Take a look at this Scientific American blog post by Christina Agapakis.
In summary, it shows how people perceive smells differently dependent on genetic makeup, age, gender, health, and other factors. They have different sensitivitie to the smell of particular substances, different ways of describing them, and differ in how attractive they find them. Watch the short video in the blog post. If you have a scientific bent, chase through the links and read the original research article. If you want you can even reanalyse the same data, which is provided in spreadsheet form.
I really don’t understand how anyone can think that any honest tasting note is anything other than totally subjective.
Debating the merits of scoring is a well-worn topic on wine blogs and forums, but this nicely argued contribution on John M Kelly’s blog ”notes from the winemaker” offers an original perspective. Do read it for yourself, but basically John describes the lengths it would be necessary to go to in order to make an objective assessment of a wine. Of course, no critic works like this, and their scores are essentially subjective.
After reading it, something else occurred to me. If wines were scored with the rigour described in John’s blog post, the scores would still most likely be meaningless to the consumer, possibly more so than the scores of today’s critics. Why? Because all the factors that are so important in drinking and enjoying wine are removed in order to get a reliable assessment, and no one actually drinks wine in laboratory conditions. An even more fundamental objection lies in the definition of what makes one wine better than another. It is one thing to make that definition explicit as suggested by John, but it would be impossible to get one that everybody would agree with.
To the extent that there is any agreement at all about what makes a good wine, the most common definition you hear these days is “one that has a sense of place”. What procedure would you use to measure that?
I think a lot of wine enthusiasts, professional and amateur, might be willing to admit that taste is subjective, both at the fundamental level I discussed in my last blog post, and in the sense that we all have different preferences when it comes to wine. But they are uncomfortable with this subjectivity. So they try to put aside personal preferences when assessing a wine and strive to do it as objectively as possible. This skill may have come as professional training where they will have learned how to recognise a good wine, or it might have been acquired informally by understanding what other people like.
This professional objectivity is often the only appropriate attitude in the trade. If you are buying to sell to others in a shop or restaurant, you have to try to predict how your customers will like the wine. And I do the same if I am selecting a wine to serve to guests. Whether professionally, or on a more domestic scale, one needs to consider both what is regarded as good in the wine world, and what the average punter actually likes to drink - they are not necessarily the same thing.
But critics and wine writers should I think work at a level higher than this notion of professional objectivity. They should dare to assert their personal preferences, and feel comfortable about criticising wines liked by the trade in general. They should be setting trends, not following. I say it not only because I think it demeans the role of the critic to aspire to an objectivity that does not exist, but also because I think it increases the chance that they will really connect with their readers.
Needless to say, I also think that wine enthusiasts with no professional involvement should also embrace subjectivity and see it as a positive thing. I certainly do.