A Paradox for Wine Lovers

paradoxIn wine appreciation, we seem to place great value on making independent judgments, judgments based on our own experience of a wine and our own perceptions of its features and quality.  Although we might pay attention to what critics say or make purchases based on wine scores, in the end we are supposed to decide for ourselves whether we like the wine or not. When communicating about a wine to others we are likely to give our own description rather than parroting what a wine critic says about it. If someone were to say “that Poop n’Suckle Pinot is pour-down-the-drain awful because Suckling said so,” we wouldn’t take them seriously. In wine we might be interested in what critics say but we don’t defer to expertise.

This is much different from our approach to auto mechanics or health care where deference to experts is routine and expected.

The difference is that, unlike auto mechanics and health, we think wine preferences and perceptions are subjective. Each person may respond differently to a wine and we want our experience and our communications to reflect our own tastes.

But that is not the end of the story. We may not defer to experts but we go about trying to become experts ourselves. We study the wine map, learn about climate and winemaking techniques, master the vocabulary of wine tasting so we can find out what others are thinking, and follow strict tasting procedures all in an effort to find objective reference points to which our judgments about wine must conform. This suggests that our commitment to subjectivity is skin deep.

If there were a brain scan that could report that when you smell a hint of smoke in that Syrah its just your imagination at work, wouldn’t you conclude there was something wrong with your wine tasting abilities? We expect our sensations of wine to be a perceptual experience caused by the wine, not a fanciful illusion.

So we expect wine tasting to be subjective, reject expertise, and insist on our own independent judgements, but then step back from that ledge and demand of ourselves that we exercise genuine tasting expertise—that there is something there to get right.

Are we just confused?

Or is there some perspective from which these seemingly contradictory beliefs can be consistent?





  1. My wife is a professional chef with a lifetime of experience. I am a wine professional with a lifetime of experience. We differ in our opinions about salad dressing. I prefer more vinegar, and prefers less. But neither one of us seriously suggests that one of us is right and the other is wrong. I have judged many, many wine competitions, and the judges frequently disagree about exactly this sort of thing. Are we objective or subjective? We can agree, to a certain extent, on how the wine tastes, and still disagree about whether it is really good or not.

  2. Hi Paul,
    No doubt preferences are subjective. But the fact you can agree on how a wine tastes, especially because the agreement is based on expertise, there is a more than just subjectivity at work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.