Reflections on Objectivity and Wine Tasting (Part 2)

objectivity 3I argued last week that flavors and aromas do not exist in the wine or in the mind but at their intersection. What exists in the wine is the capacity to produce aromas and flavors, but without someone who can taste those flavors, they remain locked up in the wine as potential, not as an actual sensation of flavor. But our individual tasting histories and biologically set thresholds mean that even expert tasters are sensitive to different aspects of a wine. 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.

That is part of the picture of how taste works, but matters are a bit more complicated.

Wine lovers seldom taste in isolation with no communication between them. Flavors are always experienced in relationship to a community within which those flavors have meaning—wine media, wine education materials, sommeliers, salespeople, tasting groups, friends, and family all influence how and what we taste. When I identify a Barolo as tasting of tar and roses, I am reporting socially-sanctioned descriptors that have emerged from a long history of tasting wines from that region.

A description of  a Barolo as  smelling of “tar and roses” succeeds as a description if it can gain a suitably wide consensus. If a diverse collection of differently situated, experienced tasters agree, then the wine is appropriately described as smelling of tar and roses. But that agreement is not arbitrary. It comes about because the conversation has focused our attention on something in the wine that is potentially shareable. If we are open to that experience, and what others say about it, we might come to agree about the description even if we didn’t originally sense the tar and roses.

But again, when consensus is achieved, it is not merely because the tasters are being influenced by each other, but because the wine has the power to effect various quite different individuals in the same way, even if in the beginning they may interpret the flavor quite differently.

If a description isn’t widely shared, that doesn’t necessarily mean the flavor potential expressed in the description doesn’t exist in the wine. It means the wine lacks the capacity to produce a wide consensus with regard to those properties identified in the description. The flavor potential might exist, but only a few tasters can sense it. As tasters we have different thresholds for being affected by aroma compounds in a wine and different backgrounds with different flavor associations. There is no single way a wine must be.

Is there, then, no right or wrong answer to what a wine tastes like? No. We can still mark a distinction between good and bad taste.

A well-trained, skilled taster with experience tasting the style of wine in question, if she is tasting under appropriate conditions, is unlikely to be wholly wrong about a wine’s flavor profile. If a taster with such demonstrated expertise arrives at an idiosyncratic description, i.e., one that cannot generate a wide consensus, the best we can say is that the wine lacks the potential to generate agreement regarding that property.

On the other hand, if the tasting conditions are not optimal or the taster’s skill or experience is lacking, the possibility that the idiosyncratic description is a mistake is more likely and we have reason to be skeptical. Experts make mistakes when conditions are not optimal or when they stray outside the limits of their expertise.

Taste is accomplished through a collective effort that provides a frame of reference and puts sensations into words so we can more easily recall them. Without that collective effort, our ability to perceive is very limited.

Thus, tasting notes are not just about informing consumers about wine. They aim at creating a shared sensibility. The wild, esoteric taste descriptors that some wine reviewers employ play the role of shaping that consensus by identifying novel features of a wine that may be potentially shareable.  Whether a description is in fact shareable will depend on how many tasters come to view the wine in that way. When broadly shareable flavors or aromas are identified, it is because the wine, objectively, possesses a broadly shareable disposition, e.g. chemical compounds that can be experienced by a variety of differently situated tasters. Such a judgment is objective, not only because it’s shared, but because the wine possesses a broad and deep capacity to affect us in the same way.

So what about those vast disagreements that exist between expert tasters?

As noted, multiple interpretations of the same wine exist, in part, because no two wine tasters share the same tasting background and because we all have different biologically-set thresholds for discriminating aroma compounds. But more importantly, we are not always motivated to seek consensus. As wine lovers we have different values, we look for different things in a wine, and we all have slightly different comparison classes in mind when evaluating a wine. (A white Burgundy may be “zesty” when compared to a California chardonnay, but a bit flat when compared to a Chablis.)

Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why we must all agree. Multiple interpretations, assuming they are arrived at through rigorous tasting practices,  make wine more interesting, not less, because they identify more ways a wine might be legitimately described. Multiple, even incompatible, interpretations identify the depth and breadth of a wine’s dispositions, the many ways it can affect competent human perceivers.

As long as we can eliminate the bad interpretations by avoiding sub-optimal tasting conditions and corrupting influences, we have nothing to lose and much to gain from letting many flavors bloom. The view that objectivity can be achieved only if experts agree is pernicious. Great wines contain multitudes and cannot be captured in a single description. Those multitudes are objectively in the wine as a open-ended set of dispositions.

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