Thinking Differently about Objectivity

wine criticismJudgements about wine quality and which features are exhibited by individual wines  are unavoidable in the wine community. Everyone from sommeliers to critics to marketing departments to winemakers communicate about the properties of wine, distinguish good wine from bad, and believe that distinction matters. However, we are uncertain about what vocabulary to use when discussing wine quality.

Some insist that wine quality is subjective which means that judgments about wine quality and the properties that constitute it have validity only for the person making the judgment. But if that is true there are no standards of correctness when describing a wine and no meaningful concept of wine quality that could be communicated to others. Thus, the language of subjectivism cannot explain the aforementioned assumption that there is such a thing as wine quality and that when we communicate wine descriptions we are communicating something real. It also can’t explain how some people pass rigorous wine tasting exams or why there is broad agreement among professionals that Bordeaux Premier Crus is of higher quality than Barefoot.

Others insist that wine quality is objective. Properties attributed to wine are in some sense “in the wine” and correct judgments about a wine have validity for anyone properly trained to discern its features. But objectivism cannot explain why there is vast disagreement among experts about wine quality and why experts assign incompatible, contradictory properties to a wine. For the objectivist, when two qualified tasters disagree about a wine, one of them must be wrong. But in most cases of such disagreement among demonstrably competent tasters, it is implausible to think someone is making a mistake.

A third option is that wine quality is intersubjective. Properties attributed to a wine, including quality level, are a product of the agreements experts have forged throughout the long history of wine tasting and the on-going conversation about wine in the wine community. The result of that long conversation is a set of widely accepted conventions and shared standards of judgment. Thus, there are widely held agreements about what, for instance, Brunello should taste like or what properties a properly made Syrah should exhibit. Judgements about wine quality are valid for people within that community.

The problem with intersubjectivity is that people in the wine community disagree vehemently, not only about which wines meet those standards of quality, but about the standards of quality themselves. Disagreements between fans of top-shelf Napa Cabs and connoisseurs of natural wines are fundamental disagreements about aesthetic values. There is no shared set of standards that govern the wine community as a whole. Thus, the notion of intersubjectivity can explain agreement only among separate tribes of wine tasters and is utterly incapable of explaining why people with demonstrated competence within their tribe would disagree. Furthermore, to the extent intersubjectivity relies on traditional quality standards and conventions, it leaves us with no account of how we are to judge wines that fall outside conventional categories.

Is there an alternative way of understanding standards of judgement? I think there is but it will require we give up two harmful assumptions.

(1) We need to lose the idea that agreement among wine tasters is desirable. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about agreement. Given the fact that people differ with regard to their capacity to detect flavor and aroma compounds in wine, we should want professionals with a variety of different palates from as many perspectives as possible. Disagreements are more likely to give us a more comprehensive understanding of a particular wine. A wine will affect different people differently even when they share basic competencies. We should welcome that.

And (2) We should lose the idea that agreement is a sign of objectivity. The sign of objectivity is an object that is just beyond our understanding, that our concepts can’t quite capture. The sign of objectivity is a commitment to be true to the wine, to be equal to the test that each wine poses. Norms and conventions guide us when we are learning to taste. But as tasters our obligation is not to those norms; it is to the wine itself. A great wine sets its own standards. It is up to us to discover them. A judgment has validity only in light of that struggle.

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