The Evolution of Group Wine Think

I think I've said before (I know I have) that there is no such thing as an objective definition of quality where wine is concerned.
But the basis for this opinion has been diagrammed and explained in lovely fashion by none other than David Brooks in his most recent editorial in the NY Times in which he explores the evolution in thinking around Moral Thinking and Moral Philosophy.

Brooks explains that moral judgments amount to "rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing
parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what
feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when
we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often
can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong."

Brooks even uses a culinary comparison to drive his point home:

"Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You
don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have
to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know."

Brooks is right. moral judgments, judgments on what is pretty and what is ugly and taste preferences are entirely subjective. And so is any evaluation of wine quality.

But here's the real interesting issue: Given the subjective nature of judgments about wine quality, how isEvolvewine
it that there appears to be a consensus on what is good and what is not good given the millions of different palates that exist around the globe?

Let's go back to Brooks and the issue of moral philosophy and proactive moral action.

Brooks doesn't give the issue of the Creator's Warrant much play in his editorial, but instead notes that in the last century we've explained how we come to conclusions about what we feel is moral or not by referencing the impact of evolution:

"The answer has long been evolution, but in recent years there’s an
increasing appreciation that evolution isn’t just about competition.
It’s also about cooperation within groups. Like bees, humans have long
lived or died based on their ability to divide labor, help each other
and stand together in the face of common threats. Many of our moral
emotions and intuitions reflect that history. We don’t just care about
our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also
care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the
descendants of successful cooperators."

I think clearly the different forms of consensus on what makes a wine high quality has been a collaborative exploration into group aesthetics, with dollops of fear, tradition and respect for the credibility of a few queen bees of wine evaluation.

Yes, I'm suggesting that much of what why certain styles of wine are appreciated more than others is not necessarily because we actually like the taste and feel and effect of the wines, but rather because we learned and been coerced, in part, to like the taste, feel and effect of certain style of wines. The consensus on what is good and bad in wine is an evolutionary one that pays respect fear, fashion, ignorance and the consequences of going against group think.


19 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - April 7, 2009

    yes, we’ve had this conversation before. Let me reiterate that I agree that ‘all’ wine criticism is subjective. But not all wine evaluation has to be subjective and can in fact be objective. In order for that to happen, you must first establish parameters such as, beyond a certain level of measurable volatile acidity, the wine is no longer wine–and so on.
    When you use words like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ to describe wine–or anything–you are engaging in subjectivity pure and simple, especially when you find yourself having to defend your good to what someone else thinks is bad. But I’ll bet that both of you would know when it’s vinegar in front of you and not wine–that would be objective because it would be measurable.
    In short, subjective judgments are not measurable–objective ones are.

  2. Thomas Pellechia - April 7, 2009

    Oh, and David Brooks tries hard to present himself as an even-handed political philosopher. He isn’t. If he made quick moral judgments, he would not have excused the war in Iraq…over and over and over.

  3. Ned - April 7, 2009

    While not all wine appreciators are led by group think, many are, enough that “tastemakers” are able to steer trends. How else could
    such institutions and individuals such as the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker succeed to the degree that they have. The “Wine Business” at the corporate level needs this to be so for luxury and lifestyle aspirational marketing to work. Otherwise the wine world would be too diverse and fragmented for such multi million dollar

  4. JohnLopresti - April 8, 2009

    I had somewhat of the same impression as the followup comment from ThomasP. There are too many eschatological leaps in Brooks’ epistemology to hold water, much less wine; and his anthropology is spoiled with too many mercaptans.
    That said, however, there is something mysterious about the perfectly kiln dried staves whether Georgia or Limousin, that for me bespeaks some primordial aromatic enhancement. This is way different from the critter labeled twelve tons an acre King City wine.
    I think one of the issues that can blur quality assessment in some comparative tasting occurs when many members of the class are actually excellent, so some pretty good wines get graded on the curve. I had a few professors like that, too. The competition was fun, though.

  5. Tom Wark - April 8, 2009

    When it comes to wine and it’s appreciation, it’s mainly only winemakers and lab rats that do “evaluations” and these evaluations most often include scientific instruments of some sort. They are not “quality assessements”, which is what we are taking about when it comes to most if not all assertions of a wine’s quality.
    Determining if a wine is vinegar isn’t much of a quality assessment except in the most broad terms.
    In the end there is not objective warrant for saying a wine is good, bad, pretty good, tasty or delicious. This is where the theists have it over wine tasters. When a theist explains that lying is immoral because God says so, we have an objective warrant (assuming you believe in God and that He is infallible).
    What would be interesting is looking at a study that observes the evolution over time in the consensus of what equals quality in wine.

  6. Tom Wark - April 8, 2009

    What are the “eschatological leaps in Brooks’ epistemology” that you object to?

  7. KenPayton - April 8, 2009

    A couple of things. Socrates’ method, as recorded by Plato (Socrates did not write down his dialogues) was the laying bare of the assumptions and received ideas of his interlocutors (with generous servings of wine). He was among the first philosophers to situate a demand to think within the individual and not within the demos or group. Great historical consequences were to follow from this shift from the collective, democratic ethos of Athens to individuality. And Socrates himself ran afoul of the Athenian ‘group think’ and, well…
    Further, Plato, many scholars have argued, may well have distorted Socrates for his own purposes. Rather than deepening Socrates’ ethic of individual inquiry as an end in itself, Plato was to extend the insight into a critique of democracy as a whole, which he saw largely as ‘mob rule’, the death of Socrates being a case in point. The subsequent history of the philosophical justifications of tyranny and monarchy generally have, as a point of departure, Plato’s work.
    It was the notion of ‘seduction’, part of Socrates’ method, that proved a troubling one, a thread Nietzsche was to elaborate centuries later in his attempt to write a kind of physiology or erotics of thought, in anticipation of Freud’s ‘unconscious’.
    In any event, Brooks collapses this fundamentally political tension in ancient Greece, and its historical trajectory, in preference for a far more abstract, ahistorical meditation on morality as evolution in action. Not much help.

  8. Thomas Matthews - April 8, 2009

    I agree with Thomas Pellechia that wines can be (and should be) assessed against certain objective criteria (volatile acidity and TCA being just two of them). But I agree with Brooks-via-Wark that most of the criteria we use to evaluate wine quality are subjective (balance, concentration, typicity, etc.) But what’s wrong with that? Or, put another way, why does that undercut the interest, even the importance, of judgment? Isn’t it the case for all esthetic phenomena? And don’t most esthetic judgments vary by culture and over time? At one point, in our culture, Impressionist paintings were ridiculed; now they are treasured. At one point, oysters were served with Sauternes; now they’re served with Chablis. Critics are part of an ongoing cultural conversation about value, and invite any interested parties to join in. “Fear, fashion and ignorance” may be factors, but so are creativity and playfulness, passion and conviction.

  9. BrianM - April 8, 2009

    I would agree with Thomas Matthews, adding “education” and “thoughtfulness” and “experience” to his list.
    One could make this claim of total subjectivity about every art or field of human endeavor. Does criticism have any value? Porkys, the Revenge of the Nerds III, hell, Saw IV, are all loved by some people more than, say Dr. Zhivago or Vertigo. Must we then conclude that there is no grounds for a critical judgement that recognizes Vertigo as superior to Saw IV?
    That way lays madness. I will continue to argue that Ridge Montebello is BETTER than BV Coastal. 🙂

  10. Thomas Pellechia - April 8, 2009

    Let me be clear, which I suppose I should have been in the first place:
    What equals quality in wine encompasses only that which is first agreed upon by those who make such agreements and second by what is agreed upon as being measurable.
    If it’s agreed that quality means under a certain measurable threshold of VA, TCA, and all those that end in A, then that is a measure of quality.
    If it’s agreed that quality equals a Cabernet Sauvignon cannot taste like blueberry pie, then when it tastes like blueberry pie, it lacks quality.
    If an auto maker strives for a certain horsepower but on the assembly line gets a lesser horsepower, that car is not up to established quality standards and would be rejected by a qc inspector–or should be; it’s probably why GM is going under 😉
    Other than that, it’s all subjective. Opinions remain subjective until they are borne out by something measurable like a fact or a scientific device.
    Tom, I won’t comment on your reference to God, except to say that as far as I know, there is no known measurable objectivity on that subject 😉

  11. Tom Wark - April 8, 2009

    There’s nothing wrong with criticism. In fact, I rather enjoy the art of criticism whether it is applied to wine, theater, books or film. Some of our best writers have practiced the craft of criticism.
    While this might go off on a bit of a tangent, I think most wine criticism has become quite reductionist. It’s not difficult to understand why this is. After all, anyone or publication that takes wine criticism seriously and wants to provide a real service to its audience will have a hard time even attempting to review a fraction of the wines available without taking a reductionist approach.
    The 100 point system now used by just about everyone is comically reductionist. When paired with 60 words, it is still reductionist in the extreme. But I don’t know any other way to approach the problem of covering the wine industry without being reductionist.
    That said, what Brooks has to say about Moral decision making provoked me to consider what the factors are that led to the current state of “taste” in the U.S. culture. It’s pretty interesting question.

  12. Tom Wark - April 8, 2009

    While it’s noteworthy that you think Montebello is better than BV Coastal, what’s interesting is WHY you think that.
    But what’s really fascinating is why the structure of your argument for MB over BV is a better one than the opposite.

  13. BrianM - April 8, 2009

    Kent Peyton: Getting way off topic (Sorry, M. Wark), this may amuse you. Socrates may not be as innocent as we like to think. He may have been doing the equivalent of telling spoiled scions (the George W’s of the day) that democracy was rot and they, the aristocratic youth, deserved to rule.

  14. Gretchen - April 8, 2009

    I would expect no less a kerfuffle out of Mr. Brooks who always assumes that morality is the inherent reason people make certain choices instead of ever presuming that vestigial animal instincts (therefore not entirely rational) might enter in the thought process.
    This need to explain everything as “rational” is the problem that we have in the world. Economics are not based on a rational “invisible hand” or the presumed “perfect information” that is needed to make its arguments. Just as “legal” and “ethical” don’t always intersect.
    In the state of Nature animals follow and ape the alpha of their pack. That sounds more like “Lord of the Flies” than “Origin of the Species”. It isn’t rational or moral but seems to explain more about the consensus in the wine world better than anything David Brooks might offer.

  15. KenPayton - April 8, 2009

    Thanks for the link, BrianM.
    What other readers here may not be aware of is the opening reference to Socrates in Mr. Brooks’ piece itself. He attempts to understand Socrates as the herald of an exclusively reasoning, discursive tradition for the understanding of binding moral claims. My point was that this was not at all true. The leading accusation leveled against Socrates was one of the ‘seduction’ or ‘corruption’ of the youth of Athens. The idea was to suggest there is far more to this subject than the simple opposition of public/private as the origin or source of moral judgements.
    Seduction as an element of political calculus has been around for a very long time. More recent 20th century examples, just three, would be the analysis of Nazism as the willful submission to power, the effort by sociologists in the Sixties to understand F. Castro, and revolutionary personalities generally, through the notion of ‘charisma’, and the rise of the advertisement industry.
    It just boggles my mind that Brooks spends his time writing on what he thinks is a radical new body of research in evolutionary science that understands morality in some novel way. After the multiple human catastrophes of the last century and the feverish pace of wars, genocidal campaigns, and environmental degradation of this century, are we to take seriously the idea that we are just like honey bees? (See Brooks’ article.)
    As he writes, “We don’t just care about our individual rights, or even the rights of other individuals. We also care about loyalty, respect, traditions, religions. We are all the descendants of successful cooperators.”
    What a colossal load of rubbish.

  16. Thomas Pellechia - April 8, 2009

    Brooks trades on intellectual dishonesty, but isn’t that a common trait in both politics and political analysis?
    My problem is not with criticism. Hell, I engage it criticism every day. Doing it right now with you.
    My problem, with respect to wine, is when critics make the claim that they are the arbiters and evaluators of quality.
    Some critics extol the virtues of wines that would make a UC Davis trained winemaker cringe. Other critics hate wines that UC Davis winemakers have been taught to produce. In those situations, who’s the arbiter?
    Criticism is an expression of aesthetic sensibility. Unless that sensibility is rooted in measurable truths, it remains merely an opinion. Nothing wrong with having and expressing an opinion. Just don’t claim that it’s anything more than that, unless you have the training to understand and identify the measurables–if there are any agreed upon measurables.
    It’s not enough to say I like the full power of such and such if you can’t explain where and why the power comes from and what makes it important not to you, the critic, but to the wine.
    Only a few critics do this; too many of the rest of us dictate by virtue of what we think rather than what we know.

  17. Dylan - April 9, 2009

    Like most things in life there is a bell curve for it. There’s are two points of extremes were only a few people reside and then the middle is the majority of people who all share the same qualities. So, in one case this would be the rare amount of short people, the people with average height, and then the few, incredibly tall. It would not be unreasonable to say this about taste, where the majority will find something pleasing, but few people will fall on the opposite ends of the extreme.
    I believe raspberry is a flavor which pairs perfectly with chocolate. I have a friend who believes in his heart of hearts that raspberry ruins chocolate. He detests it. How can this be? Almost everyone agrees on that pairing. But it’s not a conscious decision on his part to spite the majority, it’s his taste saying “no.”

  18. JohnLopresti - April 9, 2009

    re TW question, Variety of quality and variety of markets look like a reasonable balance. I thought Brooks compartmentalized too much, claimed too much instinct gestalt; TP had a similar view in the acetobacter reference, I thought. May be my Boston upbringing, though. It looks like a good thread, maybe more later.

  19. Marie - April 10, 2009

    I want a Dionysofish!

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