So, is wine tasting subjective or objective?

I’m reading a new book on the philosophy of wine. It’s titled ‘The philosophy of wine: a case of truth, beauty and intoxication’, and it’s written by Cain Todd, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Lancaster.

I’m not far enough through it to give my full review, but early on Todd spots an interesting pattern of behaviour by many of the leading wine critics.

Typically, when asked, they tend to say that wine tasting is subjective, and that the opinion of the novice or amateur is every bit as valid and significant as that of the critic or expert. With wine there is no ‘wrong’: like what you like!

This sounds wonderfully egalitarian and unstuffy.

I quote Todd:

In admirable haste to discharge accusations of elitism, obfuscation and snobbery, critics frequently lurch into proclamations of subjectivity that are directly at odds with their own implicit beliefs and explicit practices.

As Todd points out these same critics operate as if wine tasting were anything but subjective. They score wine. They value their own opinions on wine highly enough to charge others to access them, and to get into (sometimes heated) discussions about the merits of particular wines. This suggests they think that wine tasting is (largely) objective; that expertise makes a difference to the validity of wine assessment; and that there’s an expectation that experienced professionals should more-or-less agree in their assessments, even if they have different preferences.

So which is it? And what do the leading critics really believe?

NOTE ADDED LATER: I’ve just posted an article on this topic on the main wineanorak site.

17 comments to So, is wine tasting subjective or objective?

  • Interesting. Do you think the book is worth buying?
    BTW…how’s the puppy?

  • Wine tasting is subjective, but some subjective preferences are more subjective than others ;)

    I think what critics are really saying is “enjoy the wine, now run on off to the kids table while the adults talk about serious topics.” Scoring in principle could be subjective if treated as a sort of ordinal ranking (going from 100 to 50 instead of 1 to 50) of a given bottle in a given context. But scores are usually treated as an absolute measurement of the wine (the whole production run at any moment in time regardless of provenance or context).

  • Wine is subjective. Surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder !

    Scoring does my head in. Why are all wines seemingly in the top 20 percentile ? I must research this

    Maybe I like words more than numbers as I do value the opinion of critics whose recommendations I have come to rely on.

  • Alex Lake

    That all sounds about right. Parker has probably lead the charge of the objectivists – which is so much more marketable than wishy-washy words…

  • of course it’s subjective, scores/points are meaningless, how dare someone like Parker suggest I only drink wines he has deemed worthy.
    As an example, the Football League tables, so the best are at the top, but not everyone supports those teams, how do you account for teams at lower / bottom of the table still having supporters?
    In my view, humble as it is, qualitative ( as long as not wishy wahsy or waxing lyrical ) not quantitative, reviews are much more interesting and worth reading.
    G

  • Alex Lake

    To be fair to Parker, he’s only saying how much HE liked the wines. There is absolutely no imperative on anyone to follow him.

  • jason care

    What you personally like is subjective. There is however an abiltiy to be trained to analyze objective wine quality based on a specific set of criteria.. such as the WSET tasting method. There are many wines I hate, yet understand and can analyze that they are qualitativly excellent, such as many Barossa Shirazes or Over-extracted modern Spanish reds or the like.

  • Thanks for all your thoughts. I’ve just written a longer article on the subject, but I do worry that I’m only really scratching the surface. We need to think about the theoretical basis of wine tasting, because this informs our practice.

    And Vinogirl, the puppy is doing well!

  • Alex Lake

    There is very much a tip of an iceberg here. I’m tempted to interpret Jason’s comments as being – wine can be objective if one suspends emotion. I’m a big fan of emotional appreciation of wine and of Chateau Musar, which is probably a qualitatively poor wine!

  • Russell de Silva

    I think the description of a wine’s organoleptic qualities can be determined by a trained taster. This when done properly is objective.

    However deciding which particular combination of flavours/aromas/textures is more enjoyable is clearly subjective, even though there may be some broad scale agreement on desirable properties of a beverage.
    I think it’s important to widen the net a little here and appreciate the wide range of flavours/aromas/textures/sensations that are enjoyed in food. Many of these delicious foods are appreciated around the world, yet have qualities that would be considered a gross fault in a wine. Some of this is because the other elements of wine (alcohol, acid, tannin) would clash, but perhaps it’s because we’re becoming a little too dogmatic about what is/isn’t pleasurable as a taste.

    I’m quite partial to an Indonesian snack called Umpit, which is a very bitter nut which has been beaten and roasted. This is definitely an acquired taste, which incidentally I absolutely loathed on first tasting.

    Anyway my 2 cents worth. Nice discussion, but work awaits.

  • Subjective, objective, schmujective! Very interesting issue. But it’s one of those trick questions, ie one that doesn’t have a ‘right’ answer. It all depends on the context: if a bunch of professionals get together for a tasting (doing their job, working, getting paid to do what they do) then they will try to be as objective as possible; because the have a product/service to sell, that people are going to buy. However, if a bunch of wine-lovers get together for a tasting, then it’s a totally different kettle of fish – it will be much more subjective, other factors will become significant, eg the people present, the place, the music, the time, etc, etc. I think both are fine, that’s the beauty of the wine world for me, the infinite diversity, both of wines and of contexts in which thy’re tasted. Basically, I think it’s pointless to ask the subjective vs. objective question in general and without a context.

  • Irving So

    Interesting discussion and great article on the main site! In case there is interest here to look further on how consumers and experts perceived wine complexity, Wendy Par summarised some of the recent research progress and findings in her column in ChemoSense at:

    http://chemosense.info/issues/10/ChemoSenseJuly10.pdf

  • Of course it’s subjective. Different people look for different things in, and from, wines on different days and for different occasions. Were one to take objectivity to it’s natural conclusion there would be only one wine worth drinking. Somewhat boring. In addition none of us can ever claim to be truly objective. External influences (financial, reputation, occasion etc) are simply too strong.

  • I always love this topic. To me, it is simply BOTH objective and subjective. The purpose of wine magazines and their critics are to drive readers to the top 20 wines to generate a profit and thus making the topic ‘objective.’ Magazines engage their target audiences, the general wine enthusiast or beginner; by jazzing up the verbiage, with one superlative after another and with 90+ rankings.

    In regards to wine evaluation, it is completely, Objective. The goal of any wine evaluation is to find out everything you can about the wine from your eyes, nose and palate. That means every word that you use to describe a wine has to have a meaning or provide a clue as to what the wine is in regards to varietal, vintage, Country, appellation, production technique, Drink/Hold date and in some cases producers and/or even single vineyards.

    We are country that believes ‘A’ symbolizes something that is excellent and ‘B’ is still pretty good, but it will never be an ‘A.’ The truth is that 90+ percent of the worlds wine is ‘C’ wine. The general public misses out on true wine enthusiasm, which is completely, 100%, Subjective; not to mention some fantastic wines.

    Just pick up a bottle and drink, your palate will guide you.

    Daniel-EWS
    GUSTO Tastings

  • David Baker

    We can all be subjective when tasting a wine, hmmm I like this, the objective part is more of yes but why do I like it – the analsysis – how superficial or not it may be, with a realisation that a particular style or grape or age or combination appeals – which then encourages further exploration and revelation. This is the really great thing about wine.

    Being able to refer to 3rd party objective opinion, by which I mean a more than superficial analysis, is always welcomed, by me.

  • Regarding Brochet’s second experiment, you say “… experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires.” This is doubtless true, but from your description of it, apparently not what happened here: personal memories and idiosyncratic desires, even if influential, evidently took a back seat to one or more social cues, i.e., the labeling of the wine by others as ‘grand-cru’ or ‘vin du table’. That social cues play an important role in perception is nothing new. Brochet’s experiment, rather, grabs out attention primarly because of the way the limitations of the experts as a result of such influences are clearly (and hilariously) revealed. Perhaps what this experiment also demonstrates is the importance of the web of beliefs, practices and attitudes which constitute our collective efforts to sort out social and other biases over time.

  • I should think the key point is that one chooses to taste a wine either objectively or subjectively.

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