Subjectivity is not to be sniffed at

“Any fool can have a subjective opinion about wine” is one of the arguments I occasionally see in favour of objectivity in winetasting, and that can be followed by “but experts have invested a lot of time in learning to taste objectively”. There are so many assumptions built into that line of argument I hardly know where to start, but my main counter-argument would be that objectivity in winetasting simply does not exist. However, here I would like to focus on debunking the idea that subjective views are necessarily trivial and to be lightly dismissed. We subjectivists do not all take a swig of wine that hardly touches the sides, and immediately pronounce on its quality.

For me, the ideal person to assess a wine is someone who acknowledges the subjectivity of taste, and yet is happy to give an opinion nevertheless. That person would understand the objective properties of wine, i.e. its physical properties and chemical composition, but also know how those elements translate into the perception of flavour, depending on the environment and individual differences. And of course personal preferences.

In its simplest form, a subjective approach might not be too dissimilar to what is thought to be objective tasting, according to the WSET Systematic Approaches to Tasting Wine for example, but without claiming any objectivity in the final quality assessment. The taster might also like to comment on their sensitivity to the different dimensions of the wine, and how factors other than the wine itself might be influencing its perception.  Of course this is not easy – in fact it is very difficult to do well. But that is really my main point here. A serious subjective approach to winetasting is far from trivial. If anything, the problem is that it is too complex if done well. But that is no excuse for us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend the complexities don’t exist.

Finally, I would add that I think it is important for the taster to say how much they actually enjoy drinking the wine. To me, a quality score, perhaps arrived at by totting up the scores for intensity, balance, persistence etc, is pretty meaningless, and I’d much rather know a taster’s finger-in-the-air feeling about a wine. That is how I score wines, and to be honest I sometimes find that subjective assessments can be hard to arrive at. With conventional wines from classic regions it is a lot easier, because you know more what to expect, and you understand your preferences a lot better. But with more weird stuff (natural wines, I am mainly looking at you) I find it can be more difficult to decide. The problem is in being able to understand the good and enjoyable aspects of an unexpected wine, and when one would best drink it. For example which dishes to match it with. Occasionally I find that a wine that seems promising on initial tasting does not work that well with food, and vice-versa, and established wisdom and accumulated experience with more-conventional wines does not always work.

But I usually get there in the end with my subjective opinion – if not before, then when deciding whether or not to buy more of the same wine.

(In the above, by concentrating on the complexity of subjectivity I have ignored other important aspects. For more on subjectivity and wine, my World of Fine Wine article is a good place to start)

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

One thought on “Subjectivity is not to be sniffed at”

  1. If, as recent studies in quantum mechanics do indeed suggest there is not one objective reality but several existing concurrently then perhaps subjectivity in wine rating is the new objectivity?

    I’m being trite but this is a seriously fascinating subject. Even before we discuss the fact (opinion, perhaps, is a better word) that analysis and enjoyment of wine are somewhat different processes.

    As a wine “lover” I tend to put enjoying wine above analysing it, even though analysis is what I do for the day job.

    Nice article, Steve.

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