By Barry C Smith | November 1 2018
We don’t have to venture far these days to realize that all is not well in the world of wine criticism. The popular press has seen a surge of recent articles detailing how easily wine experts are fooled and connoisseurs misled. The blogosphere is virulent in denouncing what bloggers see as the ludicrous talk of wine critics. Even the pages of this magazine have seen their fair share of soul-searching about the point and purpose of wine writing.
Behind these complaints and concerns lies the suspicion that wine talk lacks substance; that the words we use to describe the taste of wines do not engage adequately or accurately with a genuine subject matter. From here it is a short step to the dismissal of expert opinion and, along with it, the presumed sensibilities of the connoisseur. Many find this move liberating, advocating a democracy of taste in which all opinions are equally valid (or invalid), leaving one to find a raison d’être for wine writing. The real target, however, is connoisseurship, which is dismissed as mere posturing and snobbery. For if no opinion is greater than any other, and there is nothing to get right or wrong when it comes to assessing how good a wine is, then giving greater weight to the opinions of just a few represents a misplaced faith in an elite who will settle the true standards of taste. In this way, subjectivism about taste fosters a populist movement that derides the very idea of expertise in non- scientific fields such as wine, art, or music. Philosopher Curt Ducasse puts the point starkly: “there is no such thing as objective goodness or badness of taste, but only such a thing as my taste and your taste […] tastes shared by many or by few, there are no authorities in matters of taste” (as quoted by Hamilton, in Adlam and simpson, 2008, p.49).1
This challenge to the critic’s authority is meant to restore the autonomy of judgment, encouraging individuals to trust their own opinions, without subjugating them to the opinions of the critic. However, the skepticism that ensues threatens to rob even their own opinions of any worth, reducing, as it does, appreciation to subjective liking.
How did we get to such a position? is it irrevocable, or can something be salvaged from the wreckage? the piling up of doubts and recent scandals has certainly damaged the image of the wine world in the eyes of the public, and there is now a groundswell of belief that, at best, wine talk is empty and, at worst, bogus. The suspicion is that wine insiders are a clique who have convinced themselves that they know what they are talking about and are trying hard to convince everyone else. In the face of such attacks a response is needed. But care is needed, too. It would be unwise to ignorethe populist movement and unacceptable to reaffirm elitism—though i’m sure some wine-world insiders are tempted to denounce the doubters as philistines, in the way modernist composer Milton Babbitt famously did in his essay, “Who cares if you Listen?”2 Babbit wrote that the public had “music to eat by, to read by, to dance by, to be impressed by,” but that his music could be appreciated by only a few. He explained that “the normally well-educated man without special preparation … [cannot] understand the most advanced work in, for example, mathematics, philosophy, physics. Advanced music […] scarcely can be expected to appear more intelligible […] the composer [should withdraw] from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media.”
Babbitt is especially scathing about the democracy of taste: “‘tradition’ has it that the lay listener, by virtue of some undefined, transcendental faculty, always is able to arrive at a musical judgment absolute in its wisdom if not always permanent in its validity […] it often has been remarked that only in politics and the ‘arts’ does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard.”
In a similar way, skilled tasters may say that ordinary drinkers lack the powers to make the fine discriminations necessary to assess a wine’s quality and character—a riposte that would do little to defuse the charge of snobbery and elitism and would risk alienating young drinkers who could gradually be brought to discover the properties of wines that connoisseurs prize.
The great trilogy
Important issues are at stake here, and we would do well to tread carefully. For the anti-elitism and the populism it leads to are premised on the denial of objective facts about a wine’s quality that threatens not only to sweep away the connoisseur and critic but to render irrelevant the efforts of viticulturists, winemakers, enologists, and sommeliers who seek to improve our tasting experiences. To restore the idea that we can appreciate great wines, we must bring into focus, and untangle, the subtly different dimensions that underlie these bitterly fought taste disputes.
The unfocused nature of the critique of the wine world is due to the lack of a single target. The media run together wineexperts, connoisseurs, and critics, as though objections to the competence of one group applied equally to the competence of another. But doubts about whether expert tasters can tell red wines from white wines are very different from skepticism about the very possibility of ranking wines. The former doubt relates to the frequently cited study by Gilles Morot and colleagues, in which expert tasters used red-wine descriptors for white wines dyed red with tasteless, odorless food coloring. In the original study, experts only sniffed and didn’t taste the wines in question. Thus, what this shows is that in conditions of uncertainty, visual information dominates olfactory information as a sensory clue to the properties of a stimulus—something we knew already from sensory science. No doubt the appeal of this frequently misreported study comes from a growing public mistrust of experts, especially in a field where expert opinions are highly contested—though it is ironic that the press relies on a different set of experts to produce the relevant findings. Other popular stories question the basis for a distinction between expensive and inexpensive wines, often starting from an unpublished study by Richard Wiseman, where non-expert tasters at a science festival couldn’t distinguish between the two. The “expensive” wine was a red bordeaux costing just over £15. (I’ll leave readers of this magazine to imagine its quality.) Participants could not pick out the “expensive” wine. But what we are not told is what it means for a wine to taste expensive. Non-experienced wine drinkers may think that a slightly austere wine that is not to their taste must be the expensive wine; alternatively, they may judge that the wine they like best is the expensive one. In this way, both a reaction of liking and its opposite can provide novices with a reason for judging a wine to be expensive. It is not surprising, therefore, that verdicts were mixed or that the paper remains unpublished.
Further published studies have purported to show there is no reason to suppose one wine to be of higher quality than another, not realizing that they cut off the branch on which they sit. The conclusion is meant to show that there is no real basis to distinguish between the quality of different wines. So, how did the experimenters select wines of different quality to conduct the experiment in the first place? Was price the only indicator? We tend to value things we pay more for, but price is not a measure of quality. The key question in these studies is whether you will rate a wine higher not in terms of its intrinsic qualities but because you think its costs more. This is far from being a straightforward blind-tasting test, though we might well wonder how reliable such tests are in any event. The experimenter is giving you expectations about what you will be blind-tasting, and this can modify your response to the sensory evidence. Belief is a function of expectation, after all, and the manipulation of expectations can produce surprising results. Can the results of such tasting experiments be generalized? To answer that question, we would have to ask other experts.
It is clear that these attacks on wine experts are designed to underminethepresumption of objective scientific methods by showing how poorly the experts fare in tasting tests. A different concern targets the more evaluative art of criticism and connoisseurship. The claim that there is no goodness or badness in taste, just your taste and my taste, seeks to undermine the basis for judging a wine’s beauty, finesse, and elegance. According to the doubters, in describing a wine as elegant, I am really saying no more than that it is elegant for me and, meaning by this, simply that it is to my taste. To go beyond mere liking, a taster must appreciate certain features in the wine, and it is this form of aesthetic appreciation, or taste, that the subjectivist puts in doubt.
The target here is the 18th-century aesthetics of taste propounded by Hutchinson and Hume, which regards taste as the ability to make fine discriminations and judgments of quality, extending all the way from the ability to evaluate food, drink, and fashion, to the refined appreciation of the visual arts, music, and literature. Hume stressed that not all tastes were equal, and he saw the standard of taste as being set by the true critics who exhibited “delicacy of taste, practice, experience of a wide range of objects, lack of prejudice and common sense” (Hume, 1985, p.241).3 Kant, on the other hand, sought to restore the autonomy of judgment to the individual. Judgments of taste were based on our own experiences of pleasure, but they were not merely experiences for us, but valid for all, because based on disinterested pleasure.
The exercise of taste is a matter of individuals engaging in spontaneous judgments in response to what they encounter in experience. It is a virtue of this view that it acknowledges a continuum from gustatory to aesthetic pleasure and recognizes the ubiquity of the aesthetic in everyday life. But it fell out of favor and was attacked from above and below. the high-minded dismissed it as trivializing the arts. For example, Theodor Adorno warned against treating aesthetic experience as a “tasteful savoring: Whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine; he is convicted by expressions like ‘a feast for the ears […].’”
In responding to great works of literature or painting: “What opened up to, and overpowered, the beholder was their truth, which […] outweighs every other element. They were not a higher order of amusement” (Adorno, 1997, pp.9–13).4
American philosopher Arthur Danto was equally dismissive: “the appreciation of a work is not like one’s appreciation of a fine apple, or a piece of horseflesh, or a rare claret. The latter are kinds of things that go with connoisseurship” (Danto, 1994, p.347).5 Here, the term is seen as pejorative and slightly antiquated: “connoisseurship is a measure of holding high rank, being conversant with wines, brandies, horses, clothes, guns, jewels” (ibid).
A more flattering role for the connoisseur is in settling questions of attribution for works of art, or wines, and here one is reminded of the fierce debates between connoisseurs and art historians. To the latter, the former were amateurs “bound by elitist standards toward high art on one hand, yet unburdened [by] the demands of an objectifying methodology on the other.”6 They prefigure the academic discipline of art history but continue to play a vital role in the art market.
One is beginning to see a similar split emerging between wine connoisseurship and the more technical knowledge involved in various stages of wine growing. Wine chemists concerned to trace the origin of sotolon in a wine, and viticulturists concerned with canopy management, are quite a different breed from those who rank fine wines and move markets. The charge of dilettantism leveled against the latter group contrasts with the accusation that connoisseurs have been given an undeservedly grand status as arbiters of good taste. Such criticism from below usually searches for a social explanation of the presumed superiority of the connoisseur’s verdict, seeing it as based on nothing more than a bourgeois consensus of the drawing room, falsely inflated into universal claim. One can understand resistance to an elite who would try to prescribe the standards of taste for us all. But the flaw in the argument is the claim that there is “nothing more” to the connoisseur’s judgment than the consensus of an elite. It’s true that if there really were nothing to base our opinions on save our own likings, it would indeed be intolerable—undemocratic, even—to see some groups’ opinions as counting for more than others. But why accept the presumption that our opinions are answerable to nothing but ourselves? This neglects the possibility that there really are features to discern in a great bordeaux or burgundy and that it takes experience and practice to get oneself into a position to come to recognize and understand them.
Much of the trouble here is the flawed idea that the taste of a wine is purely subjective: wholly a matter of the sensations we undergo when tasting. The idea of taste as sensation has it that what we taste is just a private experience, in which everything is given to us immediately. It allows for no gap between what I am tasting and my experience of it. And yet, as experienced tasters know, a wine does not give up its secrets all at once, or to just anyone. It takes time, knowledge, and experience to figure out what is going on in it. One adjusts to it, learns to read the effects it has on one’s experience as a sign of its maturity and its state of development. One learns with practice and experience to predict how the wine will behave over time, in the glass or in the bottle, how it will taste one or two degrees cooler or warmer. Such predictions are testable and we can be right or wrong. We can feel a wine uncurl as it opens up in the glass, and if we know the vineyard from which it comes and the season, we can tell whether it is performing well or not. Does it express what we expect from wines grown here? Given a poor season, a specific cuvée may surprise us, counting as a real achievement on the part of the wine grower. In this way, when we come to a wine with knowledge and experience, knowledge sets questions that the sensations we undergo in experience can answer; and this interplay between tasting experience and knowledge can refine our discriminations, improve our judgments, and lead to a better understanding of wine. The mere moment-to-moment sensations are just perceptual snapshots of an unfolding flavor profile we work hard to come to terms with. Getting it in our sights requires practice and concentration, and we rely on so much more than the sensations on our tongue. Our brains weigh the relative contributions of taste, smell, texture, and trigeminal irritations—affecting the nerve endings that respond to spices, making peppermint feel cool in the mouth and mustard hot—to arrive at a unified perception of flavor. The result is a complex interaction requiring effort to decipher. Moreover, tasting is not a single experience; it has a dynamic time course, and by slowing down, one can come to appreciate what is happening where. The bitter note in a fine Champagne, detected at the back of the tongue, can prolong the finish. This and other such facts are known to the chefs de cave who choose and blend the base wines.
Tasting is one of the most complex and multisensory activities the brain performs, and its results are a far cry from the simple sensations the doubters imagine when they reflect on taste. The experience of flavor depends on inputs that may vary from taster to taster depending on whether one has the tongue of a supertaster, a taster, or a non-taster. Each of us is likely to have a specific anosmia, meaning that we are “blind” to particular odors. (I know of two food and wine scientists who are insensitive to TCA, or cork taint.) It is little wonder, then, that tasting judgments diverge. But this doesn’t mean they are idiosyncractic or inexplicable, nor that they are subjective and independent of the flavors in the wine. Were one to take the line that tastes just were just the sensations of an individual—based on ignorance of the science of the taster—one would readily understand why judgments of taste would seem like mere opinions, answerable to nothing but an individual’s socially mediated responses. But that’s not how things are.
We should distinguish between the democracy of taste interpreted as the claim that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and the populist doctrine that all opinions are equally good. Tasters should be encouraged to form opinions about wines for themselves, not simply defer to what the critics say. But to do so, they need help to improve their skills as tasters, and insightful critics and tasters can serve as a guide, helping them experience the wine in a new way, showing them what to look for when tasting wines from a certain grape or a certain place. (Many will remember their own journey into the world of wine and the crucial steps that led to the development of their own tastes.) Guided to explore better wines for themselves, tasters will develop finer powers of discrimination and seek out wines of greater complexity and interest. The autonomy of individual judgment will be respected when tasters know which wines are best not just by report but by being able to recognize and appreciate the features of great wines that set them apart from the others. Appreciation requires apprenticeship, and the possibility of educating one’s sensibilities is what prevents permanent exclusion, especially on the basis of social rank: “it distinguishes simply between those who are qualified and those who are not yet qualified.”7 The role of a mentor is critical in this process of educating one’s palate, and a good mentor must impart knowledge in the course of experience. Wine enthusiasts are looking not just for encouragement but for reason to believe that they, too, can reach the inner sanctum.
Of course, becoming sensitive to one’s sensibilities, and the whole process of developing one’s tastes is not without its opponents, even when considering the developments of one’s own tastes. Ducasse is ready with an answer: “A person’s taste may change […] but whether we call the change development or perversion depends solely on whether it changes in the direction of our own or away from it. A change in our own taste is for each of us, by definition, development” (Hamilton, op cit, p.49).
To deny, however, any distinction between change and development, and to reject the possibility of educating one’s tastes, is to turn one’s back on the crucial attributes of genuine connoisseurs. They must be skilled tasters, capable of making knowledgeable judgments of wine, and for this it is necessary to have a good palate, and this takes practice, requiring them to exercise the range of sensory skills outlined above.
For many, though, the key issue is not about the perception but the evaluation of a wine: the assessment of its quality. And here, the critic’s opinion is taken to count for more than that of the novice. Beginners can be schooled in the virtues of critical judgment, but according to the doubters this will amount to their receiving praise and endorsement for adopting the accepted values of the select group. But once again, this mislocates the source of the authority accorded to the connoisseur. Connoisseurs are authorities not because they prescribe what is good but because they are good at appreciating what is there. It is this appreciative engagement that an insightful critic can help bring to light. In this way, critics and wine educators can serve as mentors, helping dispel the myth that connoisseurs just instinctively know what it is right.
Novices can already appreciate balance in a wine without knowing why, and a more advanced taster can prize a perfectly harmonious wine but say very little about it. There is no guarantee, of course, that those with great tasting skills will be able to articulate the reasons for their appreciation of certain wines. Having the linguistic powers to express what one finds in a young wine is an additional skill, and this is perhaps the key role for the wine writer. Their efforts may annoy the bloggers, but these are savage attacks administered by irate people who pillory the pointlessness of other people’s tasting notes before going on to give their own. The appraisal of a wine’s quality is available to all, with training, but the skill of imparting it is available to just a few. Let us not forget how we got to be better tasters, and let us not kick the ladder away once we have climbed it. As aesthetician David Pole observes, “An aesthetic response […] implies no more than a heightened present awareness of the qualities of an external […] object; and any object may be looked at this way. [Though] clearly to say that all objects allow of our adopting this attitude is not to say that they equally reward it” (David Pole, 1983, p.33).8
We know when great wines reward such attitudes from those heart-stopping moments when a wine fully captures our attention and rewards our anticipation. At such moments, the quality of the wine stamps itself on the mind—and with luck, the memory lasts. Savor those moments, but share them with others.
1. I am indebted to Andy Hamilton for discussion of these issues and for his paper, “Criticism, Connoisseurship, and Appreciation,” in Critical Exchange: Art Criticism of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in Russia and Western Europe, ed. Carol Alma and Juliet Simpson (Peter Lang, Oxford; 2008).
2. M Babbitt, The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt (Princeton University press, Princeton; 2003).
3. David Hume, “On the Standard of taste,” in Selected Essays (Oxford University Press, Oxford; 1985).
4. Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R Hullot-Kentor (Athlone Press, London; 1997).
5. Arthur Danto, Embodied Meanings (Farrar Straus Giroux, New York; 1994).
6. Brian Tovar, “On the Question of an Aesthetic Objectivity and the Disciplining of Art History,” cited in Andy Hamilton, “Criticism, Connoisseurship and Appreciation.”
7. Andy Hamilton, “Criticism, Connoisseurship and Appreciation.”
8. D Pole, Aesthetics, Form and Emotion (Duckworth, London; 1983).