Barry Smith on the aesthetics of taste in fine wine appreciation
We don’t have to venture far these days to realise that all is not well in the world of wine criticism. The popular press has seen a surge of recent articles detailing how easily wine experts are fooled and connoisseurs misled; the blogosphere is virulent in denouncing what bloggers see as the ludicrous talk of wine critics.
Behind these complaints and concerns lies the suspicion that wine talk lacks substance; that the words we use to describe the taste of wines do not engage adequately or accurately with a genuine subject matter. From here it is a short step to the dismissal of expert opinion and, along with it, the presumed sensibilities of the connoisseur. Many find this move liberating, advocating a democracy of taste in which all opinions are equally valid (or invalid), leaving one to find a raison d’être for wine writing. The real target, however, is connoisseurship, which is dismissed as mere posturing and snobbery. For if no opinion is greater than any other, and there is nothing to get right or wrong when it comes to assessing how good a wine is, then giving greater weight to the opinions of just a few represents a misplaced faith in an elite who will settle the true standards of taste.
There is no such thing as objective goodness or badness of taste, but only such a thing as my taste and your taste [...] tastes shared by many or by few, there are no authorities in matters of taste
In this way, subjectivism about taste fosters a populist movement that derides the very idea of expertise in nonscientific fields such as wine, art, or music. Philosopher Curt Ducasse puts the point starkly: “There is no such thing as objective goodness or badness of taste, but only such a thing as my taste and your taste [...] tastes shared by many or by few, there are no authorities in matters of taste”.1 This challenge to the critic’s authority is meant to restore the autonomy of judgment, encouraging individuals to trust their own opinions, without subjugating them to the opinions of the critic. However, the scepticism that ensues threatens to rob even their own opinions of any worth, reducing, as it does, appreciation to subjective liking.
Skilled tasters may say that ordinary drinkers lack the powers to make the fine discriminations necessary to assess a wine’s quality and charactera riposte that would do little to defuse the charge of snobbery and elitism and would risk alienating young drinkers who could gradually be brought to discover the properties of wines that connoisseurs prize.
Important issues are at stake here, and we would do well to tread carefully. For the anti-elitism and the populism it leads to are premised on the denial of objective facts about a wine’s quality that threatens not only to sweep away the connoisseur and critic but to render irrelevant the efforts of viticulturists, winemakers, oenologists, and sommeliers who seek to improve our tasting experiences.
To restore the idea that we can appreciate great wines, we must bring into focus, and untangle, the subtly different dimensions that underlie these bitterly fought taste disputes. Doubts about whether expert tasters can tell red wines from white wines are very different from scepticism about the very possibility of ranking wines.
· Bogus elegance? ·
Attacks on wine experts are designed to undermine the presumption of objective scientific methods by showing how poorly the experts fare in tasting tests. A different concern targets the more evaluative art of criticism and connoisseurship. The claim that there is no goodness or badness in taste, just your taste and my taste, seeks to undermine the basis for judging a wine’s beauty, finesse, and elegance. To go beyond mere liking, a taster must appreciate certain features in the wine, and it is this form of aesthetic appreciation, or taste, that the subjectivist puts in doubt.
The target here is the 18th century aesthetics of taste propounded by Hutchinson and Hume, which regards taste as the ability to make fine discriminations and judgments of quality, extending all the way from the ability to evaluate food, drink, and fashion, to the refined appreciation of the visual arts, music, and literature. Hume stressed that not all tastes were equal, and he saw the standard of taste as being set by the true critics who exhibited “delicacy of taste, practice, experience of a wide range of objects, lack of prejudice and common sense”.2
Kant, on the other hand, sought to restore the autonomy of judgment to the individual. Judgments of taste were based on our own experiences of pleasure, but they were not merely experiences for us, but valid for all, because based on disinterested pleasure. The exercise of taste is a matter of individuals engaging in spontaneous judgments in response to what they encounter in experience.
One can understand resistance to an elite who would try to prescribe the standards of taste for us all. But the flaw in the argument is the claim that there is “nothing more” to the connoisseur’s judgement than the consensus of an elite. It’s true that if there really were nothing to base our opinions on save our own likings, it would indeed be intolerable - undemocratic, even - to see some groups’ opinions as counting for more than others. But why accept the presumption that our opinions are answerable to nothing but ourselves? This neglects the possibility that there really are features to discern in a great Bordeaux or Burgundy and that it takes experience and practice to get oneself into a position to come to recognise and understand them.
· Flawed subjectivity ·
The idea of taste as sensation has it that what we taste is just a private experience, in which everything is given to us immediately. It allows for no gap between what I am tasting and my experience of it. And yet, as experienced tasters know, a wine does not give up its secrets all at once, or to just anyone.
Much of the trouble here is the flawed idea that the taste of a wine is purely subjective: wholly a matter of the sensations we undergo when tasting. The idea of taste as sensation has it that what we taste is just a private experience, in which everything is given to us immediately. It allows for no gap between what I am tasting and my experience of it. And yet, as experienced tasters know, a wine does not give up its secrets all at once, or to just anyone. It takes time, knowledge, and experience to figure out what is going on in it. One adjusts to it, learns to read the effects it has on one’s experience as a sign of its maturity and its state of development. One learns with practice and experience to predict how the wine will behave over time, in the glass or in the bottle, how it will taste one or two degrees cooler or warmer.
When we come to a wine with knowledge and experience, knowledge sets questions that the sensations we undergo in experience can answer; and this interplay between tasting experience and knowledge can refine our discriminations, improve our judgements, and lead to a better understanding of wine. Our brains weigh the relative contributions of taste, smell, texture, and trigeminal irritations - affecting the nerve endings that respond to spices, making peppermint feel cool in the mouth and mustard hot - to arrive at a unified perception of flavour. Tasting is one of the most complex and multisensory activities the brain performs, and its results are a far cry from the simple sensations the doubters imagine when they reflect on taste.
We should distinguish between the democracy of taste interpreted as the claim that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and the populist doctrine that all opinions are equally good. Tasters should be encouraged to form opinions about wines for themselves, not simply defer to what the critics say. But to do so, they need help to improve their skills as tasters, and insightful critics and tasters can serve as a guide, helping them experience the wine in a new way, showing them what to look for when tasting wines from a certain grape or a certain place.
Appreciation requires apprenticeship, and the possibility of educating one’s sensibilities is what prevents permanent exclusion, especially on the basis of social rank: “it distinguishes simply between those who are qualified and those who are not yet qualified.”3 The role of a mentor is critical in this process of educating one’s palate, and a good mentor must impart knowledge in the course of experience. Wine enthusiasts are looking not just for encouragement but for reason to believe that they, too, can reach the inner sanctum.
· Genuine connoisseurs ·
Genuine connoisseurs must be skilled tasters capable of making knowledgeable judgment of wine, and for this it is necessary to have a good palate, and this takes practice. For many, though, the key issue is not about the perception but the evaluation of a wine: the assessment of its quality. And here, the critic’s opinion is taken to count for more than that of the novice. Beginners can be schooled in the virtues of critical judgment, but according to the doubters this will amount to their receiving praise and endorsement for adopting the accepted values of the select group. But once again, this mislocates the source of the authority accorded to the connoisseur. Connoisseurs are authorities not because they prescribe what is good but because they are good at appreciating what is there.
There is no guarantee, of course, that those with great tasting skills will be able to articulate the reasons for their appreciation of certain wines. Having the linguistic powers to express what one finds in a young wine is an additional skill, and this is perhaps the key role for wine writers. Their efforts may annoy the bloggers, but these are savage attacks administered by irate people who pillory the pointlessness of other people’s tasting notes before going on to give their own.
The appraisal of a wine’s quality is available to all, with training, but the skill of imparting it is available to just a few. Let us not forget how we got to be better tasters, and let us not kick the ladder away once we have climbed it. As aesthetician David Pole observes, “An aesthetic response [...] implies no more than a heightened present awareness of the qualities of an external [...] object; and any object may be looked at this way. [Though] clearly to say that all objects allow of our adopting this attitude is not to say that they equally reward it”.4
We know when great wines reward such attitudes from those heart-stopping moments when a wine fully captures our attention and rewards our anticipation. At such moments, the quality of the wine stamps itself on the mind - and with luck, the memory lasts. Savour those moments, but share them with others.
· Notes ·
1. Andy Hamilton, “Criticism, Connoisseurship, and Appreciation,” in Critical Exchange: Art Criticism of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in Russia and Western Europe, ed. Carol Adlam and Juliet Simpson (Peter Lang, Oxford; 2008).
2. David Hume, “On the Standard of Taste,” in Selected Essays (Oxford University Press, Oxford; 1985).
3. Andy Hamilton, “Criticism, Connoisseurship and Appreciation.”
4. D Pole, Aesthetics, Form and Emotion (Duckworth, London; 1983). This article first appeared in a longer version in The World of Fine Wine www.worldoffinewine.com