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.