Objectivity


We set out to build a tasting process that cuts through the preferences and biases of individual critics, and the noise of celebrity and marketing, to get to the wine in the glass.

                                                Joshua Greene, Wine & Spirits

Although Matt Kramer states that objectivity in wine tasting does exist, he contends that it exists on a rather small plane, has a laboratory-like feel to it, and does not directly influence the day to day tasting of the average wine drinker. This is an interesting statement, one that aligns with a positivist philosophy of science, and suggests there is an independent reality (quality of wine) and that science can objectively know this reality (wine scores). He contends, objectivity is based on using “scientific” procedures, like blind tasting and the “tasting triangle” to arrive at reliable and replicable results.

The trouble here is the difference between experiencing and expressing these qualities. Kramer does admit that language shapes thought, and he goes on to suggest that how we talk about wine informs and colors not juts one’s appreciation of it, but reveals which particular attributes persuade people to conclude one wine is better than another.      

Frederic Nietzsche offers two ideas that may shed some light on this situation. First, he suggests there are no pure facts, only interpretations made by human beings. In relation to wine tasting, there are no objective facts about which wines are better, only human beings that have decided (interpreted) which ones are better based on socially-constructed criteria that have been developed by wine experts over time, and most importantly, are expressed through language.

Nietzsche’s second point (which relates to the concept of “expert”) is that interpretations thrive, not because they are fair or “objective” but because they have the brute strength of consensus behind them. In other words, wine experts have developed a particular way of tasting and talking and this “consensus” way of doing so masquerades as a sense of objectivity. If every wine expert suddenly likes higher alcohol, fruit forward wines (which may in fact be the case currently) then those wines are deemed as of higher quality. But the quality is in the beholder as much as it is in the glass.

This type of thinking usually raises the ire of every wine expert and assumes that if we follow down this slippery slope then we end up in subjectivity hell where whatever anyone likes is equal to quality. According to experts, this is to be avoided at all costs, especially because it might put experts out of the expert business. But it doesn’t have to be one way or another. I offer some ways forward.

Language shapes thought. We pretty much have consensus on this in the academic and research communities to which I belong. In fact, there is a hypothesis developed by Edward Sapir, a student of the famous linguistic anthropologist Franz Boas, and his colleague Benjamin Lee Whorf, known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that asserts language not only shapes thought, it may in fact determine much of the ways we think and categorize experiences. This is also known as linguistic relativity. By now your eyes may have glazed over and you are thinking about drinking a glass of wine yourself instead of reading further, but if you indulge me just a bit further I will try and bring this around to make some interesting points. It’s what academics are supposed to do.

In an excellent column in the New York Times Book Review, Leslie Jamison talks about the fantasy of objectivity and how it creates a pressure to maintain a veneer of impartiality. We call our evaluations objective to give them credence, and others subjective to denigrate them. She cites the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of objectivity separating the object of perception (wine) from the subject (wine drinker). The problem is that even if an objective perception of a wine is possible (I doubt it) the wine expert would need to use a subjective medium (language) to represent his or her perceptions. In other words (no pun intended), it comes down to how we talk and write about the subject that is the only thing others can see. We can’t peer inside a wine experts head and do some sort of Spock mind-meld and experience what the expert experienced directly. We only have access to what they write, which is the basic point of this chapter (and book). For many in the world of wine, it boils down to how one writes or talks about wine that matters more than how one experiences it.

The same theories hold true for those old high school literature helpers known as Cliff Notes in America. Cliff (obviously the smartest man in the world) knows the main idea for every novel ever written and has shared them in his “notes.” These main ideas are seen as universal, objective main ideas or evaluations for Shakespeare’s Othello and Dickens’ Great Expectations. They are not presented as Cliff’s opinions, they are presented as objective meanings or truths. If you read and memorize the notes, you will do well in school and probably pass your English test, primarily because teachers read these same notes and agree with them. But the question is, do these notes give you anything useful to say about these books? Just like whether wine tasting notes give you anything useful to say about a particular wine.

So you might be asking (at this point for a stiff drink) what the purpose of this academic side track into literature and literary may be. Well, here is my point – if it boils down to how we talk and write about wine that really matters, the important question is what types of talk and writing is helpful? The question shouldn’t be whether the evaluation is objective or not, but whether it is useful. Does reading this review of a particular wine help me select, enjoy, or recommend to others? Most important to me is whether the review or “tasting note” helps me experience the wine better.

Lawrence Osborne asserts there are only a special few wine experts that can help the novice wine drinker sort out the world of wine. But alas, he drops the bomb on unsuspecting wine drinkers when he suggests tasting is a mysterious skill, a nuanced zone of pleasure, one not given to us through books (though he was writing one). He suggests, “taste is not given from one person to another, nor a result of study, rather it is a talent for living life.” That seems rather vague. Mr. Osborne goes on to entertain his readers with tales of finding and drinking some of the best wine we mortal drinkers will never have, from places we will never be able to visit, with vintners we don’t have the necessary connections to meet. His stories were quite entertaining and I enjoyed following along on his journey, but as for developing taste, I am still searching for my personal zone of pleasure.          

© Frank Serafini 2019