There are lots of good wines available but only a few great ones. What makes the difference? My 3 Quarks essay this month untangles the mystery of great wines.
David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:
A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…
“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …
Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.
The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.
But there is something missing in this explanation.
It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.
But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.
Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?
Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.
Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.
Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.
Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.
It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.
Blind tasting, in which the person tasting the wine is prevented from knowing the producer and/or price and in some cases the variety and region, is thought to be the gold-standard of wine criticism because it preserves objectivity. But some features of a wine cannot be evaluated without knowing variety and producer. You can’t evaluate whether a wine is typical of its variety or consistent with a producer’s style without knowing these facts.
Fred Swan at Norcal Wine produced a terrific summary of the pros and cons of tasting blind. Some critics taste blind and other’s don’t
In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”
Steiman is worried that a critic with an agenda or theory about what wines are best is likely to be biased if tasting non-blind.
But other critics are concerned that blind-tasting excludes important information that users of the criticism want to know:
In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.
I have found blind tasting to be important in training one’s skill as a wine taster. It forces you to really concentrate on what you’re tasting because you are grasping for any scrap of information your senses give you. But I have also found that when tasting blind, I devote so much attention to trying to guess region and varietal that I focus less on quality, which is not a good thing for criticism.
In the end, whether blind tasting is useful or not depends on the purpose of the review. As Swan notes, consumers looking for a good buy benefit if the critic is blind. On the other hand, high-end collectors looking for age-ability and the track-record of a wine need reviews that are non-blind, as do consumers who want to know the story behind a wine.
As for me, on this blog I taste non-blind. That is in part for logistical reasons. It’s a huge challenge for one person to set up blind tastings, not to mention the cost involved in opening 5 or 6 bottles simultaneously.
But more importantly, Edible Arts considers wines as works of art. And I’ve never heard of a film, art, or music critic who evaluates works without knowing as much as they can about the object of their review. All art evaluation requires judgments about how a work compares to others in its genre, how successful it is as a manifestation of its style, what it says about trends, and most importantly what the work means and how the aesthetic features of the work contribute to its meaning. None of these judgments can be made without knowing who produced the work and what the appropriate categories are for understanding it. Knowing what the work is attempting to achieve is essential for judging whether it achieves it aim or not.
The same holds for wine. Without knowing the varietal, the region, and the producer it is hard to know what the wine is aiming for and what the flavors and textures mean. The winemaker’s vision will in part be a product of where the grapes are grown, the style in which she chooses to make the wine, etc. Whether the wine is successful or not depends on knowing those facts.
Furthermore, unlike most critics, I do not taste many wines in one day. I focus on one wine and how it evolves over the course of an evening and how it drinks the next day as well, and always in a quiet place with no distractions. I want to see the wine from as many dimensions as possible. It is not at all clear to me how this tasting regime mitigates worries about objectivity. It seems to me the more you taste a wine, the better your chances of uncovering mistaken impressions one gets from an initial tasting.
But at any rate, for my purposes, this multi-dimensionality is more important than objectivity. And that requires non-blind tasting.
The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression.The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations.
The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and gets a number of mentions in the Bible.
Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations.
Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of “spiritual” some more debased than others.
Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn’t because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn’t have it. It is not because it tastes good. Lots of beverages or foods taste good, but they lack wine’s power to move us.
Spirituality is about inward transformation. Dionysus was a gender-bending, shape-shifting God who entered the soul and transformed the identity of the one afflicted. Go with Dionysus and achieve ecstasy by escaping the confines of one’s identity; resist and be torn apart by conflicting passions, according to the myth.
Wine too is about transformation–the grapes in the vineyard, the wine in the barrel and bottle, the drink in the glass as its volatile chemicals release an aromatic kaleidoscope of fleeting, irresolute incense. In turn, the drinker is transformed by the wine. But not merely by the alcoholic loosening of inhibitions or the ersatz identity appropriated through wine’s symbolic association with status.
Instead, the wine lover, at least on rare occasion, is transformed by the openness to experience she undergoes when gripped by sensations whose very beauty compels her full attention. For unlike any other drink, wine has that ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets.
When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the self. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music—a moment of ecstasy. So it is with wine.
No other beverage has the depth, complexity, and textural refinement to create that momentary mutation of the self.
Using the Advocate’s 100-point system, Antonio Gallioni, the WA’s California expert, awarded 95 points or above to 223 California wines, about 1/4 of the wines receiving published reviews. (The reviews for low scoring wines are not released). Gallioni’s boss Robert Parker gave 100 point scores to 17 wines from the Northern Rhone’s 2009-2011 vintages, which follows on the heels of the 19 100-point scores he gave to the 2009 Bordeaux vintage. I haven’t kept track but Mike Steinberger reports that Parker has given out at least 53 100-point scores since March.
Apparently, grade inflation has migrated from Harvard to Napa.
Many commentators cried foul arguing that this grade inflation made wine scores meaningless. Parker took to his blog to defend his journal’s scoring claiming that wines are simply getting better and the high scores reflect this general improvement.
Mike Steinberger had the most thoughtful critique.
But I think one reason Parker and Galloni have encountered so much skepticism is that if you accept the 100-point scale as a quasi-objective means of assessing wines—and it seems to me that if you buy into the 100-point thing, you are necessarily accepting the idea that it is a quasi-objective standard—then the sheer number of wines clustered at the top of the scale simply isn’t credible.
But I’m not sure I follow Steinberger’s reasoning.
If Parker is right that winemaking has improved since the great but rare Bordeaux vintages of the past, such as the 1947 Chevel Blanc or the 1961 Latour, then clustering at the top of the rankings is precisely what we should expect. Furthermore, Parker’s claim is plausible. Improvements in wine-making technology, advances in the science of winemaking, and the increasingly competitive nature of global wine markets have all contributed to a glut of good wines. There is no reason to think this doesn’t effect the very top of the scale.
Nevertheless Steinberger thinks the scores are excessive:
But even if the overall quality of wines is better, it doesn’t follow that so many wines should be receiving eye-popping scores. If the competition is much tougher now than it was 10 years ago, it shouldn’t be easier to get 96 or 97 points; it should be harder…. Forgive the tautology, but if the bar has been raised, you need to raise the bar. You can do that one of two ways: by lengthening the scale—making the highest score, say, 110 points rather than 100—or by tightening the standards within the 100-point framework to reflect the fact that the quality is so vastly improved. If you don’t do either of those things, you end up in a situation like the one that Parker and Galloni are now confronting—with your reviews being greeted mainly with cynicism and derision.
But why would such “grading on a curve” be more objective? If wine quality really has improved, objectivity would demand that improvement be reflected in the number of highly rated wines, if by “objectivity” we mean something like “tracking the truth”.
It seems to me what Steinberger and other critics are worried about is not objectivity or the erosion of standards. Rather they are worried about the loss of the aura of scarcity surrounding high scoring wines. When perfection becomes the norm it is no longer valuable as a measure of greatness or prestige. Apparently wine still requires an aristocracy.
Steinberger proposes to correct this by lengthening the upper range of possible points or tightening standards within the 100-point limit. But neither solution will enhance the credibility of the system.
If the 100-point system has a flaw it is that point gradations assume more precision than the practice of wine tasting allows. Is there an explainable, projectable difference between a 99 and 100-point wine that can be extended over time so that every time the 100 point wine is tasted it is one point better than the 99? I doubt it. Yet, both of Steinberger’s solutions presuppose an ability to make even more fine-grained judgments about wine quality because either the scorer has more points for which criteria must be found or she must find reason to exclude wines that are otherwise worthy in order to tighten standards. But it is precisely the absence of criteria on which to base scores that is the problem; it can’t be solved by demanding more criteria.
Wine scores have a particular but limited meaning. They measure an expert’s level of enthusiasm for a wine at a particular time and place. This is useful information for a wine buyer to have. But the scores do not precisely track fine gradations of wine quality.
This problem with precision is especially acute with the 100-point wines under discussion. Wines which are that impressive are not going to have obvious flaws (at least when their future performance is taken into account) and will not fail according to the standard criteria used to judge wine. Unlike 90-point wines, 100 point wines will have plenty of balance, structure, power, intensity, elegance, finesse, body, complexity, etc. (at least when their performance is projected into the future) Thus, judgments at this level are bound to be searching for criteria but without a fixed standard to rely on and nothing to which a numerical value can be attached.
An analogy with art criticism might be helpful. Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to grade art. Art professors do it routinely. This is because much student art will satisfy or fail to satisfy standard criteria used to evaluate art and numerical values can be assigned to those criteria. Such grading is not “perfectly objective” whatever that would mean, but the grades nevertheless have meaning if the grading standards are clear.
But it does not follow from this that we can usefully assign numerical grades to the work of Monet, Rembrandt, or Picasso. At this level the ordinary criteria we use to assign a grade to works of art don’t apply. The works of the masters are not lacking in those dimensions that afflict student art. Instead, what we get is a unique vision, something original and incomparable that cannot be captured by a set of standards or criteria. The assignment of a numerical grade would be pointless.
Similarly, for wines that fall into the 95+ range, I doubt there is much point in assigning numerical value. If they lack originality or consummate expressiveness they don’t belong there. If they have it, they cannot be readily compared.
If inferior wines are gaining admittance to the pantheon of legends, we have reason to be skeptical of the 100-point system. But if these wines are indeed worthy when compared to the best from the past, the lack of a scoring system that makes precise qualitative distinctions is not a worry. It is what we should expect from an expanded pantheon of legends. Grade inflation is only grade inflation if the higher grades are undeserved.
This of course makes the 100 point system useless for comparing the best wines, which will make neither Parker nor the investors who place great stock in his scoring system happy.
And if great wines are less rare than they were in the past, isn’t that a cause for celebration? Or is this democracy still pining for aristocracy?
I’m still musing about how knowledge—of wine, cheese, landscapes, whatever—can influence our perceptions. In a previous post I wondered whether philosopher Kent Bach is right to argue that novice tasters and knowledgeable tasters have essentially the same sensory experience:
They may be in no position to know anything about the grape(s), the region and the vineyard, the producer, and the vintage, they may have no basis for comparing this great wine with similar but merely very good wines, and they may be unable to articulate what particular aromas and flavours they are experiencing or have any notion of what experienced tasters mean by balance, structure, and elegance of a great wine. Even so, it is not obvious that this wine does not taste as wonderful to them as it does to the expert. They may not be equipped to enjoy the cognitive pleasures that accompany tasting it, but that’s not to say they aren’t fully equipped to experience the sensory pleasure inherent in attentively drinking it.
My objection to Bach is that his account doesn’t explain my own experience as a novice taster. It wasn’t that I lacked the conceptual categories or language to talk about the flavors more experienced tasters detected. I wasn’t experiencing the flavor notes at all until I gained more knowledge of what to expect from particular wines. Or at least that is the way it seemed phenomenologically.
But as Jonathan Cohen pointed out in his helpful comments on the previous post, there is substantial evidence that, with regard to vision, which has been studied more extensively than taste, knowledge of categories and linguistic descriptors has no effect on test subjects’ ability to discriminate differences between color swatches when shown side-by-side. And although taste and aroma perception may differ from color vision in this regard, there may be no good reason to think so.
Assuming the science on vision is correct and can be extended to flavor discrimination, what would account for my subjective perception that knowledge of categories and wine descriptors has improved my ability to taste? Offhand, I can think of two hypotheses that would explain it.
(1) Improved ability to discriminate flavors happened concurrently but independently of the acquisition of knowledge. I have in mind some form of training that doesn’t require conceptualization analogous to learning to ride a bicycle.
(2) The acquisition of wine knowledge encouraged me to focus on detectable features of the wine I hadn’t noticed before.
I suppose (1) is plausible although I don’t know what the mechanism for such learning would be. But (2) strikes me as plausible as well for the following reason.
The overwhelmingly dominant flavor in wine is, unsurprisingly, a kind of generic “grapeness”. That is what novice wine tasters taste predominately, along with alcohol, acidity, and the tactile sensations of tannin in red wine. The signal to the brain coming from the taste buds and olfactory sensors indicating “grapeness” must be quite strong. My hypothesis (which was suggested by Jonathan’s comment) is that learning to discern the full aroma and flavor spectrum of a wine involves suppressing the strength of that signal so that other flavors can be more easily noted.
In other words, novice tasters are overwhelmed by the dominant flavors and can learn to taste only by learning to ignore them.
That is the role of wine knowledge. The expectation that I should expect to detect vanilla in some oaked Cabernets gets me to focus on the boundaries of the generic “grapeness” where it appears to shade off into something else only vaguely sensed. That focus has the effect of suppressing the strength of the signal signifying “grapeness” and perhaps amplifying the signal from other flavors and aromas, patterns of suppression and amplification that get reinforced with practice.
Just a hypothesis without evidence. But it would explain how conceptualization shapes sensory experience without modifying the genetically determined detection thresholds that govern what we taste and smell.
Wine knowledge, then, while strictly speaking not necessary for learning to taste well, is enormously helpful and efficient as a skill-building mechanism. I’m not sure whether Bach would find this congenial to his view or not. But it seems to me, on this hypothesis, conceptual knowledge is directly impacting phenomenological sensory discrimination thus belying any hard and fast distinction between intellectual and sensory pleasure.
Does knowledge improve your ability to enjoy wine? Obviously it does if you get enjoyment from knowing about wine regions and varieties. But do you actually taste wine differently having acquired that knowledge? Does it help you experience more flavors or textures in the wine than you might have without the knowledge? In other words, does knowledge improve taste sensations?
Some writers claim it does not. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:
Does discrimination require cultivation? Take the case of colours. If your colour vision is normal, you can, believe it or not, discriminate something on the order of ten million different colours, and without any special training. You can see the colour you’re looking at just by looking at it, and you can see that it looks a little different from very similar ones that are presented to you. You don’t have to do anything special—you just have to look…. So why should flavours, wine flavours in particular, be any different? Being able to describe a wine is a nice ability to have, but do you need it to taste the wine? Being able to explain what it is about a wine that you like is nice too, but you don’t need to do that to like the wine.
According to Bach, the only difference between a wine expert and a novice is the ability to describe and explain. As far as taste goes, the wine expert and the novice taste the same thing.
I think this is quite mistaken, in part, because it contradicts my own experience, which I suspect is no different than that of other wine lovers. When I first started drinking wine, I tasted a pleasing, generically “grapey taste” with some acidity and astringency, but that was about it. And I was puzzled when reading tasting notes that suggested I should be tasting ripe pears and peaches with hints of lychee nectar and orange zest lightly kissed by traces of clove. I just could not taste them. As I learned more about what to expect in a wine, I began to taste more of those characteristics of which I had been formerly unaware. It seems as if my knowledge of what to expect was helping me to taste flavors I could not taste before I had acquired the knowledge.
But of course my subjective ruminations on this matter might be mistaken. It would be nice to have an argument. And my argument is that Bach is wrong about color perception and thus we have no reason to accept his views on taste.
The issue is not our basic capacity to see color or taste/smell flavors. Our basic ability to detect light in a particular portion of the spectrum and the thresholds above which our taste and olfactory mechanisms are sensitive to certain chemicals are largely fixed by biology. Although we may be able to modify these to some degree, I doubt that our ability to improve discrimination is best explained by modifications of genetically-programmed thresholds. Rather, what is at issue is what we attend to and how that influences the mind’s ability to process information received by sense organs.
I doubt that my ability to discriminate fine gradations of color is as acute as that of painter or someone in the business of designing color schemes. This is because they have more knowledge of color and more experience at recognition than I do. Their knowledge and experience improves their powers of discrimination. It isn’t that I don’t have the capacity to see the colors; the problem is I don’t notice subtle gradations because I don’t know what to look for. It is a matter not of seeing but of noticing or attending.
Although it is easy to distinguish primary colors or colors that fall in the center of our color categories, most objects display colors that involve subtle mixtures that differ in hue, saturation, and intensity.
Being untrained in color perception I will see a red object as simply red, despite the fact it is red with subtle blue undertones. Unless the color in question is well along the blue side of the color wheel, I won’t see the influence of blue and thus may not notice a difference at all. The problem is not that my visual system won’t register the influence of blue. Neither is the problem that I cannot name the color correctly. The problem is that I won’t recognize the red/blue swatch as differing from standard red without both knowledge and experience. If I don’t know to look for hints of blue I just won’t attend to them. Even if two color swatches, one red and one red with very subtle blue undertones, were side by side I may not detect a difference unless I know that one of the swatches contains some blue mixed into the color scheme.
Difficulties in color discrimination are compounded when tinting and shading are considered as well. Only knowledge and experience will allow me to distinguish red with blue undertones from red that has been shaded with black. Again the problem is not that I cannot see the color. The problem is that I may not notice a difference. It will not stand out without training.
And finally context plays a role as well. A green background will make an object appear more red, a blue background will make it appear more yellow, etc. Without knowledge such differences will go unnoticed. And I doubt that non-experts can distinguish subtle changes in saturation from changes in lightness without training either.
There is in fact empirical evidence that knowledge and linguistic competence influences color discrimination. Experiments by Özgen and Davies suggest that children improve their ability to discriminate color through training, especially when the training includes attention to category boundaries. In describing their hypothesis, they argue:
During this process, more attention to boundary regions than category centers will be required to work out where the boundaries are. This differential exposure should enhance discriminability for boundary regions relative to central regions and gradually produce acquired distinctiveness between adjacent categories and possibly acquired equivalence within categories. And, of course, as the number of categories and the location of category boundaries vary across languages (Berlin & Kay, 1969), so should the locations of heightened or reduced sensitivity vary.
In addition to supporting the claim that color perception is improved through training, this research supplies important clues to how taste discrimination can be improved. In learning to identify, for instance, the taste of clove in a wine, we don’t aim directly at clove. But first try to find a boundary where fruit flavors seem to shade off into something else we can’t quite identify—a boundary. In other words we try to discover a difference in what appeared before to be homogeneous. Once we are able to identify that difference as a vaguely “spicy” flavor we then exclude possibilities by ruling out pepper, thyme, cinnamon, etc., again by recognizing differences until we settle on clove.
No doubt our visual mechanisms are more sensitive and more powerful than our ability to discriminate taste and aroma. But I doubt that either are insulated from the influence of cognition and language.
Does this mean that to enjoy wine you must be able to cite all the Grand Crus of Burgundy. No. But if you enjoy wine you will enjoy it a lot more having gained some knowledge of grape varieties and, where appropriate, the influence of climate and geography on taste.
Philosophers who think wine and food cannot be works of art often argue that smell and taste, unlike vision and audition, fail to provide a representation of reality. Roger Scruton is one prominent skeptic. But his argument (in this anthology) ignores basic facts of wine tasting that even a novice taster would understand.
Scruton’s argument is based on three claims:
(1) Tastes and smells are free-floating qualities independent of the objects that cause them;
(2) The apprehensions of smells and tastes are non-conceptual. We can detect a taste or flavor, for instance chocolate, without conceptualizing it as chocolate. Thus, tastes and flavors are not representations of anything and therefore lack intrinsic meaning;
(3) And, as a result, descriptions of tastes and smells are excessively subjective and arbitrary because they are not constrained by reality.
The upshot is that valid interpretations, as we typically find in the art world, are impossible in the world of food and wine, according to Scruton. (I guess it must be obvious why Pollock’s paint drizzles is colled Lavender Mist)
I have argued in a previous post that (1) is false but (2) and (3) must be addressed as well.
Scruton defends (2) and (3) as follows:
When I see a table I also see it as a table (in the normal case). In describing my experience I am describing a visual world, in terms of concepts that are in some sense applied in the experience and not deduced from it. Now taste and smell are not like that….I might say of the ice-cream in my hand that it tastes of chocolate or that it can taste like chocolate, but not that I taste it as chocolate as though taste were in itself a form of judgment. The distinction here is reflected in the difference between the cogent accounts of paintings given by critics, and the far-fetched and whimsical descriptions of wines given by the likes of Robert Parker. Winespeak is in some way ungrounded.”
Apparently what Scruton has in mind is that chocolate ice cream causes me to have a chocolate-like sensation. But no judgment, understanding, or interpretation is required. I just perceive chocolate without assembling various sensations into a rule-governed, conceptual representation of the object. I doubt that this captures our understanding of chocolate ice cream. But I will leave that for another time. He surely misunderstands wine tasting and makes an utter mystery out of ordinary wine talk, which in clear cases is just as cogent as talk about tables or art.
The reason I see a table as a table (rather than an assortment of properties such as flat surface, rectangular surface, 4 supporting legs, walnut, etc.) is because I’ve acquired the concept of “table” through a history of participation in a linguistic community in which the concept of “table” is consistently deployed. When I’ve mastered the norms of that community, I have the concept of “table”.
But the very same conceptual formation occurs in various contexts when tasting wine. When blind tasting, my ability to interpret a medium-body wine with apple, roasted pear, and pineapple flavors as a Chardonnay is through participation in a community of wine tasters with established norms regarding the appropriate concept to apply to that flavor profile. When evaluating wine non-blind, the ability to judge a Chardonnay as typical of or an ideal example of its provenance and vintage again requires assembling various sensations under a concept of what such a Chardonnay should taste like.
Granted, wine tasters begin to learn to apply a wine concept (of a varietal) by deducing it from assorted sensory experiences and background knowledge about wine varieties. But for experienced tasters, at least in clear cases, identifying a Chardonnay is no more difficult than identifying a table is for ordinary language users and is no less a judgment in which a concept is applied in the experience.
Judging a wine to be harmonious, balanced, or elegant involves even more complex conceptual formations. These features are not simple sensations caused by chemical properties of the wine which are detected on the palate, but involve drawing off from considerable past experience a concept of what it means for various types of wines to be harmonious, balanced, or elegant.
It is in other words, tasting wine at this level is not mere detection of a property but an interpretation based on the possession of a concept.
There is an important difference between the concept of “table” and the concept of “chardonnay”. The possibilities of error and the existence of borderline cases are much greater when applying the concept of “Chardonnay”. Some un-oaked Chardonnays taste like a (poorly made) Sauvignon Blanc; others from very ripe fruit may have the weight of an Alsatian Pinot Gris. Flavors often lack clarity and winemakers have the tools to manipulate grapes to mask their intrinsic qualities. But this has nothing to do with the inability of tastes and flavors to form the basis of conceptual content.
If we lived in a visual world consisting of perpetual, thick fog the error rate for applying visual concepts would skyrocket. But the concept of “table” would be no less a concept. Conceptual clarity is one thing, conceptual content quite another.
Aesthetic concepts used in judging wine such as complexity, balance, and elegance are no less cogent than concepts used in judging art
One central element in the appreciation of any work of art is that the work demands interpretation. Works of art are about something and what they are about, their meaning, is often not directly perceivable in the work but must be the product of judgment, in which we apply a concept to the work in light of properties of the art object, or in light of evidence about what the artist was trying to accomplish.
We do the same with wine. There is nothing odd about a claim that I interpret a wine as elegant just as I might interpret the Mona Lisa as mysterious or Munch’s The Scream as a vision of modern angst.
The greater puzzle is why such mundane observations about wine escape the attention of philosophers.