Wine Talk and Shallow Subjectivity

romans and wineIn beginning to articulate what it is about wine that moves us, we have to acknowledge that making wine and appreciating wine are both social practices. Wine is produced and appreciated as part of on-going practices that already have a deep social history, which includes sharing criteria for success. If there were no standards of wine quality, then the word “quality” could not be used objectively as a descriptive term. If I have only my own judgment to rely on, then what seems like quality to me is what counts as quality and that means we cannot talk about “quality.” The word would refer to nothing beyond my own imagination. Words must refer to something shared if they are to have meaning. The word “quality” even when applied to taste is no exception. Words such as “quality” drag us out of our private cellars into a public world.

In fact, the practice of identifying and communicating about wines of quality have been part of culture since at least the Romans. As historian of science Steven Shapin writes:

The Romans took as a matter of course that there were very good, good, mediocre, and bad wines; they knew quite well which regions produced the best wines (Falernian wine was evidently the gold standard); and they referred degrees of goodness partly to taste and partly to medical consequences. The Romans cared about taste, though they were aware that there was no accounting for it: some people were known to sing the praises of wines which others found ordinary. Pliny mentioned a freed slave in the court of the Emperor Augustus who was a skilled wine taster: encountering a new wine, he judged it to be less than first-rate, but knew that the Emperor would like it very much. Still, the vocabulary Pliny used to describe wine taste was limited. Apart from the sweetness of sweet wines and the gustatory and olfactory effects of doctoring wines with such aromatic substances as resin, myrrh, aloes, and herbs, Pliny referred to wine tastes as “tart”, “sharp”, “harsh”, “hard”, “rough”, “luscious”, and “unripe”, and tasting too much of wood – all bad things – and, for evidently good tastes, he deployed a more restricted and less referential repertoire, notably including “pretty”, “pleasant”, and, of course, “sweet”. Pliny also described less-well-recognized wines to an evidently knowing readership as tasting like wines with which they were familiar.

In the culture of wine, we’ve long cared for more than mere production and consumption. Talking about what we make and taste, successfully representing our experience so that others can grasp something of its contours, gives us a sense of accomplishment. The overcoming of frustration and difficulty inherent in that task provides a sense of liberation. All because there is something called “quality” we are reaching for that is independent of what any person thinks.

We might make sense of “it’s all subjective” if we mutely sipped in solitude. After all, we each have our own experiences. My experiences are mine alone and not someone else’s. That is the meaningful sense of subjectivity. But once we begin to speak with the intention to be understood, we are no longer occupying a position of mere subjectivity. Language is not subjective. Neither semantics, syntax, nor pragmatics can be construed as “mine.”

When taste speaks its name, it forfeits the shallow conceit that it’s some private domain unaffected by an outside. To insist otherwise is to ignore the conversation that has persisted for thousands of years.

Of course, we don’t always agree. We agree sometimes and disagree often. If we all agreed about what we taste, there might be no reason to talk about it. When we disagree that means we bring something personal to the conversation. It doesn’t mean the conversation becomes private.

To claim wine tasting is all subjective is to ignore the millennia of discourse about quality as if it means nothing compared to our puny, insignificant, individual whims.

That is both shallow and delusional.

One comment

  1. Why not actually use the word “acid”. Instead of spunky, nervous, nervy, upstart, audacious, etc etc. Use “malic” because malic acid is specific to apple and pears and grapes so it defines a particular type of acid flavor. And tannin is tannin, it has no flavor, it is merely texture, coarse or smooth. But it is tannin, we don’t need a lot of adjectives or synonyms.

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