Subjectivity, Aesthetics, and the Evaluation of Wine

If you’d rather drink your wine instead of intellectualizing about it, close your browser window now. However, if you’re game for an occasional foray into philosophy, then let’s talk about something I’ve been “arguing” about with one of my readers.

The question at hand is whether subjective judgments have any place in proper wine criticism. To put it plainly, should wine critics evaluations of wine include notions of “enjoyment” or “personal preference” ? If you want to witness the origins of this discussion, you’ll need to read the comment thread on my recent post about the Myth of the Monolithic Palate.

My reader friend Arthur, who runs his own wine blog called Winesooth, suggests that the inclusion of such judgments in wine criticism may be responsible for the fact that people blindly follow some critics and their scores. According to him, if I correctly interpret his point of view, the wine world would probably be a much better place if critics focused their evaluations of wine on purely “objective criteria” like flavor, texture, color, finish, aroma, etc. The idea being that it’s much better for a critic to simply tell you, for instance, the ingredients and cooking method for a given plate of food, and let you make up your own mind about it, than to tell you how wonderful a dish it is (in addition to what it might be made of).

I, on the other hand, suggest that not only is it impossible to eliminate subjectivity from wine criticism, but that such subjectivity itself is quite possibly the most important aspect of wine criticism. I’m of the opinion that merely telling you the ingredients of a dish (or the organoleptic qualities of wine) is not criticism at all, or if it is a kind of criticism, it is certainly not useful. I’ve had lots of Merlot that tastes like plum, cherry, and chocolate, but some of it is total crap, while others transport me to fantastic, sensual places.

If you’d like to dive deeper into the philosophical nature of aesthetic criticism, and wine criticism in particular you’d be hard pressed to find a better set of blog posts than two recent ones I recently discovered.

The first is by a guy named Ben Sherwin, who barrels headlong into the guts of aesthetic epistemology by asking, and answering the question, “how do we know if one wine is really better than another?” Specifically, he addresses the question of whether Lafite-Rothschild is really, truly better than Boone’s Farms, and why? (The answer, in case you were wondering, is most definitely yes).

Ben’s post inspired Keith Levenberg to explore the nature of subjectivity versus objectivity in aesthetic evaluations. Keith suggests that those who are experts in an aesthetic field are capable of making objective judgments about things which most people find to be subjective. Many people like one artist or another, but expert critics, and the establishment that they make up as a group are quite capable of making a definitive judgment about what artwork is better than another, or even what really constitutes art in the first place.

In the service of my argument with Arthur, I might suggest that the subjective judgments of wine critics (especially those who actually know what the heck they’re doing, as opposed to hacks and bloggers 😉 are actually produced through the synthesis of the type of objective aesthetic judgments that Keith explicates nicely in his post.

The appreciation of beauty is ultimately an emotional, subjective act, but the detailed and complete apprehension of beauty, especially in its complex forms such as music, art, and wine requires a body of knowledge and a set of objective observations. The two go hand in hand. Appreciation without knowledge may be pleasurable, but it is shallow. Apprehension without appreciation may be detailed, but it ignores our humanity and the truth of emotion.

We look to critics not just to analyze, but to make aesthetic judgments, and their assessments are necessarily born of the human condition: we have both perceptions and emotions, and we can no more divorce the two than we can give up our humanity. The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?

Thanks to Jack at Fork & Bottle for pointing me to Keith’s post, which led me to Ben’s.