The Value of Disagreement

disagreement 2Disagreements about wine, both individual wines and well as wine styles, are ubiquitous and inevitable. But this is not a bad thing. Aesthetic engagement is enhanced by disagreement. Conversations about wine where we compare impressions, debate standards of wine quality, discuss the virtues of oak or spontaneous fermentations, and argue about whether a variation is typical or not give us an opportunity to learn something we don’t already know or to come to see something differently. Disagreements foster the evolution of our tasting sensibility, enable us to refine our judgments, and broaden our understanding of the wide range of responses that a wine makes available.

When someone disagrees with us we have an opportunity to grasp their point of view and try it on to see if it works for us. I must confess that when I review a wine, I never wrap up my evaluation without checking out what other’s have said about it. I routinely discover something about the wine I missed (and just as routinely can’t make sense at all of some alternative perspectives on a particular wine.) This is not to say that every alternative view is worth considering. If I’m drinking a natural wine, it’s probably not useful to hear from someone who thinks they all taste like putrid cider. If I’m enjoying a Napa Cabernet, someone who thinks no wine should have alcohol above 13% likely doesn’t have much to contribute to the experience. Some judgments are conversation stoppers and it’ best to avoid them. But critiques that are thoughtful and well-informed are always worth engaging. Complacency is never a recipe for learning and disagreement forces us to examine our assumptions.

Of course, agreeing with others is gratifying, validates our opinion, and enables us to cement friendships. But agreement seldom expands our perspective. Furthermore, it would be a dull friendship if we always agreed. Imagine a tasting group in which controversy never arose. Would we even bother to show up? Disagreements open discussions that we would be unlikely to have without the disagreement.

Wine gives us something to talk about; that is one its great virtues. It is a source of endless variation, mysterious occurrences, and labyrinthine rabbit holes. Each of us has an alternative perspective that enlivens the relationships we form through wine.

It is thus puzzling why objectivity based on agreement is held out by many to be a kind of moral ideal. We should instead view disagreement as the engine of community and an indicator that our shared object of attention—the wine—is rich with undiscovered potential, not a fixed collection of properties.


  1. I quite like the quote from Eric Hoffer “The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.” When I was a young postgraduate chemistry student I had so many disagreements with my professor, often quite heated, colleagues thought we might even come to blows! Yet these disagreements were purely professional, we were the best of friends and he actually gave me the first bottle of wine I ever drank! We both learned from these disagreements, simply put, he learned from my relatively vast practical analytical experience having worked in steel research laboratories for 6 years and I learned from his deeper theoretical knowledge and rigorous thought processes. Recently, 50 years on, it has been the same in the wine and taste sphere as I have had some fundamental disagreements with a blogger friend in Italy, a trained sommelier. We have been disagreeing with each other for about 3 years now, especially in the realms of subjectivity vs objectivity, sensory vs cognitive, and the aesthetics of wine tasting. We are great friends however, having collaborated on a wine book, and helped each other in setting up an association of Wine & Culture. The quite startling thing though has been the effect of the disagreement on ourselves, almost reversing positions one might expect from a scientist-psychologist opposing an art trained sommelier. One of us argues for objectivity and a sensory influence in wine tasting, the other for a subjective and cognitive/memory influence. We have learned from each other and shifted perceptions considerably.
    Sadly, in a wider context, more important disagreement are being “shut down” especially in academic circles. In the U.K. freedom of speech and expression is being eroded and even shut down in many universities, typified by the no-platforming of anyone who doesn’t agree with a particular view of climate change, gender, history and more.

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