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Philosophy and wine: 
from Science to Subjectivity  

Jamie Goode's Report on a one-day meeting held on Friday 10th December 2004, organised by the Philosophy Program of the School of Advanced Study, London University (http://www.sas.ac.uk/Philosophy/Wine.htm)

Part 3: Barry Smith - Questions of taste

Barry Smith’s paper focused on three questions that take us immediately to the heart of the philosophy of actually drinking wine, and the nature of our experience. ‘My questions concern the tricky nature of wine tasting itself: an intimate, personal experience, part of one’s physical history, that’s part of one’s mental life too’, he explains. ‘How can something so personal and seemingly subjective purport to reveal aspects of how things really are in the wines we are tasting?’ The three questions he’s considering are:

  1. Is the taste of a wine just an immediate, and, perhaps, incommunicable experience, for you alone?

  2. Can our experience in tasting a wine give us objective knowledge of the wine itself?

  3. Can we rely on expert tasters to tell us what the wine’s characteristics and qualities really are?

‘Tasting is part of perception and the function of perception is to give us accurate knowledge of the world around us. How then does taste work to help us know the qualities and characteristics of a wine?’ Smith then raises what to me is a key issue: ‘We seem to have the wine on the one hand, and how it tastes on the other. So can the latter tell us something reliable about the former? And can how the wine tastes to me or to you be a reliable guide to its objective characteristics?’

Good questions, but the next three are even better: ‘Can taste be treated like the others senses, or has it special distinguishing features? Does it enable us latch on to something about the world around us, to sharable aspects of interpersonal experience, or just to parts of our own experience? How can something so personal and seemingly subjective purport to reveal aspects of how things really are in the wines we are tasting?’

As readers are probably beginning to gather, philosophers are pretty good at asking questions. They need to be, of course, because well framed questions are essential for developing arguments. That they are not always so good with answers is acknowledged by Smith: ‘In typical philosophical fashion my qualified answers to these questions will be: “Not exactly”, “Yes” and “It depends”’.

Before we get to answers, there are some distinctions that need drawing. First, ‘Taste’ has a number of meanings. These include aesthetic appraisal (you can have good or bad taste on certain matters of style or art). This isn’t what is under discussion here. Second, 'taste' is actually used as a term to describe a multimodal sensory experience that involves taste, smell, vision and touch. Third, the 'taste' can be the property of the object of our experience, or it can refer to our own experience during tasting. It’s a tricky, but important distinction.

So, to the questions.

1. Is the taste of wine a private, perhaps incommunicable experience? Is it a property of the wine or does it reside within in us, in our own perception? Smith points out that the latter conclusion is a tempting one. ‘Tasting presents us with an immediate modification of our conscious experience. It is all there at once, in us, as we take the wine in. How then can this immediately appreciable episode be anything other than part of one’s subjectivity?’ he asks. He argues against this flight to subjectivity on several grounds. First, wine tasting is commonly a social experience, and we share our perceptions in terms of words. The assumption is that we are having a more-or-less common experience. Second, people make their living out of writing about wines and recommending them to others. This would be a nonsense if the perception of wine were exclusively a private event. ‘We act as though it was possible know of one another’s experiences, and there is something important here that we must not miss,’ says Smith. ‘When I taste a really great wine, something fine, elegant and hand-made, I know straightaway that I want others to taste it too. I may even have a specific person in mind with whom I want to this taste this wine. I know through the experience I’ve had of tasting with that person, that they will get what is exquisite and fine about this particular bottle.’

Smith maintains that this shared common experience is an important aspect of social interaction. ‘The desire to share part ourselves with another, to connect with people in this wordless way, through the things that move us and give us pleasure is an important part of our social natures, and great wine, like great music and great art, affords us this opportunity.’ But there is a problem in sharing these experiences when it comes to wine: this is our poverty of language for tastes and smells. Smith discusses the different ways that people try to share these experiences and how some are better than others at it. He clearly likes the use of metaphor. ‘Metaphors serve particularly well in capturing aspects of subjectivity’, he says. ‘They are sometimes worth far more than lengthy lists of descriptors in trying to capture the experience of drinking something extraordinarily fine.’ He points out, though, that ‘as acts of creativity they demand skill and ingenuity, and some will be better than others at freshly minting a metaphor for each occasion.’ Likewise, similies can be useful.

2. Can the subjective tasting experience yield objective knowledge of the wine? Smith thinks it can, but to do this he has to argue that tastes are objective properties of a wine. His point is as follows. The fact that to ‘get’ a wine takes attention, skill and effort, coupled with the notion that when the circumstances of tasting are not ideal we can fail to ‘get’ a wine properly both argue that we are striving for objectivity. ‘These factors alone make us realise that tasting is not subjective, in one sense of that term: a sense according to which there is nothing right or wrong about a conscious experience but just a fully transparent part of our inner world, independent of what else exists around us,’ he says. ‘Not all experiences of tasting are on a par or equally valid. We know that if we taste a wine after eating watercress that we are not experiencing what the wine really tasted like’. This is a convincing argument: tasting is not wholly subjective. When we approach a wine we are attempting to uncover something intrinsic to the wine in as accurate a way possible.

But it is also true that wine tasting is not fully objective: Smith raises the point about inter-individual variability in the ability to taste and smell. He suggests that these differences can be both cultural and physiological in their origin, but indicates that unless one is far removed from the ‘statistically normal perceiver’, then these differences aren’t fatal to the notion that we are sharing a more-or-less common experience. He stands by the notion of realism in tastes – that is, that a wine has a quality referred to as a ‘taste’, and that while this will be modified by the context of the tasting, it isn’t useful to see the ‘taste’ of a wine as a purely relational property. If it was, we’d never be able to nail it down.

One possible objection to this view of the objective nature of the taste of wine is the way that wine critics often disagree about a wine. The way he deals with this is to advocate that a wine may possess a plurality of tastes, with not all being available to or detected by each taster. ‘There may be more tastes than any given taster, or population of tasters, can discern. All these tastes may exist in the wine awaiting detection by a discriminating palate, say Smith. ‘Different critics may pick out different tastes, and may be more sensitive to some than to others.’ He sums up his views on tasting as ‘an objective exercise that relies on our subjective responses’.

3. Let’s turn to the third and final question. Should we allow critics to guide us in our choice of wine? Given what we know about tasting, is this a sensible thing to do? We’ve discussed how when critics assess a wine they are picking out elements of the objective ‘taste’ of the wine, so the key is to find critics whose perception closely matches ours. He points out that the common advice that we should trust our own palate needs to be qualified by the fact that first we need to get to know it, and this is where critics can be very useful. ‘Having found out how we converge they can serve as instruments, a litmus test to which wines will delight us,’ he says. ‘Here we are not surrendering our own palate or preferences but are using the right people to extend and develop our personal tastes.’

Smith finishes with a warning. ‘The danger with the reliance on others, or just one critic, is where that set of tastes and preferences comes to dominate the market of available wines because of commercial pressures and financial speculation’, he says. ‘The emergence of a super-critic, like Robert Parker, who favours big, sweet alcoholic, over-extracted and over-oaked wines, may lead to a simplification in measures of quality.’ It’s not that Smith is blaming Parker, who, after all is just doing his job – rather, he is lamenting the effect the market’s response to Parker’s influence is having on the world of wine. ‘When one critic, willingly or not, comes to dominate the style of wine that is preferred by the markets and hence produced by the wine makers they are dominating our tastes and as a result limiting our experiences. When this is true, less and less will we have moments of experience and lasting memories of then that evoke, as Proust knew they could, the times we shared, the walk round the hill of Corton, the delight in discovering three levels of taste in the Meo-Camuzet Vosne-Romanee 1996. These we must seek out and not lose sight of.’

see also:

The philosophy of wine

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