Is Wine Tasting Intersubjective?

wine drinkersAmong people who write on wine aesthetics there is a near universal commitment to the idea of intersubjectivity as a way of understanding the nature of wine tasting. I continue to be baffled by  this idea when applied to judgements about wine.

By “intersubjectivity” they are referring to the social nature of wine tasting practices. No doubt that are elements of wine tasting that are deeply social.

The standards of wine tasting, the conventions we use when tasting, common descriptive terms, and the norms regarding what, for instance, a proper Syrah or Meursault  should taste like are obviously social. No one invents these on their own; they are the product of long-standing traditions in the wine community. Language of course is inherently a social product as well, so the terms we use to describe wines are made available via a social process. The process through which individuals learn to taste wine is also a social product. We all learn by following what others do up to a point and we’re all shaped by our educational experiences. And many of us taste in social situations where conversations about a wine will shape our judgments as well.

So, yes, there is plenty of intersubjectivity and mutual shared agreements in wine tasting.

But when we finally get around to tasting, describing, and evaluating a wine—when all those intersubjective background practices are put into play—intersubjectivity collapses. In the end it is my perspective, my dispositions, my evolving tasting history, etc. that forms the judgment. I might listen to someone else’s judgment and consider their point of view, but if I don’t taste what they’re tasting my judgement will be my own and cannot be strictly determined by those social influences. (I’m not referring to preferences here but to descriptions and evaluations)

Take any particular, well-reviewed wine and look at the tasting notes from multiple, experienced reviewers. There will typically be almost no overlap in their descriptions. They smell different aromas or at least describe them differently, experience different textures, focus on different aspects of the wine, and make different judgments about quality. If judgments about wine are intersubjective, what explains that disagreement?

In educational contexts where students are taking tasting exams, there is more agreement. Many students, after all, pass these rigorous exams.  But that is because students are learning and being tested on those aforementioned intersubjective norms. They learn to allow their judgments to conform to what they have been taught.

But left to our own devices our judgments stray from these background agreements.

This is not to say our judgments are entirely subjective either for reasons I just elaborated on—those intersubjective norms exert a powerful influence and the wine is a real object with causal powers that influences what we taste.

The bottom line is we lack a concept that captures the validity of aesthetic judgments.

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