It never fails to set my teeth on edge. I’m focused on trying to “get” this Pinot Noir with strange vegetal notes in front of me, and emerging out of the random background chatter I hear someone prattling on about how wine tasting is thoroughly subjective. I restrained my natural proclivity to try to set her straight. But I am always puzzled by how easily people accept this view even though they really don’t believe it.
Does anyone dispute that the way wine tastes is a function of its chemical composition? Cabernet differs in taste from Sangiovese because their chemical constituents differ. We taste green apple in some wines because of the particular mix of esters in them. Chardonnay smells buttery because of diacetyl compounds. The drying sensation from red wine is caused by tannin, etc. Everybody knows this.
These chemical components are in the wine; they are not mental fabrications or imaginative flights of fancy. When winemakers want to shape the flavor of a wine, they don’t have a séance or sleep with a dreamcatcher. They change the composition of the wine. If in wine tasting we are responding to objective features of the wine, then wine tasting is not thoroughly subjective.
Granted there are many factors that can interfere with our detection of these components. We differ in our sensitivities to them and various biases can distort our perceptions. So there is always an issue of whether, in a particular case, we can know we are tasting characteristics of the wine. Wine aromas are sometimes faint and vague, and our ability to remember aromas and consistently assign the proper names to them is limited. Wine evaluation invites even more subjectivity since it is inevitably bound up with our preferences which are subjective. But none of this changes the fact that we are responding to objective features of a wine and when we track those features accurately our response is not wholly subjective; we are in touch with something beyond our subjective states.
Like most things in life, subjectivity and objectivity are matters of degree. There is no single or privileged “right” way to taste a wine. Each of us has a unique biology and unique experiences that influence what we taste. There is no way to taste with perfect objectivity. But because wine tasters never achieve absolute objectivity is doesn’t follow that wine tasting is utterly subjective. When we strive to be unbiased by tasting blind, eliminating distractions, double and triple checking our judgments, and listening seriously to opposing points of view, we are removing obstacles to objectivity, imperfectly realized to be sure, but far from merely subjective.