wine judging 2In answer to the question whether wine evaluation is fundamentally subjective, most people writing on the philosophy of wine insist on making a distinction between liking a wine and judging it’s quality. Whether one likes something depends on personal preference and that is entirely subjective. If you grew up in New York you probably prefer New York pizza. If you grew up in Chicago, deep dish is the way to go. Preferences are about our individual histories and biology. To criticize someone for their preferences is obtuse. They are what they are and no argument will change them.

But, so the argument goes, judging quality is a different matter. An experienced wine critic can judge a wine’s quality independently of whether she likes the wine or not. Thus, wine evaluation can claim some degree of objectivity.

I think the matter is more complex than this argument suggests.

With regard to basic quality level, I think the argument holds. Surely we can judge whether a wine has sufficient complexity, intensity or balance to qualify as a fine wine even though it is from a varietal or producer you don’t prefer. But with regard to more fine grained judgments, I’m not persuaded we can separate preference from quality. Judging a wine’s complexity might mean just counting up the number of aroma notes that clearly present themselves. You don’t have to like the wine to do that. But judging whether the aromas are coherent and make sense together is a different matter. If a wine’s complexity comes from oak-derived aromas and I don’t like oaky wines, how would I make an objective judgment about the quality of the aroma profile? My perceptions would tell me the wine had too much oak. I could of course make allowances for my lack of appreciation for oak by trying to imagine what someone more disposed to oak would perceive. But then my judgment is no longer based on my perception but on my ability to imagine the perceptions of someone else. How objective would such a mental exercise be?

Unless you like a wine, there are certain properties of the wine you won’t be able to discover.

There is one more standard that a wine evaluator might employ to help with objectivity. Even though she might not like a wine, an experienced judge could nevertheless determine that a wine is typical of its varietal and region. Typicity is a critical standard that helps establish a degree of objectivity for wine tasting. But obviously this will not work if one is tasting a wine that is atypical.

The conclusion to draw from this is not that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. General quality level and typicity are important critical standards and I imagine for most critics, most wines fall into the realm of “likeable enough” so they don’t generate strong aversions.

But I doubt we can always distinguish liking a wine from evaluating its quality.