Wine Scores and the Right Kind of Subjectivity

wine scores 3Several years ago, at Wine Searcher, Joel Peterson, Zinfandel pioneer and founder of Ravenswood, in response to a question about the 100-point scoring system, related a typical story about rating inconsistencies:

I have made wines under two labels and I’ve had them scored in the same periodical as much as five points apart. Same wines, different package. Like all judging of wine, it suffers from the wine that came before, the wine that came after, the time of day. All those things can affect a wine by as much as five points.

Such accounts give ammunition to those who think wine evaluation is so subjective it is little more than a scam to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers willing to pay top dollar for a big scoring wine.

Wine evaluation is not unique in being distorted by personal idiosyncrasies. The social psychology literature is full of research that shows our moral judgments are influenced by morally irrelevant considerations such as the TV show we’re watching or the aroma of freshly baked bread.

Our brains are not wired to produce objective judgments, especially when our interests are at stake. Apparently, there is an evolutionary advantage to having a brain that is influenced by emotions and contextual factors about which we are often unaware.

In fact, if you believe that wine quality is correlated with price or label then it would be irrational not to have one’s pleasure influenced by these factors. If we are motivated to maximize pleasure, and we get pleasure from knowing a wine is expensive, why not just enjoy that extra increment of pleasure that comes with the price. After all, you paid for it!

The problem is that the correlation of price and quality is too rough to be reliable and we expect a critic to spot those instances when the correlation fails. But isn’t being influenced by knowledge of the brand, the winemaker, or the vineyard source a different matter? We don’t expect art critics to judge works of art without knowledge of the artist, her materials, or the context of production. Why demand that of wine critics?

Of course art critics are (thankfully) not inclined to give numerical scores when evaluating works of art. But that points to one of the downsides of the 100-point wine scoring system. It creates the impression that the judgment is objective—unbiased by the peculiarities of an individual. Numbers often leave that erroneous impression.

Why we should want such objectivity in wine criticism is a bit of a mystery. Would we be better off if the point scores were generated by an algorithm, perhaps instantiated in a computerized “tasting system” that precisely measured various dimensions of the wine and spit out a score?

I think the answer is no. We want wine to move us emotionally and sensuously. And thus what we should want from a critic is her emotional or sensuous response. If you were to discover there are objective laws of “good wine” to which your palate did not correspond, would you give up your own preferences? I doubt it.

The problem with the episode Peterson recounts (and the data regarding moral judgment as well) is not that the judgments revealed subjective preferences. It is that the judgments reflected irrelevant considerations. We want the critic to be moved by wine, not labels, and we want the treatment of others to be governed by human need not TV programs or the smell of bread.

Thus, to make valid, useful judgments about wine is not to strive for objectivity (if that is understood to involve the absence of personal preference) but is instead to strive for a subjective judgment of the right sort—one that is about one’s perception of the wine, not something else. After all if we didn’t have preferences what would be the point of drinking wine?

Subjectivity of the right sort is an achievement. It requires that critics be aware of their prejudices and influences and strive to allow only those that are relevant to influence their judgment. To the extent wine scores assess wine quality rather than the phases of the moon or the reflected luminosity of the gaze of a  young lovely across the room, wine scores are not excessively subjective.

As Peterson points out, they are just “one man’s opinion about what wine is.” What else would you want them to be?


    1. Hi Lewis. Yes. I been reading through your articles in that series. Lots of great information on aroma perception and cognition. I look forward to hearing more about your recommendation system.

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