Why Do We Want Objectivity in Wine Criticism?

wine lineupThe case for trying to achieve objectivity in wine tasting via blind tasting seems pretty straightforward.We want descriptions and evaluations to be about how the wine tastes, not extraneous factors such as price or reputation. The drinking public seems to expect wine critics to be consistent in their judgments over time, and when critics disagree about wine quality that disagreement is taken to be evidence that the critics really don’t know what they’re talking about.

But it’s worth thinking about why objectivity and consistency is so important in the wine world.  We don’t expect objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. They review their products with full knowledge about who created the work, their reputation, the price of the work, etc. Disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. Yet these disagreements are not used to demean the practice of criticism.

We also don’t expect consistency from film, art or literary criticism. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments about film, books, or music are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren’t we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different? The judgment of any critic is simply a snapshot at a particular time and place of an object whose meaning can vary with context. Wine criticism cannot escape this limitation. So why do we have such expectations or objectivity and consistency?

I suspect what we are witnessing with all this skepticism about wine tasting is the corrosive influence of the point system in evaluating wine. It is a handy device for consumers but it leaves the impression that wine evaluation is subject to mathematical precision. But nothing could be further from the truth. A wine that receives 95 points is judged on a particular day in a particular context. There is no reason to think that critic (or a different critic) would assign exactly the same score in a different context, in comparison with a different flight of wines, under different social and environmental conditions.

What we want from critics whether of music, art, or wine is a judgment made in light of their vast experience that can show us something about the object that we might have missed without their commentary. That can be accomplished independently of whether the critic is perfectly consistent or objective. We want the critic to have a certain kind of bias, born of her unique experience, because it is that bias that enables her to taste, see, or hear what she does.

So why is wine criticism held to a different standard?

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