“It’s All Subjective” isn’t Helping the Wine Industry

wine tasting 2If the wine industry wants people to pay premium prices for their best product, why do they insist on telling people that wine tasting is subjective? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a wine tasting in which presenters don’t encourage patrons to trust their palates, insisting that there is no right and wrong when tasting wine, and that the views of a novice are every bit as valid as the views of an expert.

I understand why they do this. Wine can be intimidating. It is a complex field and the factors that contribute to quality are sometimes hard to detect. If it seems too time consuming or difficult to gain knowledge, people may conclude that it is not worth the effort.

But nothing is more likely to discourage people from adding to their wine knowledge and experience than the claim that wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. Because if wine tasting is subjective, in the sense in which these comments seem to be intended, several absurd conclusions follow:

(1)There is nothing more to a wine than what I can immediately sense and no reason to further explore it, since there isn’t anything “out there” to be perceived.

(2) Sensations provide us with no basis for drawing conclusions about the world.

(3) Therefore, there is nothing in the wine that my sensory experience must detect, and thus no contrast between how things seem to me and how they really are.

(4) Each person’s sensory response is utterly unique to her and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste it as well since there is nothing “out there” in the wine to be tasted.

(5) Therefore, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality

(6)When winemakers taste wine in order to make decisions about wine quality, they are engaged in an empty, pointless exercise.

If you believe these claims, then why on earth would you spend $20 let alone $100+ for something that cannot promise greater quality. Claims 1-6 entail that if you happen to like the $100 bottle more than your Trader Joe’s bargain wine it is just an accident unrelated to wine quality.

Of course, none of the wine industry spokespersons really believe any of this—it is utterly incompatible with wine scores, wine criticism, tasting notes or the commitment to wine quality that drives the best winemakers to succeed. If there is no such thing as wine quality, why do oenologists spend tens of thousands of dollars on university degrees so they can learn to make good wine?

I can’t help but think the pervasiveness of this meme that wine tasting is subjective is slowing the growth of wine appreciation since it encourages a kind of lazy complacency with whatever swill one happens to drink today.

This is not to say there are no subjective aspects to wine tasting. We all have different backgrounds and biological thresholds that influence what we taste. And we all have subjective preferences that influence our judgments. And of course my experience of a wine is mine; it can’t be shared with someone else who doesn’t have access to my experience.

But from these facts, it doesn’t follow that the wine has no objective features that a competent taster might fail to perceive.

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