Good Taste is Not About Detecting Aroma Notes

blind tasting 3Success at blind tasting is considered the gold standard of wine expertise. But is its status deserved?

Blind tasting requires substantial skill and a comprehensive knowledge of wine regions, varietals, and winemaking styles. It’s great training for the senses and a necessary part of learning to evaluate wines.

But it isn’t sufficient. There is more to aesthetic response than an ability to detect properties. Yet most wine tasting notes are little more than a list of detectable aromas and flavors. This doesn’t begin to describe what it’s like to experience a wine.

Most people enjoy wine as a holistic experience—the wine leaves an overall impression above and beyond the separate components that make up the experience. But that overall impression is seldom a focus in wine education and is missing from many tasting notes that purport to describe the taste of a wine.

This confusion between detecting aromas and explaining their impact has a long history in philosophical aesthetics. The confusion can be traced to one of the most important discussions in modern aesthetics—the text that launches the debate about good taste.

David Hume, the 18th Century British philosopher, argued that good taste involves “delicacy of sentiment” by which he meant the ability to detect what makes something pleasing or not. In his famous example of two wine drinkers, one argued that a wine is good but for a taste of leather he detected; the other argued that the wine is good but for a slight taste of metal. Both were proven right when the container was emptied and a key with a leather thong attached was found at the bottom.

Thus, Hume seemed to think that good taste was roughly what excellent blind tasters have—the ability, acquired through practice and comparison, to taste subtle components of a wine that most non-experts would miss and pass summary judgment on them. The same could be said of the ability to detect subtle, good-making features of a painting or piece of music. The virtue of such analytic tasting of wines is that the detection of discreet components can at least in theory be verified by science and thus aspires to a degree of objectivity. Flavor notes such as “apricot” or “vanilla” are explained by detectable chemical compounds in the wine. Hume’s causal theory of taste lends itself to this kind of test of acuity since causal properties can often be independently verified.

Hume’s model of taste contains some insight. Someone practiced at discerning elements that ordinary perceivers would miss is an indicator that she has good taste. But I don’t think this model is quite right.

Good taste involves evaluating quality, and the quality of a painting, piece of music, or wine is seldom a function of the components of the work taken individually. A wine taster can identify a whole bowl of various fruit aromas wafting from a wine, pronounce the acidity to be bracing and the tannins fine-grained but firm and still have said little about wine quality. Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations. No single component can account for them; it is a matter of how the components are related. In wine, even a prominent feature like acidity is not merely a function of Ph; perceived acidity differs substantially from objective measures of acidity and is influenced by the prominence of other components such as sugar and tannin levels. None of these relational properties seem amenable to scientific analysis. I doubt that gas chromatography can identify elegance; a wine’s balance cannot be appreciated by measuring PH and sugar levels.

Identifying these aesthetic features involves a holistic judgment, not an analytic one. The wine as a whole must be evaluated just as evaluating painting or music involves judgments about the work as a whole. But although these holistic features in a wine are a product of fruit, acidity, and tannic structure no list of wine components will add up to a wine being balanced, elegant or delicious. Another British philosopher from the 20th Century, Frank Sibley, argued that this is a general feature of aesthetic judgments. There are no rules that get us from facts about the object, regardless of how subtle, to these holistic aesthetic judgments.

Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It’s not like picking out oak flavors. It’s a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?

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