth heeding—they are more or less likely to be useful. We know from the wine trade that a wine scored in the mid-90’s by Parker, Suckling and the Wine Spectator is likely to be worth drinking even if you think the score is inflated. There obviously is no guarantee. There are exceptions and all of us have our idiosyncrasies. But the idea of a normal distribution of preferences and sensitivities describes most of us most of the time and no scientist would tell you otherwise. Despite our differences most people like chocolate and think Petrus is worth drinking. Most people will find Chardonnay is better with lobster than Petite Sirah.
The exceptions can be starkly salient. If you’re really sensitive to brett you will find Chateau Beaucastel disgusting. If you can’t smell pyrazines you will find Sauvignon Blanc boring. To some people cilantro tastes like soap. A super taster sensitive to bitter compounds may not be able to handle espresso. But these are on the tails of the curve. In other respects, these same people will fall into a normal range. (And don’t ignore the word “range”. It is a range and degrees matter)
People with talent and experience who seek to provide guidance about food and wine pairings are speaking to what is likely to be appealing to most people most of the time. They are assuming statistical norms. What else could they be doing? Sometimes they will miss—by definition since statistical norms are averages. That doesn’t make wine and food pairing a sham. It makes it more or less useful, and when it isn’t, not something to get worked up about.
What does get me worked up is this bullshit about taste being subjective. Yarrow claims that all this pressure to seek quality food and wine pairings is harming the wine industry—it’s all just becoming to complicated. I’ll tell you what will ruin the wine industry. The belief that wine tasting is subjective. Everyone in the wine industry from winemakers, to wine retailers, to wine critics, to consumers are in the business of making quality distinctions about wine. If wine quality were wholly 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 talk; price differentials based on nothing but marketing.
That is not a world anyone reading this blog should welcome.