The Barry Smith interview: what is the nature of wine perception, and is wine flavour objective?

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Professor Barry Smith (above) is an academic philosopher with a particular interest in flavour. A keen wine geek, he organized the first symposium on wine and philosophy back in 2004, and then published the first book on the topic in 2007 (Questions of Taste). More recently, he was founder and is co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses. Hosted by the Institute of Philosophy (University of London), this is an exciting multidisciplinary forum for philosophical and neuroscientific research on the nature of our sensory systems and perception. [And in a real coup, they have got one of Britain's most famous scientists, Professor Colin Blakemore, on board.] I visited Barry to interview him about some topics relevant to my new book, and while I was there asked him some questions on the objectivity of wine flavour, which I thought I’d share here.

I began by asking Barry about his own background as a philosopher. How is it that philosophy can help neuroscience? Or would he no longer describe himself as simply a philosopher in the classical sense?

JG: What can your discipline, philosophy, give to neuroscience that can help here? Or would you consider that perhaps your discipline has changed a bit?

BS: Our discipline has changed a bit. We have always been interested in the nature of experience and the nature of perception. If you ask philosophers what their core business is, it is objectivity and subjectivity. This is one of the reasons I have got into this area. All the great wine critics go on and on telling you things, and then they say, of course, taste is subjective and it is all a matter of individual opinions. And then they tell you which vintage is better than another, and which domain is better. And I think, hold on, I thought it was all subjective and a matter of opinion. So is this just autobiography? If so, why should I care about you? They don’t really believe that it is entirely subjective.

People must feel obliged to say, it is subjective – like what you like. But then they behave entirely as if it was objective.

Entirely as though it was objective. I noticed this clash between what they say – the official line – and what they actually do in practice, which is to rate and give very normative pronouncements about which Domaines are better, which Chateaux are producing better wine, and which vintage is better. So they do have very clear judgments about this. In their favour you might say that they are confusing the perception of the flavour of a wine with evaluating it purely hedonically (I like, I don’t like). I am very hung up about this. A lot of ordinary tasters think the whole point of tasting is to come up with a verdict: thumbs up, thumbs down. If you give someone a wine and ask what do you think of that, they say, I quite like it, or I don’t like it. You think: I wasn’t asking that: I was asking what do you think of it? Not, how is it for you? But, can you tell me more about it? What do you notice? What is going on?

I think when critics say it is all subjective, they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don’t see why critics couldn’t be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can’t they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it’s not to your taste.

The general public don’t always separate hedonics from flavour perception. They don’t always separate liking from how something tastes. It is usually due to a bad argument. The bad argument is that you taste the wine and I taste the same wine; you like it and I don’t like it, so you say to me it can’t taste the same way to you as it does to me. If it tasted the same way you would see it was lovely and you’d like it. But why is that the case? It might taste exactly the same but you like that flavour and I don’t.

So there’s a step that’s missing, which is a separation of hedonics from perception.

Yes. We can do that in principle. Philosophers might be interested in whether liking was an intrinsic part of tasting. Is it that whenever you taste something, you can’t separate how it tastes from whether you like it. That is, if you like it, it would taste different from if you didn’t like it. As a philosopher I am interested in that separation. If you can’t separate them, how can you acquire a taste for something?

That is very interesting. Obviously our tastes aren’t static. Hedonics is interesting, but it’s not the most interesting thing. Whether you like something or not can change with time. It is not stable over time. But is perception stable over time? This is the Heraclitus scenario.

Suppose I didn’t like something. The first time you taste alcohol or beer you don’t like it. Then there’s a time when you really like it. Does it taste the same to you now as it did then? Some people say, no, I didn’t like it then and if I like it now it must taste different. Or, if it tastes exactly the same way before and after, what explains the change in my liking? Is it nothing to do with how it tastes? Is it just that I sort of flip? This needs to be explained. It is little bit of a paradox.

I suspect it tastes pretty much the same.

I think it tastes very much the same. I have had experience of this. When I was a novice taster, I tasted lots of great white Burgundies and thought this was the epitome of white wine. I remember reading about Condrieu as one of the world’s great white wines. So I rush out, buy this expensive Condrieu, put it in the fridge, get ready – I’m very excited. And I open it up and I don’t really like it. I was surprised. I thought: why do people like this? I was disappointed in me as much as in anything else. Then I was talking to someone a little more experienced in wine. They said: don’t you love that bitter apricot kernel flavour? Don’t you like the oiliness of it? I suddenly went back in my mind and thought that is exactly what it tasted of. It was oily and fatty and had this bitter apricot character. I thought: that’s right. They said: it is really good with salty seafood. I suddenly could put all those things together in my mind. Without changing how I remember it tasting, I thought: I want to try that again. Now thinking of it with those descriptions and with that way of articulating and expecting it to be like that, I loved it. Now it is one of my favourites.

So this is like the way changing the name of the dish changes the liking of the dish.

I think it goes further than that: it directed my attention. It was like the blast of a whole symphony. Here’s this single thing: did I like it? No. Then my attention is directed to those apricot flavours, to the slight bitterness – to the voluptuousness of it and the oiliness of it. Now that I recognize those, I am kind of understanding what the parts are and why the behave together as they do, and it completely transformed my experience of it. Does it taste the same as it did? Yes. But the way I experienced that taste is different because someone has directed my attention to it a different way.

This is an issue I find interesting. If we a vocabulary for wine, this gives us hooks on which to hang perception. Without those hooks we wouldn’t give certain facets of the flavour attention. Sometimes the language we have for flavours in wine can make us approach the wine slightly differently. You experience the wine the same, the taste is the same, but you go into the taste in a different way.

You go into the taste in a different way – the way you experience that very same taste. People say: it had a different taste. I say, no, it is only if you are identifying its taste with your experience of it that you think it is the same. It is the same taste but a different experience of the taste. So I have to believe in objective flavours for me to say there is a different way I experience that flavour.

This brings us on to the issue of objectivity. In the past I have argued – perhaps erroneously – that the taste is not a property of a wine because it only exists as a taste when it is tasted by a taster. Your position, if I am correct, is that you have the molecules – the various components of the wine – and they construct flavour, which is separate from the perception of the wine. Then how we experience that flavour is subjective.

Yes, that is subjective, and it is variable. Not only across individuals, but it is variable in an individual across time, and across different conditions. The way I like to do this is to say, here’s the chemistry (the volatile and non-volatile elements). And people often go from talking about the chemistry to talking about how amazingly varied our perceptions of wine are. They ask: how could we ever get laws that go from the chemistry to all this variation in perception? It must mean that there is no such thing as objective taste. What I say is, you need an intermediate level. We need a level in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions, and this is flavour. Flavours are emergent properties: they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry. Then these flavours are things which our varying and variable perceptions try to latch onto. Each flavour perception is a snapshot of that flavour. We don’t even want to think of it as static: we want to think of a flavour profile: something which itself evolves and changes over time. As a professional taster you are taking snapshots in each of your tastings and trying to figure out what the flavour properties of that wine are that will continue to endure and alter as the wine ages. How would it taste if it was a degree or two colder or warmer? You make predictions and then you can go back and sample it later and say, I was right: I figured that it needed another hour in the glass and needed to be one degree warmer and it would change like this. The thing about which you are making the predictions is flavour. This is what depends on but is not reducible to chemistry. Now you have two tough jobs instead of one, with this intermediate level. One task is to say, what is the relationship between the chemistry and the flavours that emerge. The second task is what is the relationship between individual flavour perceptions and flavours? These two jobs need to be done independently, but they have to reach the same terminus. Having this intermediate level gives you the job of saying how does my individual experience as a taster lock on to flavour, and how does the chemistry give rise to flavour. Don’t try going from the chemistry to perception, you need that middle level.

And how would you get to the flavour?

You do it by prediction. I think it is very interesting that winemakers are making a wine, tasting it, which at a very early stage of its life is understood by them to be a wine that will need this amount of time and development. It might need to stay a little longer in barrel, or it might need to be bottled after 12 months, or 18 months, or whatever. They are making predictions from the early experience of what it will be like, on the basis of having made many wines before, and tasted them early and late. They are building up predictions about that underlying flavour profile. Then, like Heraclitus, you are dipping into the water at different time. But when you make a prediction and you confirm it, this gives me a sense there is something you are getting objectively right.

So there is a temporal dimension to flavour?

That is right. This is why I think it is not just a flavour as a moment; it is a flavour profile in a wine. You, as a taster when you taste the wine in barrel or when it has been bottled, and you taste it after four years, five years, ten years: you have expectations. You know some of its trajectory. That thing has gone on having that evolving flavour independent of your moments of tasting, but you are making predictions about it.

8 comments to The Barry Smith interview: what is the nature of wine perception, and is wine flavour objective?

  • Douglas

    What great comments I absolutely agree- we need more voices like this in the wine industry

  • This is such a great subject and one that is greatly misunderstood and glossed over. It should become common knowledge that sensory perception is subject to 1) physiology/genetics and 2) neurology. Sensory physiology determines what we experience (range and intensity of sensations) and neurology determines what the sensations represent and mean to us. Notions like, ‘our palates mature to like better wine’ can be replaced with a better understanding that, ‘neural plasticity results in sensations having different meaning over time with learning and experiences.’

    Thus anything at a sensory level cannot be objective, all sensations are subjective – subject to your biological individualism and then experiences, learning, and the meaning we add to what we perceive over time.

  • Ed Guelld

    Great interview, of course much of it is over my head! However, one thought came to me is that terrior and more an emphasis on describing wine in such terms (i.e. this is Margaux vs Paulliac) might open more minds to the world of diversity and exploration. Rather than saying, “I like this wine and I respect that you don’t.” Wouldn’t it be more interesting to say, “I actually prefer Chablis over Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.” By concentrating on identifying the source of the wine I believe more consumers would have a broader appreciation of wines they may not necessarily prefer (maybe down the road, however) but accept based upon their uniqueness.\

  • Jamie,

    Thanks so much for posting this. Great conversation. Wish I was there to hear it in person. I personally love the framework of thinking about flavour as an intermediate ground of distinctions between pure chemistry and the subjectivity of perception.

    Alder

  • James Rodewald

    Great stuff, thanks for sharing that conversation. As I’ve often said, we taste with our brains, not with our mouths. One thing I would add (and forgive me if it’s in there and I missed it) is that human perception is easily influenced by many factors. Dan Zwerdling explored this in the context of whether the vessel you drink out of matters in this piece:

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/shattered_myths.html

    James

  • Great interview and a super-interesting topic that everyone involved in wine should spend more time thinking and talking about…

  • Patrick Miner

    This is fantastic. It really does describe, to a large extent, my experience with wine over time. I usually say that we are always tasting wine in a context. That context may be the meal in front of us, the glass of wine we just had, or even all of the wines we have tasted in our lives and used to build up our understanding of what “chardonnay” means or what “Bordeaux” means. Working as a Sommelier, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the experiences (context) my guests have had or are currently having in order to get them drinking a wine that they will enjoy. Your model of thinking seems to give a little more precise, nuanced framework as it takes into account the change and movement of the wine itself.

  • Patrick

    Kant provides a partial answer here. He wrote in Critique of Judgment that sensory judgments (sweetness, tartness,astringency) are more objective than aesthetic judgments (this wine is better tnan that one) which include memory of other wines tasted, and intangibles such as balance, and value judgments such as what is the “right” tannin level. THEREFORE, wine tasting includes both objective and subjective factors. But we all knew that already didn’t we, at least on an instinctive level.

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