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Is wine quality objective or subjective in nature?

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Is quality in wine inherent, or is it something we impute to wine? I’ve wondered about this for years. Before I took an active interest in wine and educating myself about it, I would happily slurp down anything you offered me, from Champagne to Ripple, and if you’d asked me which was better, I would have had to reply, in all honesty, I don’t know. Now, of course, I fancy I can tell the difference between quality and plonk, but is that really true, or is it just something I tell my ego in order to make it feel better?

I’ve been planning on giving a wine tasting to a group of young (mostly 20-something) people. It hasn’t happened yet, because of logistical problems — oh, scratch that, because of laziness on my part — but I’ve been thinking about how I might structure it. When you do tastings, there’s no template that works for everyone. A group at the Bacchus Society obviously has to be treated differently from my young tattoo and skateboard friends. For them, I came up with a couple different ideas to keep the tasting loosey-goosey so that we could all have fun, while still learning something.

One part of the tasting will be “Which is the more expensive wine?” I figure we’ll taste two wines: One costing around  $200, the other $15. It’ll be interesting to see which wine the people prefer. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were split right down the middle, which would lead to an interesting conversation about why two consumer products that are roughly identical are so disparate in value. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if a majority favors the more expensive wine, since, in general, you get what you pay for. On the third hand, I’d be stunned if the majority preferred the cheaper wine — stunned, but not entirely surprised, since on many occasions, in blind tastings I’ve given higher scores to the inexpensive bottle.

Another session, I figure, is “Which is the real red wine and which is the white wine with food coloring?” I went out and bought some food coloring and found that a precise mixture of red and black will turn a Sauvignon Blanc the color of Cabernet Sauvignon. I decided to do this after reading a study that showed that, if people couldn’t see the wine’s color, they couldn’t tell if it was red or white. Isn’t that strange? We like to think it would be obvious, but apparently it’s not. (First, I’m going to try the experiment on myself.)

A third session is going to be really sneaky: I’ll give them the same wine twice, and ask them which they prefer. That’s pretty under-handed, but I’ll do it, not to embarrass anyone, but to show them how slippery perception is. They’ll automatically assume that, if I’m giving them 2 glasses of wine to compare, the two must be different. They’ll then proceed to find differences in the wines — differences that are not really there, but which their minds impute to the wines, based on their assumptions.

All three of these sessions are designed to show my young friends just how much subjectivity there is in wine tasting, and in our perceptions of wine. I think that’s the main thing a professional taster learns after doing this for a long enough time. Beginners start out with great certitude: they believe in classification systems, in reputations, in a price-quality relationship. As they proceed through life, they discovered that there can be important exceptions to every rule; but they discover, also, that, in general, the rules as commonly understood are more correct than not. Then they realize that the rules may not be as objective, as engraved in the DNA of the universe, as previously thought. What we collectively identify as “quality” may be only a majority preference, based on habit, reinforced by peer groups, and enshrined by tastemakers.

We seem to be living in an era of post-truth politics, in which nothing is real, nothing can be proved or disproved, all claims are to be taken as equally valid, and you can believe in anything you want — not necessarily because it makes sense, but because it appeals to you emotionally and viscerally. In a way, there’s nothing new about this: humankind has always made aesthetic distinctions. For example, is Klimt’s “The Kiss”

gustav-klimt-the-kiss

better than Picasso’s “The Kiss”?

picasso-the-kiss

But that’s art, you argue; there’s a big difference between art, which is subjective, and “true” reality. But is there? We see today in America that not even issues formerly thought to be scientifically objective — such as climate change, the economic impact of a healthcare law, or even where a President was born — are capable of being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The same thing seems to be happening in wine, where quality (or what we long perceived as quality) is on a slippery slope toward redefinition.

  1. Bender, wine is both for common people and also a beverage that many people enjoy studying and learning about. I try to bridge both worlds, not always successfully.

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