Let's stop hiding behind subjectivity


In the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, there’s a wonderful interchange between the hero from the 21st Century, Gil Pender, and Ernest Hemingway, in 1920s Paris. Pender has written a novel and he asks Hemingway if he might read it for him and give his opinion. He’s told Hemingway the subject, a curiosity shop, and this follows:

No subject is terrible if the story is true. If the prose is clean and honest and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.

Would you do me the biggest favour in the world – I can’t even ask ···


Would you read it?

Your novel?

It’s only about four hundred pages – if you could just give me your opinion.

My opinion is I hate it.

You do? You haven’t even read it yet…

If it’s bad I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing and if it’s good I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.

But there’s no one I really trust to evaluate it –

Writers are competitive.

I could never compete with you –

You’re too self-effacing – it’s not manly. If you’re a writer, declare yourself the best writer – but you’re not the best as long as I’m around. Unless you want to put the gloves on and settle it.

In the wine business, we hide too often behind subjectivity. We tell people to like what they like. We say that taste is personal, and everyone has to decide for themselves what they like.

Who am I to say that one wine is better than another? Who am I to confer greatness to some wines and not to others?

But if we wallow and hide in all this subjectivity, then all our opinions represent is autobiography. It’s of no real interest to others, and our judgements are in no way normative. We can’t expect them to be relevant to others.

But we are too self effacing, just as Hemingway observed of Pender. Also, that’s not how wine writers behave. Critics sell subscriptions to their websites which are packed with tasting notes and scores. If it were all so personal, then why would they expect others to be interested? They say one thing then do another.

The truth is, we expect that others will be experiencing something similar to us when we taste wine. And we each think that we have decent palates. Our experience as tasters (remember, tasters are made not born) and our exquisite ‘taste’ means that we think our opinions are worth something, and to some degree are normative.

So I have a particular taste in wine that I think is refined and relevant to others. I don’t expect everyone to share it. But I think my taste sensibilities are good, and that I can spot a good wine, and that if I think a wine is great then, if you have a normal-isa palate and good sensibilities, then I might expect you to agree. Not all the time, of course, but a good amount of the time.

There are some wines that are good, and some that are bad. Good writers pick out the good wines. There is good taste in wine, and bad taste. It’s not all subjective. So, if you write about wine, declare yourself the best taster, but…..


2 comments to Let’s stop hiding behind subjectivity

  • John Atkinson

    Interesting. I think it’s about turning phenomena into objects, and that’s essentially what happens when we try to join very specific communities of sense – Burgundy/Bordeaux/Jerez/Andouillette societies/bee keepers/Boulez listeners – and become experts.

    Always think Whitehead is good on this – he expands the definition of objects so that the red glow of the sun has the same ontological status as the nuclear fusion that is its cause.

    This is not to say we always reach our object, but there’s a sense that we are moving closer to it. Agreement is proximity by degrees – a bit like Xeno’s paradox – we get close to our destination without ever quite making it.

  • A very persuasive piece of writing Jamie. I would argue that it is very difficult to claim objectivity in matters of taste, but I would propose relativity plays a huge role in wine tasting. A wine tastes amazing or poor relative to another wine. That’s why I have found it far more useful to taste wine comparatively, in comparison to another related or relevant wine, which brings out the nuances and negative spaces between the two wines, revealing far more than just the sensory experience of one mouthful of wine. Even if one doesn’t taste the wines side by side, you will still compare what you are tasting to the “archetype” you have for that wine in your own mind. That is why creating a library of wines in your mind and adding to it continuously is so important.

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