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Is wine quality objective or subjective in nature?


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”


better than Picasso’s “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. wow, Steve, quite the genre-bending post today.

  2. The author/editor escapes me, but I believe the book “Questions of Taste” has an essay on this subject. I agree with most everything written, though I’d add the question: do and can we predict a shift in qualitative aesthetics based on cultural trends, or is wine – its trend base aided by increasingly knowledgeable drinkers -capable of withstanding that shift? If, as some writers have suggested, that generally lighter, regionally specific (or indigenous-varietal based) wines rise in popularity/mass-quality, does that infer a globally-minded culture is more capable of committing to difference than before?

    That’s a lot to chew on at 7 a.m. Apologies. Great article all the same!

  3. Joel, pretty deep questions! I don’t think any fashion escapes the shifts in cultural esthetics. Wine, like clothing, car styles, music, politics and everything else that springs from human vision, must constantly change and adapt to shifting tastes. One great evidence of this occurred in the 1980s (or was it the 1970s? one loses track), when dry wines overtook dessert wines in popularity in the U.S. for the first time. That’s an example of a shift in the greater culture that influenced a shift in wine. As America was growing more prosperous, people aspired to a better lifestlye; and for various reasons, they associated dry table wines with a better lifestyle.

  4. Steve, quality is usually viewed as either related to objective facts (“a concrete Aristotelian value to be learned and applied”), and to subjective feelings (“the platonic ideal to be apprehended or represented”).
    But when you defend that “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”, it seems you are endorsing Thomas Kuhn’s relativism, or the inexistence of objective reality?
    Ayn Rand in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” affirms that “reality exists independent of consciousness; individual persons are in direct contact with reality through sensory perception; human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive and deductive logic. Value is an objective relationship. Value is not a quality contained solely in the object, or solely in the mind of the human, but is a relationship between the intrinsic facts of reality, and the subjective needs of humans”.
    Back to wine world, Karen McNeill, in her book, affirmed that “wine requires two assessments: one subjective [appreciation], the other objective [content; i.e. economic inputs, scarcity, marginal value, intrinsic (theory of) value…]. In this, it is like literature. One of the most insidious myths in American wine culture is that a wine is good if you like it”.
    And Kermit Lynch concluded that “we Americans with our new world innocence and democratic sensibilities tend to think that all wines are created equal, and that differences in quality are simply a matter of individual taste”.

  5. Steve, I’m sorry. I meant quality is usually viewed as either related to objective facts (“a concrete Aristotelian value to be learned and applied”), or to subjective feelings (“the platonic ideal to be apprehended or represented”).

  6. “designed to show my young friends just how much subjectivity there is in wine tasting”

    It seems to me, Steve that you have already made up your mind on the answer to the question in the title of this post and are unwilling to look at the question from another angle.

    Your sessions seem to be intended to validate only your point of view.

    This makes them the very type of “parlor trick” that you say that identification of varietal cepage and regional origin is.

    You should design some sessions with the intent of establishing or demonstrating some objectivity in wine assessment. Just put your mind to it. Forgo your philosophy and worldview. Establish some reasonable objective benchmarks of quality. Then teach those to your group.

    Rather than setting these young folks down the wrong path, why don’t you present both ideas in a balanced and fair way and let each of them decide which makes more sense to them?

  7. Let’s see, I rate the Klimt 88 points and the Picasso 91 points so the Picasso is better.

  8. Peter, far from “endorsing” relativism, I deplore this escape from reality that we are seeing in America, with its consequent reliance instead on feelings, which are mostly negative and resentful. I am just describing what I see.

  9. “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.”

    This statement certainly is true of must professionals. But there are still others in the minority who view themselves is almost a messianic light. Their perceptions are truth, and anyone else who disagrees is simply false. As is the case in the political arena, often the pundits end up driving the discussion when they hold most polar, irrational views.

    “What we collectively identify as “quality” may be only a majority preference, based on habit, reinforced by peer groups, and enshrined by tastemakers.”

    This is one of the issues I struggle with as I learn about wine. There are certain absolutes in quality. Hydrogen sulfide and stinky mercaptans that eclipse all other components are not acceptable. A dry wine can’t be sweet, and it shouldn’t be fizzy, either. As with art, intent is important. But if the wine comes out as intended, then who is to say whether roasted fruit or fresh fruit is more correct? Light extraction or heavy extraction? Mouth watering acidity or flabbiness?

    Even something as ingrained as aged wine being more complex and generally superior to young(er) wine might be questioned. Complexity is utterly subjective, and it’s been shown that complexity of wine is quite open to suggestion (perhaps you should serve the same wine in two glasses and tell your group one is $40 and the other $10). So, is a 50 year old wine more complex than a 15 year old one? Is something that is purely bottle aroma at age 50 more complex than a mix of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas at age 15? And how do you define complexity? A properly aged 50 year old wine is rare indeed. But if I define complexity as a mix of disparate elements, it perhaps would be as simple as the fruit-forward red blend made 2 or 3 years ago.

  10. –With regard to the shift to table wines from fortified wines, table wines were dominant before Prohibition but after Prohibition, fortified outsold table wines until 1968, I believe.

    –The shift in preference among wine styles has been with us for as long as I can remember, which is still pretty short in the history of wine. But, it is worth remembering that the wine boom of the 1970s included the emergence of late harvest Zinfandel with alcohols above 17% from folks like David Bruce and Mayacamas and the surge to prominence of Petite Sirah made with tannins that would bludgeon our palates into submission from wineries like Freemark Abbey and Ridge. When you think back, all four of those wineries quickly abandoned the “bigger is better” style of winemaking and are, today, noted for their restraint and balanced approach. A shift back to lighter wines today will parallel the exact same shift of the early ’80s. That shift went too far for many producers who were responding to the cry that CA wines were not food wines. What we got then were several years of insipid, watery wines of limited personality. Let’s hope that that part of wine history does not repeat itself.

    –The wine boom of the 1970s had its roots in the increased economic vitality of the country, coupled with changing travel patterns for Americans brought on by both money and the jet plane. I think you will find that the interest in soccer happened at the same time and is also largely credited to the rise of the middle class. Shifts in patterns of home ownership, automobile ownership the rise of tofu as a food class all spring from the same change in economic condition. Well, maybe not tofu, at for Chez Olken.

    –As for the experiments you are going to impose on your skateboarding pals, I wonder if it is not a bridge too far. Asking a hungry person whether a hot dog or a filet mignon is better might not get you the results you would get from asking a bunch of rich people. I don’t see how folks unfamiliar with wine would have any frame of reference. What makes some wines more expensive, aside from the cojones of their makers, is the frame of reference brought to the decision process by folks, many of whom actually know the difference between a good Napa Valley Cabernet and a Fresno-grown, Ruby Cabernet-based jug wine. For the sake of discussion, I am intentionally ignoring the folks who chase $500 bottles of overripe wine because they believe the reviews that say they are better. Maybe we should also give your “tests” to buyers of Screaming Eagle.

    –A group of us had dinner last night with Randall Grahm. He was celebrating 25 years of Cigare Volante. That wine seemed to change its spots on four to six year cycles, not based on consumer sentiment but based on Grahm’s own whimsy. I happen to believe that Grahm is one of the great innovators of our time. His stylistic changes belie the notion that wine styles respond to the words of a few writers. Having seen folks like David Bruce, Bob Travers, Paul Draper and so many others put their own stamp on their wines, and now seeing how the wines of Pahlmeyer, Hobbs, Torres, Au Bon Climat, wine that are expressions of their makers first, I accept that the process of change is much more complex than what is sometimes described.

    –Steve, be careful on your skateboard. Remember what happened to Eric Asimov recently. You don’t want to break your nose and have to give up wine tasting for weeks.

  11. Peter:

    Let’s say I buy in totally to the idea that quality is not related to whether I like or dislike the wine; the fact of the matter is that the criteria that make up “quality” are still subjective.

    There is no objective, inherent, singular definition of wine quality. How can there be, when wine regions that didn’t exist when the concept of ‘Great Cabernet’ was created hundreds of years ago now produce some of the world’s most desired wines?

  12. Well, Charlie, Harry Waugh was thrown from a car, lost his sense of smell forever, and still had a great palate and career.

  13. This difficulty of defining quality is what makes me wonder if this new age of the internet will not upset our previous notions. There are 2 possibilities: (1) everything is in a state of flux and anything is possible, and (2) the old verities will withstand change, as they have tended to do throughout history.

  14. Wine quality is first objective, and then subjective.

    First, objective.

    – wine can be flawed. That is objective. Whether it is corked, or cooked, or otherwise flawed, the judgment is an objective one.

    – wine can be poorly made. Wine that is grossly out of balance is objectively bad. Yes, you might find people who like it, or others you can trick into saying “it’s good,” but it is objectively bad.

    – wine can come from bad grapes. Wines come labeled with years for a reason. Year to year variations are not always even identifiable, but sometimes they are screamingly obvious. A year with too much rain, little warmth, etc., will show in the bottle. Thin or green wine is objectively bad.

    – wine can be over-manipulated (and this is where they “trick the neophytes” game falls apart). The first taste of a grossly manipulated red can be appealing, particularly if no food is involved. The neophyte, somebody whose experience is limited to grocery store middle-shelf wines and who has never had anything with any balance, might even like it. However, if it really tastes like somebody figured out how to skip the grapes and just put oak chips in a basket press, the wine is objectively bad.

    There are many ways wines can be objectively bad. Once you get past those, only then do you get to the subjective.

  15. David

    While you acknowledge a lot of good points, you are leaving out varietal and regional fidelity.

  16. Steven,
    There are several objective factors in wine production that are directly related to quality: 1) Grape origin; there is a marked difference (price included) between To Kalon Cab and Modesto Cab, for example. 2) Yields. 3) Manual or machine harvest. 4) Vinification method; Traditional fermentation, carbonic maceration, roto-fermentation… 5) New French Oak, New American Oak, Used Oak, No Oak… 6) How long do you age you wine? 24 months? 3 months?
    All these factors (i.e. economic inputs) have a direct impact on your cash-flow, and objectively determine the potential quality of your wine.
    Last but not least, “good quality wine” has to taste good too, and have no flaws.

  17. Morton Leslie says:

    Yesterday late afternoon as I walked down the stairs I smelled charcoal lighter fluid. Thinking a neighbor was preparing to throw a shrimp on the barbee I stepped outside to see who was dowsing the briquets. But the smell wasn’t outside, it was inside my house. Following my nose I discovered my wife in a corner happily reading a book with a small glass with Laphroiag 15 poured over a few ice cubes.

    The point of the story is that humans can be taught to appreciate anything when it comes to what they ingest. Most Westerners find slimey textures off- putting, but a Chinese businessman will pay a fortune for the slimey texture of a shark fin or a bird nest. I hate the smell of rotting fish flesh, but my Norwegian friend relishes the smell of his lutefisk. And we all know cheese lovers who gladly put down substances that smell like bad foot hygiene. Wine is no different.

    Much of what we appreciate as quality is a function of conditioning. We’ll eat a stinky fungus or Durian fruit with relish. And that isn’t good or bad, it is just our versatility and instinct to survive. We can even learn to appreciate the acrid smell of distilled Phenols aged 15 years. (If Parker decided he liked the smell of peat in his wine, winemakers over the globe would sneak a can of lighter fluid in the cellar.)

    On influence of visual clues, if you serve wine in black glasses with black spittoons most of your skateboarders will still be able to tell the difference between white and red. Only if you blindfold them will they be confused. But the blindfold isn’t a test of the influence of color, it is a test of the disorientation of being blindfolded.

  18. Steve,

    You answer your own question when you say:
    “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.”

    Effectively this means that in this age of “I’m OK, you’re not” and “anti-social media” where nobody ever sees anyone else face to face and thus feels completely comfortable saying whatever inane comments pop into their ignorant minds on Twitter, wine is totally and completely subjective!

    Don’t recall who did the “study” but several years ago wine tasters were given a test like the one you want to give – they used, as I recall, a $10-$15 bottle of Kendall Jackson Cabernet (or one of the KJ Brands) and told people the first glass was a $125 a bottle Cabernet and the second glass was a $8 bottle of Cabernet – when, in fact, both were the same KJ Cabernet. Overwhelmingly, by perhaps a 10-1 margin, as I recall, the tasters said they preferred the $125 wine. So was that subjective? Psychologists will tell you that “no, it was not.” They say that the mid will rationalize that the $125 wine price has already set the mind set of the taster and that, from a psychological perspective, the alleged pricier wine actually did taste better.

    Obviously I say the above somewhat with tongue in cheek, because I don’t believe wine is either completely subjective or totally objective – I think if someone knows wine, they can bring a sense of objectivity to it – just as you do Steve, in your ratings and reviews; or as does WS or Robert Parker. However, all of you will inject some subjectivity – many would say Parker moreso than others (and is this a subjective judgment of Mr. Parker, or objective?) based on your specific tastes.

    This all breaks down though in the face of “everyone’s a critic” on various blogs, Twitter, etc. when someone who has tasted three wines – all White Zinfandel, suddenly becomes an “objective expert” on Cabernet.

    So, all good points Steve. I’ll look forward to you carrying out your experiements and eagerly anticipate the results!


  19. congratulations Steve:what a fantastic, interesting, deep thought post! You are talking about wine but is a near philosophical and artistic theme you propose

  20. Morton I’m not a big Scotch guy but I do love and appreciate the peaty, charcoaly smell of some of those Scotches, especially an Islay. When I was a kid, I hated the smell and taste of mustard, but I made myself appreciate and now…yeah. So I guess I conditioned myself to like it.

  21. Morton–

    Please do not again conflate Laphroaig with lighter fluid. It is nowhere near lighter fluid. More like rancid oyster shells in a half burned compost heap.

    Perhaps that is why I love it.

    And yes, it took a fair bit of learning for me to finally get it with Scotch, but I do confess to having more than a few around when a wee dram is called for.

  22. A Sensory Scientist’s Perspective:

    The wine industry differs on whether or not the evaluation of wine quality is a subjective or an objective process. A series of terms have been adopted both to grade quality and to benchmark it, but even on these there is no common agreement.

    While the subjective element of wine quality evaluation tends to focus on the activity of aesthetic engagement with wine, the objective element tends to focus on defined dimensions of quality. Wine may be approached systematically, with a checklist of points to be considered and/or a benchmark of what the wine should be like against which it can be evaluated. Such systems give these evaluators an ‘objective’ way into engagement with the product.

    While checklists and benchmarks offer a framework for evaluating the quality of a wine, they do not necessarily guarantee enjoyment. Quality is a multidimensional concept and it can therefore not be measured with a single number.

    Approaches to determining wine quality
    Quality control is the series of analyses and tests that verify a wine’s palatability, stability, compliance with regulations, typicity and freedom from faults and contaminants. Quality control of wines aims first at rejecting wines with defective aromas and flavors.

    There are four approaches to determine wine sensory quality:
    1. Quality ratings performed by wine experts. These often occur in the context of sanctioned competitions intended to recognize the best wines in a given category by assigning medals.
    2. Ratings for an overall degree of difference from a standard or control product. These methods are used in the context of a quality assurance program and are designed to evaluate how well the wine meets certain specifications.
    3. Wine styles that are ‘liked/preferred’ by a defined population of consumers. Quality may be defined by some as what the consumer views as such. Therefore, an indirect measure of wine quality can be obtained by having consumers evaluate the wine and comment on their preferences, their purchase intent and other variables.
    4. Descriptive analysis performed by trained and experienced panelists. Objective profiles of wine flavor are generated which permit analytical evaluation of the differences among wines. What are the sensory attributes that ‘drive’ wine quality?

    Although zero tolerance of wine faults is the goal, it must be acknowledged that what is unacceptable for a wine expert can still be acceptable for some consumers. Knowing the taint concentration at which a wine is still acceptable for consumers has significant economic impacts in the search for remedial treatments when tainted wines are detected.

    If a wine is tainted by the spoilage yeast Brettanomyces or is oxidized it is precluded from being high quality, so that by extension it can be argued that a level of technical competence is essential if a wine is to be good. This is not to argue that a wine should be technically spotless; there are those that would argue that the limited Brettanomyces found in some red wines from Burgundy add to, rather than detract from, their quality. Wines made ‘from recipes’ may be boring; slight technical imperfections could result in a more interesting wine. Although technical perfection is not essential as a dimension of wine quality, technical acceptability, providing a minimum level of flavor without any substantial faults is necessary to underpin wine quality.

    Also, I agree with Morton’s comments regarding the blindfold. However, I have conducted the black glass experiment with many students using Aleatico as the red wine. Since this wine has a very floral aroma, many people mistake it for a white wine when the color is masked.

  23. Steve – This is a good topic. Any product (wine included) that is created like a commodity should be priced like a commodity. There is (potential) intrinsic value in a product that comes from a person because from that person can come uniqueness. This is a non-commodity product. Secondly, for wine there’s also the vineyard that imparts uniqueness. In theory, highly valuable products are that way because they are unique or are in short supply, but conversely things that are in short supply are also unique in some way. Quality wine – not flawed, at least moderately pleasant to the senses, balanced, varietally correct, etc. – can be “made” in the winery because technology and knowledge allow for that, and that even goes for commodity wines. A unique wine comes from a person and a vineyard. And a truly unique product will not follow consumers’ changing demands because at that point it becomes a commodity.

  24. Sue–

    It’s late. Steve is asleep. but he will be up in a few hours when I am asleep, so I get to go first in thanking you for such a learned yet accessible discussion.

    One of the problems that we will never get past in wine evaluations is the “how much is too much” question.

    Brett, as you have said, destroys the possible enjoyment of any wine for some tasters but not for all. My tasting panels include only wine professionals. We have one person who smells Brett and says “I am trying to learn to live with a little of it” but then pans wines with it anyhow. We have a very technical taster who somehow accepts a little Brett. It is not just pro versus the everyday drinker. The pros do not agree.

    VA exists in all wines. Does a taster who can pick it out at 0.06 and call it a fault have it right or wrong? That is half the legal limit.

    From time to time, Steve (and I, if the truth be known) disagree with the “acceptable” limits statements from our good friend, Dan Berger, who
    recently called Napa Valley Cabs a “parody” of themselves because they do not comport with his need for low pHs, low alcohol and driving acidity. Dan may not call those wines “flawed” if you push him to the wall on that term, but he has damned the wines anyhow. I have a different set of standards.

    What strikes me in all these conversations, including how to best teach something to skateboarders, is that no one has the right answer. My neighbors love Rombauer Chardonnay. So does my web developer. These folks are educated, reasonably well off and at least a little bit sophisticate. And they like sweet Chardonnay. Some evaluators gag at the thought.

    And Morton’s comments have to be a little suspect anyow. He does not like Laphraoig.

  25. Peter/David:

    Sound wine is a given. I don’t think that is what Steve is describing, though (Steve, correct me if I’m wrong).

    I think the subjective/objective issue has to do with the degree that a standard of quality is objectively inherent in wine evaluation. I’d argue that it can’t be objective. By its very nature, especially given the fact that people perceive things differently, any standard of quality viz a specific variety, is temporary and is a product of majority agreement among the gatekeepers.

    Surely, what the “experts” deemed great wine two centuries ago would be barely palatable to most wine experts today. The conception of beauty changes…look at art; look at fashion; wine is no different.

    So, if we are speaking strictly about measuring flaws as a condition of quality, I can certainly accept that objectivity. I think we are talking about something much more ephemeral however.

  26. Steven, you’re right. In this thread, sound wine is a given.

  27. I was at a Petite Sirah tasting yesterday with Dan Berger and he loved the wines, which is kind of strange given his “parody” remark. All the wines were huge, big and extracted, in the manner of PS. Many of them, I suspect, were high in alcohol, too.

  28. A good exercise with the twenty somethings might be to find wines with varying degrees of VA, Brett, mercaptans, etc. for a single flight to demonstrate that flaws are indeed perceived differently. The beauty of a woman is not in the absence of flaws, but in how well she carries them.

  29. Of a man, too.

  30. Yes, indeed.

  31. Steven/Steve,
    If what you’re saying is that sensory/hedonistic wine evaluation and wine aesthetics are subjective and dynamic, I agree one hundred percent. But not wine quality. And I don’t mean only flaws.
    Europe has been using a standardized (and objective) analytical framework, quite similar to the one I mentioned before (plus a lot of stuff that I don’t see as relevant), to differentiate good quality wine (GCs, PCs, PGCs, GCCs and controlled appellation status) from common table wine, for centuries.
    While I repulse any government intervention in the market place, be it regulation, taxation, burocracy, etc…, I believe wineries should be mindful that educated wine drinkers demand to know what they are buying in terms of economic (objective) value (quality).

  32. Peter, I hear you. But in the absence of official govt. regulation, like they have in Europe, there can never be “objective economic value/quality.” Because even experts will disagree.

  33. And, lest anyone thinks that European wineries like the rules, you need only visit a few to find out that they feel overregulated, unable to extend the envelope, are hindered in their desires to find new and better ways to do things–all by rules drawn up by committees, often decades and even centuries ago.

    A couple of examples. I was in Europe in the very hot and dry summer of 2003. Mostly vacation but a week in the Rhone, north and south, and ran into the following:

    –Vineyards that were dying for lack of water and vineyardists who were sneaking into their vineyards at night with watering cans to keep their vines alive.
    –A winery (to be kept nameless) that planted its Viognier in St. Joseph and its Roussanne in Condrieu (that is just the opposite of the regulations). The owner said to me, “No one knows the difference, the vineyards are relatively near each other and the exposures and soils make them better where they are than they would be if I followed the old rules.”
    –On the Sunday of that visit, my wife and I picked up some food at the local market and went north to Beaujolais to picnic at the top of Mont Brouilly. We remarked that the soils looked very similar to the soils in the Cote Rotie. And, at our winery stop on Monday in the Cote Rotie, asked the winery owner if he had every made any observation like the one we made. This was in response to his comment that it has become impossible for him to find new grape sources in Cote Rotie for his expanding sales potential. His response was “Four of us have bought a small plot of land on Mont Brouilly because the soils and the climate are very similar to what we have here, and we have planted Syrah. It makes very good wine there, but the Govt will not let us label it as anything but Vin de Pays”.

    This kind of response can be heard all over the heavily regulated areas of Europe. Regulation may somehow limit diseased wine from hitting the market but it has little to do with “quality” unless one defines quality as the absence of gag reflex. I think we can shoot higher than that.

  34. Jeez where is Patrick Campbell when we need him? Somehow when I saw the title I knew somebody would bring up Ayn Rand, and Kuhn. But where are Descartes and Locke? Where is Kant? – who happens to represent my own view of the question: that there is a transcendental dichotomy between things as they are, and things as they are perceived.

    Objectively, wine has mass, it is liquid at room temperature, it is composed of chemical compounds that can be quantified with the proper instrumentation, and each of those compounds has a vapor pressure that can also be measured. Nothing more. There is a separate objective economic reality of what that wine cost to produce. These are things as they are, and neither objective reality is objectively related to “quality.”

    Quality is solely related to things as they are perceived. Quality flows from how the human nose reacts to the relative vapor pressures of the compounds in a wine, and how the human tongue reacts to their relative concentrations in solution. As a species our physiology is wired to cause us to gravitate to some smells and flavors and to recoil from others. But the fact that we all react to perceived qualities should not lead to the fallacy that there is some objective measure of “quality.” It has always been true, and will always be so, that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” (or woman’s).

    That said, I won’t deny that it is possible to train small groups of subjects to say the same things when presented with the same stimuli – especially if you give them cookies when they are “right.” BTW – Sue, good to see you here!

  35. Dave McNeilly says:

    – “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it” – Frank Zappa

    – “I passionately hate the idea of being ‘with it’. I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time”. – Orson Welles

    – “A hundred objective measurements didn’t sum the worth of a garden; only the delight of its users did that. Only the use made it mean something” – Lois McMaster Bujold

    There you go. White Zinfandel is art, and Sutter Home an artist 🙂

  36. I don’t know where Patrick is. Probably in Argentina. Patrick, if you’re listening: Hi.

  37. Charlie,
    You misunderstood my comment.
    I advocate voluntary transparency: wineries disclosing grape-growing and winemaking processes, so that wine prices and taste profiles can make sense; not regulation.
    I abhor regulation just as much as you do.

  38. To John Kelly:
    Although your line of reasoning seems more filled with judgment values than proper ideas, I contend that Locke’s Theory of Price and Value (i.e. quality) is also based on the laws supply and demand, and consequently, subordinated to the idea of scarcity.
    Hence, costly, scarce goods, produced with the best economic inputs available are, in Locke’s view, directly and objectively related to quality.
    Finally, Locke’s thesis that man is a “tabula rasa”, besides being in direct opposition to Descartes ideas, seem totally inappropriate when applied to a bottle of wine, which has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, innate, immutable properties.

  39. Peter: I would argue that price, value and scarcity have little to do with “quality.” Chateau d’Yquem certianly fits those criteria, but to claim that a d’Yquem is of higher “quality” than the delightful, perfectly sound Tavel Rose I slurped with dinner last night is utter nonsense. IMHO.

    Where did Locke turn up before you brought him up? I was talking about Kant, and giving a deliberately improper reading of his concept of “things as they are.” I clearly stated what I consider to be the objective properties of a wine, which a correct reading of Kant would suggest are just more “things as they seem.” I just brought him up because I thought it might piss off any Objectivists out there, who believe that knowledge and values are intrinsic to a reality independent of human consciousness.

    I fear that you are talking about economic theories (objective and subjective value) while I am talking about the philosophy of perception. Ultimately what I believe is that all evaluation of wine quality is subjective, and by definition prone to have different meanings for different people under different circumstances. Sort of like the evaluation of what constitutes a proper idea.


    Bravo, Mr. Kelly.

    Yes, there are still measures that are semi-objective, but since we do not agree on how much Brett or how much VA or how much oxidation or how much buttered popcorn are allowable before the wines become “flawed”, or how ripe they can be before they become “parodies of themselves”, the standards, even the ones on which we come close to agreeing, are just subjective items on which we agree.

  41. To John Kelly:
    “But where are Descartes and Locke? Where is Kant?”
    I pasted the text above from your comment… But first of all, I loved your last post where you explicit your winegrowing philosophy (holism, yields…), even comparing your productivity to European standards. This is exactly what I am defending here.
    I listed below two affirmations you made in your comment. I humbly disagree with both.
    1) “Quality is solely related to things as they are perceived”.
    Aristotle defined quality as both an attribute (ascribable, by a subject) and a property (innately possessed).
    Locke viewed quality as an idea of a sensation or a perception. But he further asserts that “qualities can be divided in two kinds: primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are intrinsic to an object—a thing or a person—whereas secondary qualities are dependent on the interpretation of the subjective mode and the context of appearance”
    2) “There is a transcendental dichotomy between things as they are and things as they are perceived”.
    Kant in his “Critique of Pure Reason” accepts both “a priori” (analytic) and “a posteriori” (synthetic) knowledge. “A priori” knowledge cannot be perceived, because it concerns concepts or objects beyond the limits of possible experience; it is true by nature, and praxeological (knowledge derived from the logic of pure reason).
    On the other hand, the truth, or falsehood, of synthetic statements derives from the perception of a subject outside.
    Kant’s transcendental idealism/aesthetics, from where you derive the affirmation above, can be viewed as subjective in the sense that time and space (reality) are perceived trough our senses and therefore only have meaning/form to us. You forgot to cite his transcendental analytic and transcendental dialectic views, which I briefly describe above, though.
    So (bottom line), what you’re asserting is that if one person (even an experienced wine taster), one day, tastes a flawless “Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne 1996 or 2005”, and does not “perceive” quality in it, this person is, legitimately, entitled to claim (and argue) that that wine does not possess quality?

  42. Charlie – thanks? Some philosophies would call our agreement on what constitutes “good” and “bad” wine a collective delusion 😉

    Peter – yes, my bad – I did bring up Locke as an example of an epistemologist missing from the discussion to that point, but it was Kant that I intended as my subtle eye-poke. It has been 25 years since I read the 2nd eddition of Kritik der Reinen Vernunft but I seem to recall that Kant backpedaled from transcendental idealism. Have you read Husserl? I don’t buy into phenomenology but I find some of his contributing formulations useful.

    Perhaps you and I would disagree, but I do believe that all elaboration of the perception of wine is synthetic – i.e. empirical immediate representations. In answer to your question: yes, for that person, that bottle and that day – and who are any of us to argue differently just because every bottle WE have experienced has shown “quality”? Or will you now argue that “quality” is a statistical measure, with median, mode and standard deviation? BTW – that would be OK by me, but it weakens any argument that “quality” is an objective measure.

    Incidentally, I think what you are shooting for over at Wine-EV is really cool. I’m done with my own tilting at windmills, but it looks to me like you guys have new and better tools and data and are off to a good start.

  43. Peter:

    Very complicated responses showing how well-read you are. What’s missing is any convincing argument to a simple claim:

    The wine or region or producer that is of the highest quality…that has the most “best-ness,” is only so because of the opinions of a large-enough or vocal-enough group.

    When the time changes or the group changes, the “best” wine changes too.

  44. Steven–

    Not that I disagree with you, but I do recall the names DRC, D’Yquem, Latour. I would even argue that Inglenook has not changed–because the site is still making great wine, and I will be surprised if the West Rutherford Bench suddenly becomes chopped liver.

    Newer trends like RRV Pinot would seem to have longevity but do not have the length of service to be called “best for the long haul”.

    What is true, however, and this may be part of your point, the wines themselves have changed over time in order to keep up with the ability of viticultural and vinicultural advances in knowledge and technique–not to mention stylistic preference as well.

  45. John:
    No, I never read Husserl; but read a little bit of Heidegger, and Hegel’s dialectical phenomenology.
    I’m still intrigued, though, that someone with a scientific/positivist background like you, don’t buy into the idea that wine has innate properties (grapes, winemaking techniques…), that put them into different categories (i.e. quality).
    Interesting debate though. And btw, I’m glad you liked the website.

  46. Charlie:

    No argument with you on the wines you’ve named. My point is simply that those regions/wines gained and maintain stature because of the accretion of opinion over the course of time, not because they have an inherent sense of “quality” that other wines don’t.

    Also, my reference to change was more to the “next big thing” characteristic of human nature than it was to the change of a specific wine over time.

  47. Peter: It is precisely because I trained as a scientist, and have striven throughout my career to apply science to wine, that I have such a strict definition of what can be measured. Categores, like “quality,” don’t have mass; they don’t absorb or emit EMR at any wavelength; they don’t give off decay particles – they can’t be quantified, but only derived through human interpretation.

    The definition of “quality” is a shorthand for an aggregate of “values” – what a person is willing to pay, or the score a critic is willing to give, for example – that can be correlated with the quantifiable physical properties of a wine, and also with the economic inputs that result in those physical properties. Leo McKloskey built a business on making those correlations, and suggesting inputs that should influence the aggregate values.

    But the spread in the inputs and quantifiable physical properties of wine doesn’t even explain 60% of the variation in the spread of the observed values. The rest of the variance is down to other categories: things like the perception of scarcity, the design of the package, trust in the brand, even likability and telegenicity of the face of the brand (see Steve H’s next post). And every one of these values arises from emotional reactions of the human organism. And those responses are not constant between individuals, much less across cultures or over time (as Charlie and Steven have pointed out).

    Quality can’t be measured, it can only be roughly correlated with externalities like time, place, culture, economic inputs and physical measurements. And even then those externalities are only roughly predictive of the subjective reaction of a certain population of consumers to a particular wine.

  48. John,
    I ran into this academic paper, “Effects of non-sensory cues on perceived quality: The case of low alcohol Wine; Masson, J.; Aurier, P.; D’Hauteville, F.; Moisa, U.”, and felt compelled to quote the two paragraphs below, which corroborate in a very explicit way my thesis that the concept of quality plays both subjective and objective (which the authors identify as “perceived” and “expected” quality, respectively) roles in wine evaluation. (Please, let me know if you want the URL)
    “Consumers’ product evaluation is influenced by their prior knowledge of other competing products and by the attributes of the product in question. Thus, the concepts of cognitive categorization and perceived distance are useful tools in helping us to understand how consumers evaluate low-alcohol wine. In this way, the categorization process consists of making comparisons between a new element and extensive prior knowledge of the category already internalized in the memory. Set before a new element, consumers will then adopt, consciously or unconsciously, a categorization model (traditional, specimen or prototype model) (Cohen and Basu, 1987). The extent of prior knowledge is thus essential: it is the concept of familiarity, measured by the number of product tests which can be translated into consumption frequency. Consequently, consumers’ perceptions are dependent on cognitive categories (Ladwein, 1994) and their opinion on given product attributes can be influenced by this categorization (D’ Hauteville, 1994)”.
    “The overall perceived quality of a food product is influenced simultaneously or successively by sensory cues as the product is tasted and by non-sensory cues (brand, type of wine, alcohol content, etc.). In purchasing situations, however, gustatory cues are seldom available. The consumer then relies on non-sensory cues to evaluate product quality and to make a selection among the various alternatives on offer.
    Expected quality, which encompasses non-sensory cues, can be defined as all of the expectations or beliefs regarding the anticipated performance of a product or service. Its study is of particular interest as it influences overall perceived product quality and consumer satisfaction. Expected quality itself is influenced by the consumer’s experience with the product, the consumption context and quality indicators (Sirieix and Dubois, 1999). Quality indicators can be distinguished according to their intrinsic nature (they cannot be changed without modifying the product) or extrinsic nature
    (they can be changed independently of the product) (Oude Ophuis and Van Trijp; 1995, Sirieix, 1999)”.


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