Having your subjective cake and objectifying it

Is wine appreciation is subjective or objective? Professionals can often be difficult to tie down on that issue. For example, they often agree that opinions on wine quality are totally subjective, while at the same time claiming to be objective in their judgements. In that way they can encourage everyone to say what they think about a wine, and yet not lose their special role as experts. The problem with subjectivity is that it can mean everyone’s opinions are equally valid, which then leaves no space for connoisseurship and meaningful dialogue about wine. If there is no right and wrong, what is left to discuss when it comes to wine? So they say. Some people at least. Sometimes.
Personally, while I may occasionally use the language of objectivity for convenience, I am very consistently on the side of subjectivity in this debate. Here is how I see it… The objective aspect of a wine is represented by its chemical and physical structure. Using our senses, mainly smell and taste, and the brain to integrate sensory input, we create there a perceptual model, and then interpret that model to draw conclusions about the wine. In other words, in the sense that it is created within ourselves, flavour is literally subjective. It is not only subjective, but the perception of flavour can vary greatly from person to person according to our genetic makeup. So flavour is totally subjective: it simply does not exist independently of an observer. In addition to this relatively straightforward flavour perception, some of us are also interested in aesthetic aspects of wine such as balance, harmony and elegance, and that adds yet another level of subjectivity. Even if we can agree on the principles of wine quality, those principles will always be rather arbitrary, and our interpretation of the principles subjective. However, unlike others, I do not see subjectivity in wine as a cause for concern. There is still room for wine expertise in my opinion, and with the acceptance of subjectivity I see even more opportunity for interesting discussions about wine quality.

While this strongly subjective stance does not seem to be popular amongst wine people, it is the orthodox view in perceptual science, and I find it difficult to understand how anyone could possibly begin to seriously disagree. However, Barry Smith (of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Studies, University of London) manages just that. Based on the objective chemistry on the wine, he proposes that there are emergent flavour properties. The flavours might vary with time, but they are objective in the sense that they depend solely on the wine itself. According to him, tasters do not experience the chemical and physical structure of the wine directly: only indirectly, through the flavour properties. Here, there is still subjectivity, but the subjectivity comes into play only when the objective flavours are sensed by a taster to create flavour perceptions. At that point, the person-to-person variations I mentioned above again become relevant, and net result is again a mix of different perceptions. However, according to this theory, they are regarded as more-or-less imperfect perceptions of the objective and true wine flavours. Less imperfect for expert tasters, and more so for novices.

My impression is that Barry Smith has spent a lot of time talking to wine experts, and flavour technologists, and what they say seems to have led him to believe the objective flavours are necessary. Jamie Goode, in his recent book I Taste Red, seems to like the theory, largely because it accommodates the idea of flavours being both objective and subjective, and leaves the traditional role of wine expert intact. However, I see no need for the existence of these objective flavour properties whatsoever. In fact, the only reason I am writing about them in this blog post is because I fear the idea might be gaining traction as a result of Jamie’s new book.

Barry Smith himself, writing in Issue 50 of The World of Fine Wine, identifies what for me is the major problem with his objective flavours: They give us two tough tasks instead of one. The first task is to establish the relationship between the wine chemistry and its emergent objective flavours. The second task is to establish the relationship between the objective flavours and flavour perceptions. Well how are those tasks progressing? Not very well I suggest. Meanwhile however, quite a lot of scientific progress has been made with the single task that replaces Barry Smith’s two, showing how chemicals interact directly with the tongue and nose, and how the resulting signals are processed, and routed to and through the brain, where they are integrated to create flavours.

Whether these mooted objective flavours exist or not matters not a jot as you sit with a glass of wine. However, it does matter to those who write about wine, or buy and sell it. It matters at a philosophical level, and livelihoods based on the myth of objectivity could be at stake. But it does not need to be like that. There is money to be made in the subjective world too. And fun to be had.

(If you would like to check that I have not been misrepresenting Barry Smith, or would simply like to read more about his ideas, in addition to his The World of Fine Wine and sections in Jamie Goode’s book, both mentioned above, you might like to see his essay in the book “Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine”, his Nature Outlook article, or this article I found online. For a scientist’s view of flavour perception I can recommend Gordon Shepherd’s book Neurogastronomy. The same author has also written a more recent book, Neuroenology, which might well be of even more interest. Finally, for a fuller argument in favour of subjectivity, may I again draw your attention to the online version of my article in The World of Fine Wine?)

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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2 Responses to Having your subjective cake and objectifying it

  1. I sort of agree with Jamie. Objectivity is important for wine experts, it justifies their role and bolsters their credibility. The intensely scientific nature of the MW course is at the heart of established wine expertise. It is rigorous and it’s Tasting methodology is rigid.

    So how come wine experts vote cheap wines top of blind tastings? How come they mix up Syrah and Carignan in blind tastings? And so on.

    I am convinced as well that unconscious bias plays as big a part in wine Tasting as in the rest of life. As human beings we are intensely subjective. Scientists (and lawyers) work hard to suppress that, to be objective. But does every wine expert have that rigour?

    There is also something wonderful about the fact that we all experience wines in different ways because our palates are not the same. And wine performs differently on different days, and at different stages in its evolution. These things don’t mean we can’t be objective. They just make it harder.

    One could discuss this for hours. So I’m happy to see wine tasting as “potentially objective in part…sometimes”, at least for now.

  2. Thanks, David. That was a quick response!

    I see that objectivity is important for wine experts now, but that is largely due to how they have defined their roles. There is another way. Also, however important objectivity is, if it does not exist then it does not exist. Just because you like an idea, does not mean it is correct, true, or useful. To be clear though, the specific target for criticism in my post is not Jamie and wine experts per se, but Barry Smith’s “objective flavours”.

    You touch on bias. I think that works at a higher level than the issues I was discussing here, but can also affect perception. It can also include more unsavoury issues like taking bribes, blatantly or implicitly. I was deliberately avoiding all those issue here, as I don’t think they relate to the issue of objective flavours.

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