The Objectivity of Taste


by Cain Todd

Recently there has been a flowering of interest among philosophers, but also psychologists and neuroscientists, in the nature of our perception and appreciation of tastes and smells and in the pre-eminent complex human artefact constituted of them, wine. There is good reason for this: wine raises in particularly significant and striking ways a panoply of important philosophical issues, concerning the cognitive penetration of perceptual experience, the epistemological and metaphysical status of taste and smell, the role of metaphor in value judgement, the nature of aesthetic and artistic value, and intoxication, to mention just the most obvious. In The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication I explore all of these issues, but the heart of the book is concerned with a defence of the objectivity of wine judgements. I argue that it is true, for example, that this particular Bonnes Mares really does have notes of chocolate, truffle and merde de cheval; that wines genuinely can be brooding, profound, elegant, pretentious, charming, or sexy; and that Château L’Eglise Clinet 1989 is really a better wine than the cheap Côtes de Bourg sitting on my desk now.

One of the main obstacles confronting such a view is the fact that, in admirable haste to discharge accusations of elitism, obfuscation and snobbery, even the best wine experts themselves frequently lurch into proclamations of subjectivity that are directly at odds with their own implicit beliefs and explicit practices. Indeed, a moment’s reflection on our practices of wine production, drinking, conversation, criticism and appreciation, reveals that they heavily presuppose some level of objectivity. If taste were wholly subjective, there would be little point in trying to talk about wine with others, putting tasting notes on wine labels, judging wines or communicating one’s experiences in the hope of sharing them. It would be pointless to attempt to cultivate or educate or improve one’s palate, or to think it possible that one could learn about or come to a better understanding of wines.

An important distinction frequently conflated here is that between personal preference and evaluation. Individual preferences for different tastes and styles of wine may indeed be subjective, without this rather trivial fact impugning the objectivity of judgements about the characteristics of wines. Whether a wine has crisp acidity and an aroma of cut grass is one thing, whether this is to your taste is quite another. Expert critics may be able to help you determine the former without thereby offering criticisms of the latter.

Of course, a presupposition of objectivity does not suffice to establish it. Yet objectivity is in fact relatively easy to secure for a large range of descriptive, literal judgements made about wine. For example, the judgements that this Chablis has a citrus aroma, or that this Chianti has harsh tannins, will be true insofar as they are based on direct, and in large part empirically testable, correlations between physical properties of the wine and the tastes and smells we perceive them as having.

It may, of course, take a great deal of practice and skill to discern these properties, just as it may to discern the brush strokes in a Vermeer canvas, the theme and variations in a Prokoviev piano sonata, or the cancerous tumour in an X-ray. It is inevitable that expertise, no less than in many other areas of human endeavour, plays a fundamental role in determining the meaning and application of terms to wines. This is particularly so in the more complex cases employing metaphorical and evaluative concepts, like cheeky, bold, feminine, elegant, or good.

Where metaphors are used to describe wine, they will be true or appropriate either if they can be fully paraphrased in terms of non-metaphorical physical attributes of the wine, or if they are at least grounded in certain conventions that are commonly understood, accepted and used amongst the experts whose agreement in part supports and constitutes the convention. ‘Flabby’, for example, is primarily used to describe wines that are lacking in the acidity necessary to give them sufficient balance and body. If someone were to judge a Rheingau Riesling that was in fact high in acidity as flabby or flat, or a young and powerfully concentrated and tannic Hermitage as feminine or delicate, they would be straightforwardly wrong, either in virtue of misperceiving the properties of the wine or misusing the vocabulary.

In addition to the existence of expertise, the key element in this process is the role that categories play in judging wine – categories such as grape variety, geography, wine-making intentions, style, and quality. What properties a wine appears to have will depend on the category in which it is judged. For example, relative to the varietal category “chardonnay”, a drinker familiar only with what might be called old-style Australian chardonnays – big, intense, very alcoholic, fruit-driven wines with strong oaky aromas – may well be likely to assess a white Meursault from Burgundy as “austere” or “reserved”. However, when compared to a flinty, acidic, minerally Chablis (also a chardonnay-based wine) the Meursault will no longer appear austere at all.

Crucially, I hold that there are correct categories that govern the appreciation and understanding of wine. The establishment of these categories is not arbitrary, or mere convention, but depends ultimately on the existence of certain physical properties of grape and terroir that can give rise to certain valuable experiences in us. Moreover, such categories also govern the evaluation of wine. What ultimately grounds the categories of quality is the ability of the best wines to manifest to the highest degree those intrinsic values of which wine qua wine is capable, including complexity, intensity, depth, balance, terroir, and expressivity.

Levels of disagreement in judgement may differ along various axes, concerning for example: how specific the assessments are – “this is a particularly subtle expression of the Mourvèdre grape”; whether they are overall evaluations of quality – “this is a fantastic, beautiful wine”; and evaluations involving comparisons – “this Syrah is a bit more refined than that one”. What you call emaciated I might call merely slender; what you call coarse I call refreshingly aggressive; the tannic texture you label as cashmere, I call silk. There is a continuum on which emaciated and slender, coarse and aggressive, cashmere and silk lie in close enough relation to each other for judgements to make sense and for disagreements to be explained. One need not expect wine experts to agree precisely on each and every metaphorical evaluation or description, any more than one would expect art or music critics to.

Some disagreements, however, seem more intractable. These may signify a difference in the very categories and standards against which each competing judgement is being made, as was evinced in the famous case of Château Pavie 2003 and can be witnessed in recent clashes over the merits of the 2009 vintage of Right Bank Bordeaux. Some experts have lauded these wines for their expressive power and enormous, concentrated flavours, while others have derided them as clichéd, sacrificing the more austere virtues of their traditional terroirs. The choice about how to taste these wines, about which categories are the right ones to invoke – e.g. Old Style Bordeaux or New Style Bordeaux – will itself be partly an ineliminable evaluative choice involving decisions about whether the wine is more rewarding tasted in some new light, or whether that way of categorizing its qualities undermines some important value or other. In such cases, it is not at all obvious that there is simply one true, correct view.

That does not mean, however, that anything goes. At the very least, in the face of marked evaluative disagreements, one must be able to recognize the reasons given as justifying (or not) the appropriateness of the opponent’s view. One must be able to “see the point” of the judgement, even where this may involve, in cases of extreme disagreement, an explanation appealing to (perhaps irreconcilable) differences in “taste” or background categorial standards and norms. In this way, for some evaluative disputes about wine quality, the door is open to a limited relativism, and for these reasons the mark of objectivity in wine judgement is perhaps best thought of in terms such as appropriateness rather than truth.

About the Author:

Cain Todd is Lecturer in Philosophy at Lancaster University. His principal research concerns issues in aesthetics that have connections to issues in ethics, philosophy of mind, and epistemology.