Reflections on Objectivity and Wine Tasting (1)

smelling wine 2The debate about whether wine tasting has objective standards too often assumes a mistaken picture of how taste works. The mistaken picture is something like this: Wine has chemical compounds that produce flavors that are fixed features of the wine itself. When tasters report the flavors they detect in the wine, they either get it right or not. If a wine is perceived to have ripe blackberries, fig, and chocolate aromas, either the wine has those properties or it doesn’t.

I doubt that this is the right picture. The biggest drawback is that it cannot explain why there can be multiple, legitimate interpretations of the properties a wine exhibits. Notoriously, wine critics disagree about the properties of a wine; the standard picture assumes that all but one must be wrong. But that goes against what, for me at any rate, is a common experience. Two critics disagree about a wine and I can see the point of both of them. Just as a work of art can support multiple interpretations, so can a wine.

So what is the right picture of how taste works?

I think it goes something like this. The flavors and aromas we sense are caused by chemical compounds in the wine that have the ability to effect human perceivers. A wine is a collection of potential properties. But the actual sensation of flavor occurs only when the flavor molecules interact with a perceiver. There can be no sensation of flavor without someone to have the sensation. Flavor is a relational property—a relation between a wine and a taster. It’s a mistake to ask “where is the flavor, in the mind or in the wine?” Flavor requires objective flavor compounds and subjective sensations. But what does exist in the wine, objectively, is the potential to cause flavor sensations. That potential exists in the wine whether there is anyone around to perceive it or not.

As noted, flavor compounds have the ability to affect human perceivers. But how they do so differs from person to person. We know that the neural processing of flavor is influenced by all sorts of things—the music playing in the background, our mood, expectations, past experience, biologically set sensitivity thresholds, training and education, etc. When we drink wine we don’t have a series of raw sensations. Sensations are already shaped by personal and environmental factors which differ from person to person.

Does that mean that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective? No. Not at all. Without the causal influence of the aroma and flavor compounds, which are objective elements of the wine, there is no flavor sensation (putting aside hallucinations or imaginary flavors for the moment).

Each individual may sense something different in a wine. But, in each case, it is the wine that causes the sensation. Each taster is responding to a capacity the wine has to effect them in the particular way it does.

Instead of thinking of a wine as having a set of properties, we should think of it as a collection of dispositions or potentials only some of which can be detected by an individual taster. Great wines have a set of dispositions that are broad and deep. They are capable of multiple interpretations. Simple wines have fewer dispositions, less potential to effect tasters differently. There is not much to say about a simple wine because it has fewer aspects to show than a wine of higher quality.

Thus, an objective judgment is one that tracks a broad array of a wine’s dispositions and potentials. An objective judgment discovers more of what a wine has to offer because it explores a wine from different points of view.

Objectivity is not a matter of being unbiased. No one is unbiased and sensations are always influenced by context. Instead, objectivity is secured by assuming there is always more to a wine than our current experience can sense. Objectivity means being confronted by something we have not yet mastered and being willing to be educated by it.

There is of course more to say about this difficult topic. Stay tuned.

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