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Hurricane Subjective-or-Objective

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It’s funny how topics blow through the blogosphere like hurricanes. They rage and pound and then die down, only to be replaced by a new one. Lately Hurricane Subjective-or-Objective has been tearing up the digital landscape, and it’s a Cat 5 on the intensity scale. Basically, the issue is: Is the discernment of wine subjective or objective?

This doesn’t mean much, if anything, to the average consumer, who isn’t sitting around worrying about the epistemological implications of his enjoyment of wine. No, the blogospheric brouhaha concerns wine critics, and whether their [our] evaluations are subjective or objective. This matters (or so some bloggers allege) because critics should not allow their personal preferences/biases/emotions to enter into the evaluative process.

I’ve thought all along that my own critical thinking process is both objective and subjective and that no critic can really taste purely objectively, which would be like turning yourself into some kind of machine. Then I read the post at 1 Wine Dude’s blog, commenting on an article that had appeared in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, headlined “Why restaurant wine tastes better” and written by a woman named Bonnie Walker in the San Antonio Express-News (and this whole thing by the way is a classic illustration of the world wide web’s interconnectedness).

1 Wine Dude cited Ms. Walker’s money quote: “[W]e get to what is a subjective reason that wine served at a restaurant might taste better than the same wine served at home. That might be simply because we’re out, relaxed, not working to put a meal on the table or distracted by TV.”

I couldn’t agree more that wine usually tastes better in a restaurant for the exact reasons surmised by Ms. Walker, but restaurants are not the only place wines show best. Another is at the winery itself, and for the same reasons. When visiting a winery, you’re usually in wine country (by definition, a beautiful and relaxing place to be), on vacation (or at least on your weekend), and having a good time with family or friends. And if you’re tasting with the winemaker, which is an extraordinarily pleasurable and privileged experience, that’s the frosting on the cake. For all these reasons, wines almost always taste better at the winery than they would if you had them at home.

At Wine Enthusiast, we call this phenomenon “tasting room bias,” and we tend to view it as undesirable — an inflationary reaction to be avoided. But is that true? Maybe the reverse is true: When you taste at home or in your office, under your strict tasting regimen (whatever it is), you’re not relaxing, you’re working. Far from your mind being carefree and happy, it’s focusing very hard on the task at hand. Granted, it’s mental work, not physical, but it requires a great deal of diligence and discipline. So could it be that there’s really a “workplace bias” against the wine that results in it tasting worse than it really is?

Obviously, these biases — tasting room vs. workplace — are two sides of a coin. I have no doubt that they both exist. Which leads to the question, where’s the best place to taste? Like I said, if you’re a consumer, the answer, happily, is anywhere. On the other hand, if you’re a wine critic, the answer must be: At home (or at the office where you work). But this isn’t to avoid tasting room bias; it’s for purely practical purposes. If you’re reviewing thousands of wines a year, you can’t be on the road all the time, which you’d have to do to taste them all at the winery. It’s just not physically possible. Most of us critical critters taste at home because we have to.

Does this result in lower scores? Yes, they’re probably lower than they would be if all the wines were tasted at the winery. So what does this have to do with subjective vs. objective? Well, if where you’re at can influence your discernment of wine — and I’ve argued that it does — then tasting is partly subjective. That’s so obvious, I really can’t understand why Hurricane Subjective-or-Objective continues to blow. But it does.

P.S. Please check out my Wine Enthusiast blog.

  1. JD in Napa says:

    I would submit that the analogue to “tasting room bias” is “tasting room remorse”. Along the lines of “Gee, didn’t it taste better than this at the tasting room? We paid how much for this? Gotta be more careful.”

    We’re all subjective to some degree, because we’re going to talk or write about what we like with more enthusiasm, and everybody is different. If a wine is well-made, without flaws, but it’s not your style, you’re not going to rave about it. At the end of the day, it’s simply an opinion, and we consumers need not worry about whether it’s obj or sub; we simply need to taste enough and read enough to figure out which critics agree with us on which varietals, then we pay attend to what those folks have to say.

  2. JD, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Especially with “tasting room remorse.” There have been so many times when I’ve been in tasting rooms and watched tourists pay ridiculuous prices for bottles they could have bought elsewhere for less, or that weren’t very good. It would be interesting if someone conducted a study to determine if “tasting room remorse” is a widespread phenomenon.

  3. I think it’s important to remember several things:

    1. Wine gets bruised in transport and needs a week or two to recover before opening. Most consumers don’t realize this and pull the cork within days of bringing the wine back from their trip.

    2. Ambient temperature and humidity do a lot to the wine so unless your home/tasting environment is identical, the wines are likely to be different. I taste in a climate controlled environment, but when I go outside to my patio, the wine changes character within minutes. This is important to remember. I know people don’t like to have their subjectivity cage rattled, but physics and chemistry are very influential here.

    3. Decanting matters (more science) because it aerates the wine and lets it open up. When you go into a tasting room, they have been effectively aerating the wine for several hours by tipping it back and forth for each small pour. Most reviewers bag and tag and pull the cork – rarely tasting through the whole bottle. When you consider that on an average day, it may take half a day for the tasting room to empty our a bottle they opened in the morning and that it takes most people at home (or in a restaurant) less than two hours to empty their bottle (often in larger pours) it’s easy to see why the wine is different in the different settings.

    It’s more than magic and ambiance or the wines “being at home” as Billy Wathen is apt to say.

    As to price discrepancies, I would point out that the tasting room prices are the “MSRPs” from which retailers “discount”. The wineries sell their wines to distributors at about 30% of the MSRP, but they cannot under-price those that buy from them on an annual basis.

  4. Hi Arthur, man you have got me thinking about this topic! Anyhow, you make excellent points. I would add this one more: A wine review (no matter from whom) is a snapshot of the critic’s take at that moment in time. That’s also important for people to remember.

  5. I have to say I disagree that wines taste better in a restaurant. I find that when you’re relaxed, not distracted and have an excellent wine in your glass. With the time to enjoy it/enjoy it evolving in your glass, that’s the win. This is less likely at a restaurant, because there are so many more distractions when dining out – and even less time. Plus some wines are much better a day or many days later – you miss that boat at a restaurant. Further, you’re less likely to order a great wine at a restaurant do to it being twice what you paid for the same bottle at home.

    As for Tasting Rooms, novice tasters are easily influenced by the tasting room staff, tasting room literature, the ambiance, etc. Plus, they already want to buy wine – or why would they be there? Let us not forget you don’t (usually) drink a bottle over two hours at a tasting room.

  6. Jack, thanks. This has been an amazing topic to explore. It shows how complicated the subject of enjoyment is, and how dependent it is on so many things. That’s what’s so great about wine — its ever-changing nature, and the way it fascinates us.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    I guess I have a different understanding of the difference between objective and subjective. Subjective is a personal feeling or judgment. Objective is a known or perceived object independent of personal feeling. Allowing bias to enter into the judgment of a wine is not being “subjective”, it’s being unprofessional.

    Tasting wine objectively is a discipline where you perceive and describe the wine independent of personal feeling or opinion. You test your palate to understand your thresholds, abilities and limitations. You actively test and train it to measure and evaluate. You learn a discipline, develop an awareness of sources of error, and the issues that can create bias (including mood.) You take measures to prevent or reduce bias. You taste in a proper location or booth devoid of distraction with correct lighting both in wavelength, direction and intensity. You have a defined, systematic way of describing what your eyes see, your nose sense, and your mouth tastes. You understand the power of the human mind and the influence of things like a label. (If the placebo effect is so strong a sugar pill will alleviate pain in over 30 or 40 percent of individuals imagine, the power of a label or a beautiful wine cellar on the flavor of wine.)

    Tasting wine subjectively does not mean you allow bias or error. It means you look accurately at the wine from your personal viewpoint. If your personal viewpoint must include knowing the label, then your judgment is less about the wine and more about the label. It’s hard to imagine that a critic would taste wines from the barrel in the poor light and distracting odors of winery’s cellar accompanied by the winemaker and then score and recommend the product. But the most successful do this on a regular basis. This is not subjective. It is just sloppy.

    Often with limited knowledge about sensory analysis, I can see why critics see their role as pronouncing whether a wine is good or bad. They cannot see how describing a wine objectively could be of use. They are not oblivious to the reality that everyone has different tastes. Nor are they blind to the fact that a reader might learn their own likes and dislikes, and could be served by an objective description. I don’t think they have a clue how to do it. This is no more evident than in the way critics describe a wine. They believe that when they say the wine was ” mouthwatering, had powerful aroma of dark fruit with a back note of brown spice and a bold, intriguing flavor… 94 points” they have said something meaningful. They just don’t know what they don’t know.

    There is nothing wrong with a critic making subjective statements and judgments when they are clearly presented as such. There is something wrong if they allow errors and bias to enter into their personal judgment. Critics should try to say things that have meaning and they should never imply they have objectivity unless they actually make an attempt at it.

  8. Morton, you raise excellent points, as usual. As I’ve said on many occasions, wine criticism of the sort I do is simply wine criticism. It does not pretend to be expert critical analysis of the sort that winemakers or enology students engage in. If anything, we wine critics should be closer in temperament to our readers, the average consumers who buy wine, than to an enology professor. When I taste and review, I do try to (in your words) “perceive and describe the wine independent of personal feeling or opinion.” I might let the reader know that, personally, I don’t care for residual sugar in a California white wine. But I also allow as to how many people do like that. So I try to mix the personal with the objective in my reviews.

  9. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Wine critics should be straight jacketed, strapped into chairs, blindfolded, and earplugged prior to tasting. Then, their assistant should administer 3 drops of wine wine to the critic’s palate (front, middle, and back). 10 minutes should elapse between each tasting, wherein the assistant scrubs the critic’s palate clean with a simple sugar solution.

  10. Are you Dr. Horowitz or Dr. Mengele?

  11. Thanks for the reference, Steve!

    I’m at the point now where my slightly cynical, Postmodernistly-bent mind has signed onto the fact that nothing is inherently subjective. Logically, this includes wine tasting…

    Our cultures dictate what we consider more-or-less objectively acceptable, and the “reasonable persons of sound mind” argument would suggest that most people would recognize the same general characteristics of taste and quality in any given wine (I’m talking plonk vs. fine, black fruit vs. stone fruit here – *very* general).

    Other than that – you’re in the land of subjectivity for sure. And that, as they say, is a beautiful thing…

  12. So it IS both subjective and objective!

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