Wine Tasting is a Lonely Pursuit
Folks who find themselves arguing against ratings systems for wine, particularly the exacting 100 point scale rating system, often retreat, eventually, into what can only be called the "Final Point": Wine tasting is ultimately a subjective thing!
It’s often a point that is offered as coup de grace in an attack on rating wine. A more robust assertion looks like this: "Even if one can accurately describe a wine using a rating system and words, the critic’s palate is just that…his own, and that means my palate is as sure as his."
John Bender, a professor of philosophy at the University of Ohio and a sometimes wine writer, takes on in full this notion of subjectivity of wine tasting in a wonderful little exploration in the recently released book, "Wine & Philosophy". In his contribution to this collection of essay entitled "What the Wine Critic Tells Us", Dr. Bender argues that this Final Point is not so final.
Dr. Bender makes the case that well-trained and experienced tasters can indeed objectively perceive the specific qualities in a wine such as sugar levels, tannins, degrees of Bret and any number of other physical characteristics of a wine that lend themselves to detection by the palate. Further, he notes, correctly I think, that what is perceived in a wine by experienced palates can be validated by simple testing in a lab.
This is not a controversial claim. His next claim however is an interesting and somewhat less specific one.
What about evaluations and qualitative descriptions of wines? Is it a subjective statement when I assert that "this Merlot is under ripe and displays unfortunate vegetal characteristics"?
It would seem so, but Dr. Bender cautions us, "not so fast". Bender makes a rather interesting claim that because our opinions are open to argumentation by others, open to being changed by a good argument, it just might be that something close to an objective qualitative claim about the aesthetic value of a wine might be possible. It just might be that I could convince you that this Merlot IS too vegetal, rather than "balanced" and "complex" as you claim. Bender makes this final appeal:
"Since standards or sensibilities are open to argumentation, they can be judged as more or less plausible or more or less experienced. When it comes to aesthetic sensibilities, one can be convinced to make a change. This process need not be seen as any more "subjective" than a debate over justice is necessarily subjective."
I think Dr. Bender is inclined to believe that there are aesthetic standards for different wines that have proven themselves reliable and helpful to consumers and the market and that they have developed over the years, if not centuries. I think his argument here is offered to support this contention, which, by the way, is an objective observation of the realities of the wine market. However, the existence of well excepted standards and the fact that folks can be convinced through a finely constructed argument to accept them does not make them objective truths any more than Christian, Muslim or Jewish claims to the ultimate moral righteousness of their God’s moral claims make them objective truths. Standards of what a wine should be always will be judgments, despite the source or the force of conviction that stands be hand an argument for those standards.
Dr. Bender goes on to discuss the role the "sensibility" plays in our evaluations of wine. That is to say, If I am much more sensitive to acidity than you, it would simply be impossible for you to argue that I SHOULD find what I perceive as an edgy, overly acidic wine to be crisp and refreshing as you do. You can’t make the argument I should because the objective nature of my palate does not allow me to.
This all leads me to conclude that wine tasting and particularly the evaluation of wine is a LONELY PURSUIT. Only I can taste what I taste. If we are lucky our palates will align and we can together discuss the characteristics and merits of a wine. Perhaps I’ll change your mind about this Zinfandel’s merits or that Cabernet’s qualities. But in the end, my palate is mind, your palate is yours and they shall never actually meet.