Is flavour a property of the wine? A great article from Barry Smith

If you can, take some time to read this great article in a Nature supplement by wine-loving philosophy professor Barry Smith. It discusses whether the flavour (or taste) of a wine is the property of the wine or not.

This may seem a slightly self-indulgent academic discussion, but it has important implications for how we approach wine tasting. Is the taste in the wine? Or is it a private experience unique to each taster? Can we really compare our experiences as we drink a bottle of wine together? Or are we operating in different taste worlds?

The central question, then, is this: how should we adjudicate between those who say that flavours depend on molecular compounds, and those who stress the varying perceptions of individual eaters and drinkers?

I agree and disagree with Barry, and in the next few days will post a response to his excellent piece. But I’d love to know what readers think.

10 comments to Is flavour a property of the wine? A great article from Barry Smith

  • Taste and smell is subjective – totally subjective. The objective bit is the chemicals in the wine. Different people have huge variations in sensitivities to different compounds. The net result is that they must perceive wines differently.

    It is similar with colour perception. The wavelength of the light is the objective thing, but colour is not a property of any object. Shine a different light on the same object, and you get a different wavelength, and different precieved colours. Also people with colour blindness see colours differently even if the wavelengths are the same.

    This is not a philosophical question. Look at the eveidence!

  • As I read Smith, his puzzle is to accommodate both the stability of the underlying chemical compounds (in a given wine) and the heterogeneity of psychological responses in different tasters (/time slices of tasters). And his solution is to introduce an intermediate entity, the flavor, between the chemical makeup and the psychological response, such that the mapping between chemical makeup and flavor is independent of our psychological responses, and such that the varying responses of individual tasters are multiple perspectives on the one stable flavor. (Contrary to what Steve Slatcher suggests, he is obviously aware both that the chemical makeup is stable and that the responses in subjects differ. That’s what generates the tension that the Smith is attempting to resolve by his proposal; no?)

    However, I don’t see that the proposed introduction of the intermediate layer is sufficiently motivated by what Smith says in this short paper. The motivation can’t be that we have a need to recognize either some interpersonally stable or some interpersonally varying level — we already have these without the proposed intermediary (viz., the chemical makeup of the wine, the psychological responses). Can it be that “advances in the science of winemaking … are increasingly used to improve the perceptible quality of wines”? I would not have thought so; for, even without saying what “quality” amounts to in any detail, surely you could improve wines in the sense that you remove factors leading to negative reactions in a substantial segment of tasters without thereby eliminating variation in psychological reactions (under different tasting conditions). So this doesn’t seem to motivate the proposal sufficiently either.

    In sum, I don’t see why — given what’s been said, at any rate — we can’t hope to understand the relation “between the chemical compounds in a wine and our individual reactions to it” without introducing flavors as intermediate entities between the two.

    (Disclaimer: Smith is a friend and colleague whom I respect greatly, despite my not understanding him on this issue.)

  • Smith’s view is insightful and important but the philosophical problem is that his view seems to entail that a wine will contain logically incompatible properties. The relevant passage is this:

    “If a wine remains unchanged, we should see these variations
    as different ways of perceiving the same flavour, rather than
    claiming that there are as many flavours as there are tasters.”

    If one experienced taster detects a note of strawberry and another experienced taster does not, then Smith’s view seems to suggest that the wine both does and does not taste like strawberry. It is bit of a philosophical faux pas to attribute logically incompatible properties to an object.

    The view Smith adopts, if I understand it correctly, is called realism. Steve Slatcher’s comment suggests the diametrically opposing view–radical subjectivism. But that does not seem right either. The fact that some people are color blind does not show that color is subjective. There are objective, measurable properties of light and the neurophysiology of the brain that explain normal color perception, and thus convergence toward agreement about the color of an object (and thus a measure of objectivity). Color blindness is explainable in terms of the absence of some feature of that explanation which explains why the colorblind person is outside the consensus.

    I suspect that when we know enough about flavor sensations a similar story can be told about at least some properties of wine.

  • In the same way that people can sensibly talk about colours they see – even if colours are perceptions and (arguably) not primary properties of an object – we can have sensible discussions about flavours in wine, even though they are perceptions of the individual tasters.

    And following on with analogies to colour perception, colour blindness gives us a good indication of how differences sometimes come about. People can fail to perceive the properties of a wine, in terms of the chemical composition that creates flavour, in the same way that a colour blind person fails to properly perceive the wavelength of light coming from an object.

    Another important factor is language. The centres of the brain responsible for taste/olfaction/etc are actually far removed, neurally speaking, from the centres for language…which is why we often find an aroma or flavour very familiar but struggle to put the words to it. This equally contributes to differences in perception…or perhaps not perception, but our descriptions of our perceptions.

  • Edible Arts takes Smith’s claim that we can take interpersonal variations as “different ways of perceiving the same flavor” to entail that, if one taster detects strawberry and another does not, then the wine both does and does not taste like strawberry.

    But it seems to me that Smith’s view is exactly designed to avoid that entailment. Smith wants to treat interpersonal differences as revealing *ways of tasting* the one flavor, not as revealing the *flavor(s)* per se. Analogy: one viewer who sees Venus exclusively at a certain position in the morning sky can think of Venus as The Morning Star, and a different viewer who sees Venus exclusively at a certain position in the evening sky can think of Venus as The Evening Star. There are two ways of thinking of Venus, but just one entity. No one would say Venus both has and lacks the property of being visible (exclusively) at a certain position in the morning sky.

    So, too, Smith wants to treat interpersonal differences in reactions to the one wine as (not revelatory of differences in the wine’s flavor, but) differences in the ways of apprehending the flavor that it has. Not saying this view ultimately works (my view is that it probably does not); just saying that I don’t think it makes the mistake Edible Arts accuses it of making.

    (For what it’s worth, people have defended analogous “mode of presentational” views about interpersonal differences in color perception as well. I don’t think that works in the case of color perception either, but that’s a story for another day.)

  • Objective compounds are perceived subjectively.

    A really great look at subjectivity can be found in this podcast by the amazing Radiolab: http://www.radiolab.org/2012/may/21/

    It’s about color but directly relates to this I think.

  • Jonathan,

    This is probably not the venue for a discussion of sense and reference. But I’m having trouble understanding what “flavour” is for Smith. The strawberry taster and the non-strawberry taster are both referring to the same thing–chemical compounds in the wine (i.e. venus.) But they differ with regard to how it tastes. So what is the flavor that they are both referring to? It must be something that is both strawberry and not strawberry. It seems like he wants a conception of flavor that is not essentially related to subjective experience that would serve as a reference for both descriptions. This is an interesting idea but I’m having trouble seeing how it works. Thus, I think the problem of contradictory predicates is not resolved.

  • Hi Edible Arts:

    (Agreed that this may not be the best venue — happy to take this to email if you prefer.)

    I’m not saying I endorse it, but as I understand Smith, the view is supposed to be that flavor is a third entity – neither the chemical compound which presumably is a supervenience base or realizer (or something) for the flavor, nor the psychological reaction brought about by the flavor. You’re right: he thinks the two tasters are both
    referring to the same thing. But that thing is the flavor, not the chemical compound or their own reactions to it. In contrast, the descriptions they give, ‘strawberry’ and ‘not strawberry’ in this case, are NOT (verbal expressions of) the wine’s flavor/lack of it. They are ways of apprehending the flavor.

    The heart of the proposal is that the interpersonal differences are relegated to the level of differences in sense/ways of apprehending, where they won’t amount to a clash (because your way of apprehending and my way of apprehending aren’t in conflict with one another). He can then say that the flavor is not something that different observers are disagreeing about. At best, they have better and worse — viz, more and less revelatory — apprehensions of the flavor. The hope is that this will help him insulate the objectivity of flavor against the facts about interpersonal difference in reaction to the flavor.

    As I remarked myself, I’m also not persuaded that this proposal is well-motivated or succeeds on its own terms. But that’s how I understand the proposal.

  • In reponse to Jonathan Cohen, I’d like to say that I was not intending to suggest anything about Barry Smith’s awareness of individual differences.

    If I were to make a more direct response to Barry’s article, I would say that I do not see the need to invoke his concept of flavour.

    There are the properties of objects on the one hand which are measurable by anyone in the world, and always give the same answer. That needs some qualification, but if you want a pendantic argument I am up for it :)

    On the other hand there are animal perceptions of those objects, which demonstrably vary hugely depending on our genetic makeup, between species as well as humans. They may also vary in ways that are not demonstrable – it is hardly surprising if two people agree that something smells like an orange, but what exactly they are sensing is totally another question.

  • David M

    I really enjoy all conversations above.
    This is fascinating and totally opened topic till more detailed scientist’s research is done. But I’m afraid we will still have to wait for quite a while… I think that cognition and subjective are strongly related, brain cortex and hypothalamus work together to state a description, and that doesn’t help to find the final mechanic process of tasting perception. And if we consider as well our education, sensorial history it is more difficult to make it clear.
    From my humble and not scientist point of view, there is something I believe we should never forget when tasting, and that is not crossing the subjective line as much as tasters can. Commonly people share the most dominating aromas/flavors till they cross the line, a moment when they star using their imagination to describe the wine, and then just very few are able to share their description.
    In just a few words more, we can go as deep as we want trying to find the most pragmatic answer, and never rich the common agrement unless we taste wines above the objective line perception, so everyone can follow share that tasting description more easily. And what’s that objective line? It might be described by those descriptors that are clearly shared by most of the tasting pannel, and those are on the objective area of perception.
    On the other hand, crossing the subjective line is part of the magic world of wine, something to enjoy when tasting, because tasting is about feelings and feelings in the world of wine is about pleasure and joy (as long as the wine is at least good). Then I think we should talk about objectivity when tasting as professionals and subjectively when enjoying a wine for pleasure. Can we really separate subjectivity from the wine?
    Would love to get the final response from scientist or from experts on the field to rectify my view if I’m wrong.
    Apologies for my English, sorry.
    Thanks!

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