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?)

Subjectivity ain’t that simple

likeToday we shall take as our text verse 1 of The Nine Attributes of Greatness, a section of Karen McNeil’s The Wine Bible:

No one needs a wine book to tell them what they like to drink. Subjectivity in wine is pretty easy. But a wine is not great merely because we like it. Liking a wine is simply liking a wine – it tells you something about what you take pleasure in.

I disagree with most of that. I have also heard others being rather dismissive about subjectivity in wine so, without wanting to single out Karen for a fight, let me respond.

Taking a subjective approach does not necessarily equate to knocking back a glass and declaring whether you like it or not, any more than objectivity involves accepting that each wine has an immutable score. Even if we embrace subjectivity, we have the same basic perceptual equipment that objectivists possess, and we can chose to use it to analyse wine in great detail.

In fact, I would argue that a subjective approach is the more challenging path: after measuring the wine by conventional standards, there is an additional step to decide how much you like it. It may come as a surprise to some but this can be pretty difficult, particularly if you are tasting a less familiar style of wine. Natural wines, for example, fit very much into that category of unfamiliarity for me at the moment. Using so-called objective standards, a fair proportion would simply go down the sink as faulty. But if you believe a subjective assessment is important, it doesn’t go straight down the sink – you at least pause until you have figured out how much you personally like it. Not always easy for an open-minded person more used to conventional wine styles. And how will it be later in the evening, after exposure to air, with food, and at a different temperature? Even harder in such circumstances is explaining the reasons for you like or dislike, as you don’t even have the usual aesthetic language to rely on.

To understand, wine we subjectivists need good wine books as much as anyone else. But we also need to look beyond conventional knowledge. In my opinion that is.

Subjectivity in wine appreciation

sujectivity_articleThis is a topic dear to me, and something I have written about a fair bit on my blog. In an article recently published in The World of Fine Wine (Issue 51, 2016 Q1) , I draw together my thoughts into a coherent form, and refer to research that I have more recently become aware of. If you subscribe, or if you can lay your hands on a copy, please look out for the article.  Impatient subscribers can also find Issue 51 online now.

Update 05/10/16: The article is now available for all on The World of Fine Wine website here: Subjectivity in Wine.

Fooling the experts again

What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine, an article by Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker, is another journalistic take on how easy it is to be influenced by extraneous factors (those that have nothing to do with the wine itself) when tasting, and although the word “fool” does figure in the article, it is a lot more nuanced than the typical UK press versions of the same thing, which can be summarised as “ha-ha, all you experts are stupid, and we are all so smart for buying plonk because it is just as good as your expensive stuff.”

The only bits I am uncertain about are those attributed to Galloni, but  I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, as sound-bite quotations are rarely sufficient to express yourself adequately.  Regardless, I think it is important to be aware that the story behind a wine may well be cynically manipulated to make the wine taste good.  If that happens, we should all be ready to take a stand against it.  Be aware too that critics and wine writers are often complicit by retelling the marketers’ stories.  It is likely I also fall into that writers’ trap from time to time, but I try to avoid it.  Rely on your own common sense.

Having said that, if you want to enjoy wine, it makes no sense to fight against extraneous factors.  We need to learn how to use them to best advantage.  Things like the best wine glasses, the perfect match with food and the ideal decanting time rarely exist, but if everybody around the table believes, the magic will work anyway.

If you want to take the game to a higher level though, and not get caught up in chasing the same expensive wines as everyone else, create your own stories to believe in.  I suppose even the idea held by many, that plonk tastes as good as really expensive stuff, might even come under that category.  But personally I prefer to believe in, and tell, the story that experimenting with unusual wines is fun.

Manifesto

A few months ago Jamie Goode published his Wine Manifesto.  It did a good job of encapsulating a lot of current thinking about wine.  On the other hand I did not think it would stand the test of time and, more importantly for me, it was very different from the manifesto I would come up with.  So here is my shot at one.  At some point in the future, I might rework it, and it could find its way to my About page.  Or I might just let it slip into obscurity, to be discovered and praised by the historians of the future.

If you don’t like the word manifesto, just think of it as an itemised summary of stuff I have been banging on about in my blog over the last 3 years or so.

1) Wine is fermented grape juice

You might fairly object that there is more to wine is than just fermented grape juice.  Certainly, there is a lot of skill that goes in making good wine, and various cultures have layered meaning and symbolism on top. But fundamentally it is still a fermented agricultural product, and sometime it is good to remind ourselves of that fact, and even celebrate its simplicity.

2) Flavour is not a property of wine

Wine comprises a mixture of chemicals that we sense in our nose and mouth, and the perception of flavour is created in our brains. Flavour is not a property of wine itself.  There is nothing unusual about this; it is the way all our senses work. To say that a wine is sweet, bitter or sour is nothing more than a useful shorthand to describe our perception of it.

3) Different people perceive the same wine differently

The sensitivity to various aromas varies greatly from person to person, as does the degree to which we find them pleasant.  Research is increasingly showing that these differences are due to physiological differences that are determined by specific genes.  This means that few people experience the same perception when they taste the same wine.  Genetic differences also affect other senses; in vision they cause what we call colour blindness, but it seems that genetic variation in how we smell is a lot more varied and widespread.  In addition to these physiological differences, perception of aromas is also affected by culture and historical exposure to smells and flavours.

4) At different times, the same person perceives the same wine differently

Perception depends on mood, the environment, the glass, what is believed about the wine, and what has been eaten or drunk immediately beforehand. There may also be variation from bottle to bottle, and the contents of the same bottle may change with time after it has been opened.  Under normal circumstances is often difficult to distinguish between variation in the wine itself and variation in our perception of it.

5) Wine is regarded and judged according to cultural norms and fashions

Despite tendencies towards globalisation in wine taste, the value placed on various wine styles varies from culture to culture.  For example oxidised wines are much more likely to be regarded as acceptable in Georgia.  Also brett, and petrol notes in Riesling, are more likely to be regarded as faults in new world wine growing countries than Europe.  As for fashion, a lot of us have witnessed the rise and fall of Chardonnay and Merlot in the early 21st century.  But the fall from grace of sweet German wines in the late 20th century was a lot more significant.

6) Wine tasting notes are not objective or definitive

It follows from items 2) to 5) above, that objectivity cannot be summoned up by particularly skilled and ethical wine critics.   It simply does not exist, as flavour is essentially a subjective experience.  The best you can hope for in a critic is that they try to be commercially unbiased, and that they are aware that not everyone perceives wine the same way as they do.

7) Wine tasting notes are useful as a personal record, and as the starting point for discussion

Just because tasting notes and scores are subjective, does not mean to say that they are totally without value. As a personal record I find them useful for jogging my memory.  They can also act as the starting point for a discussion, and can lead to interesting and useful insights.

8) Wine is interesting

There are many different aspect to wine that can be explored, e.g.  geography, history, culture, viticulture, winemaking, gastronomy, philosophy, science.  These can add significantly to the enjoyment of wine.

9) Wine is fun, and tastes nice

This is what wine is mainly about, though it is easy for wine geeks to forget.

Fooling the experts?

An article published last week in the Observer, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science, has proved controversial.  As it covers a subject that interests me greatly – how we perceive, describe and rate wines – I wanted to post about it here immediately, but I was not sure how to start.

Perhaps the best way is to point out that the article itself refers to the work of others, and it represents a fair summary of that work.  If you don’t like the results, read the original studies, and criticise them from a position of knowledge, but do not dismiss them out of hand.  As far as I can tell, with the exception of the widely reported Wisemann study, they are sound pieces of work.

The second thing I would say is that the article’s headline misses the point completely.  Winetasting is not junk science.  It is not any sort of science.  It’s…  well, it’s tasting wine: smelling it, putting it into your mouth, and attending to what you perceive.  Punters, individuals and businesses, do it all the time and base their buying decisions on it.

Tasting itself is not problematic.  The content of the article is about how reliable experts are at describing and rating what they taste.  To be reliable, each individual expert needs to be consistent, and also different experts needs to be able to form a consensus with other people, ideally other experts.  To me it is clear that the studies show there is little reliability.

But that raises another issue: who are these people (who I am calling experts) that are unreliable?  They are different in the various studies.  Judges at shows are typically taken from the wine trade, and can be a mixed bunch.  In the Goldstein study, those who had any form of wines education were deemed to be expert.  And university studies often use oenology students as subjects – these presumably have attended courses on tasting.  Few of the subjects would be Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, or even enthusiasts who take part in blind tasting competitions. Were they to be made the subject to research, who knows what the results would be?  Not too dissimilar from the existing studies I suspect.

I do not wish to associate myself with the tone of many of the article comments that glory in the stupidity of the experts and wine snobs alike, but I can see that they have a point.  A lot of the language used to describe wine is rather ridiculous.   Some is designed to elevate the status of the writer rather than to communicate, and other descriptions are simply invented to sell the wine.  Couple that with demonstrable expert reliability problems, and I can absolutely understand the substance of their complaints.

I think the premium end of the wine trade has a big problem in communicating to the general public, in the UK at least.  The answer is not for experts to get defensive about their abilities, and hurl criticism back to punters saying that they are stupid for continuing to buy cheap wine from their supermarkets and that they need to take courses to appreciate wine.  We really do need to move on from trading insults.  In my opinion, as evidenced by his recent book, Eric Asimov gets the tone just about right in his unassuming modesty and willingness to engage with the public.

Update: Just in case you are interested, here are another couple of responses to the article, from Fiona Beckett, Tim Atkin and Victoria Moore.

More on tasting note subjectivity

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 sensitivities 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.

Wine scoring

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?

Embracing subjectivity in taste

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.  The 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.

Taste is subjective

People who know me, or who have read my blog, would hardly expect me to say anything other than that taste is subjective.  But here I mean it in a very basic sense – I am not here talking about what is considered to be good or bad taste, but taste as a perception.  Or perhaps I should say perceptions in the plural, for a lot of what we call taste is in fact due to our sense of smell.

For me it has always been self evident that taste is subjective.  That is to say it exists only in the mind of the taster, and it has no independent existence as a property of the thing being tasted.  But many seem to believe the opposite, and I have seen more essays written by philsophers arguing that position than I care to count.  They often say that objects have taste in the same way that objects have colour.

Well, exactly!  Colours are subjective too.  The colour blind amongst us perceive colours very differently, and there are also huge interpersonal differences in taste and smell.  The objective physical reality consists of chemicals, and of electromagnetic waves of various frequencies.  We perceive these chemicals and waves through our mouth, nose and eyes, and describe them as colours and tastes.  If we did not exist, neither would colours and tastes.  End of story as far as I am concerned.

For me, the interesting question is the extent to which we can effectively communicate our perceptions so others undertand our subjective experience, and the degree to which we have a common experience.  It is a lot easier to communicate colour, and I think that is at least partly because we have had a lot more practice.  It is trivially easy for more than one person to observe the same thing and to agree to describe its colour in a certain way.  It is relatively difficult to arrange for more than one person to be tasting exactly the same thing at the same time, and outside specialist circles people rarely attempt to describe their experiences.