Learning, the counter to subjectivity in wine appreciation

Like what you like. That’s what we are so often told, in terms of appreciating wine. It’s fair advice.

When it comes to wine preferences, no one should tell you what to enjoy. You get to choose that.

But so often, this is extended by the statement that all wine appreciation is subjective. Wine preference certainly is. But there’s an objective element to wine assessment, I’d argue. You can get it wrong.

The subjective angle seems to be supported by inter-individual differences in taste and smell. We have the supertaster phenomenon, we have thermal tasters, and we have specific anosmias. This seems to put us all in different taste worlds. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that anything goes. That taste is a personal thing indeed.

But then we have learning. We have a shared culture of wine appreciation. Learning enhances enjoyment of wine. It alters perception even (prior knowledge can affect the way the brain pre-processes sensory information before we are even aware of it). As we learn more about wine; as we taste it together and discuss it - we develop a culture of wine that has objectivity to it.

Wine becomes an aesthetic system. There is a shared culture of wine that we all join in with. We speak a codified language of wine: the impoverished vocabulary we have for tastes and smells necessitates this. We learn together, despite our innate biological differences.

As a result, we could say that wine appreciation is fully subjective only if we taste in isolation. But it is the process of sharing and learning together that counters this.

5 comments to Learning, the counter to subjectivity in wine appreciation

  • Laurence

    I agree. Its the move from ‘I like it’ to ‘I like it because …..”. The shared learning provides the framework on which to hang those thoughts. Without that framework, you are just playing, an admittedly enjoyable taste equivalent of pinning the tail on the donkey

  • Anthony

    I believe we should abandon the words “objective” and “subjective” entirely. It’s the interaction that matters. Gordon Shepherd’s book, Neurogastronomy, sheds considerable light on what happens physically as the brain turns sensory data into cognizable perceptions of flavor. These in turn are linked to memories, emotions, etc. There are objective elements in this process, but the further the spatial patterns of smell from our glomeruli travel up into the higher-order areas of our brains, the more the learned individuality of our brain networks becomes a factor. Some brains have experienced, remembered, and learned more about smells/flavors than others. They’ve learned because they wanted to, and yes, most often in community. Some people simply don’t care.

  • Jamie – You correctly point out that wine appreciation has a cultural aspect, but it is a big leap from there to say that it is objective. One word that is sometimes used for what you describe is intersubjectivity.

    There are many wine cultures, and individuals can belong to more than one and move between them. The shared culture you speak of is a minute fraction of all wine drinkers. Indeed, I bet that culture represents a small fraction even of all people that like to discuss wine in an educated way.

    I am not even sure if I am part of that culture. I feel on the edge of it, sometimes happy to intersct with it, but often alientated

  • Damien

    As an aside, at the Imbibe awards you’re clearly judging at from the photograph, it looks as if an effort has been made to hide the capsule (with blue insulation tape), but that would still leave the give-away of screwcap/cork from the thread above it. Thus non-European would be potentially more easily identifiable to judges?

  • Jamie – I would argue that more than inter-individual differences between tasters’ abilities, tasting biases are detrimental to getting an objective wine appreciation. These “errors” can be fixed easily by adopting simple practices to minimise psychological biases (e.g. information, tasting sequence etc.) and physiological ones (e.g. adaptation). I wrote a short article on this topic for those who are interested to learn more about it.
    http://www.winetasting-demystified.com/errors.html
    The “culture of tasting” you describe might actually lead to more biases than one would think. Wine experts rely sometimes more on this framework of knowledge than on their actual sensory perceptions.
    Finally, based on my experience, differences between tasters abilities can often be managed by training and the way rating scores are handled.
    Sorry, I become too passionate on this topic :-)

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