Is It All Tosh? (more on subjectivity)

There is a thought provoking article in World of Fine Wine 51 (2016 Q1) on subjectivity in wine appreciation. It was written by Steve Slatcher, who I’ve never met, but know quite well through the wine discussion forum on Steve’s background is in physical sciences with experimental psychology (PhD, fracture mechanics, Cambs), and then software engineering, but as a wine writer he also runs the website/blog,

The article in World of Fine Wine is on a subject close to my heart. We are taught, via the WSET courses, that wine tasting, and thereby wine appreciation, is something of a science. We taste as wine professionals, or as committed amateurs, to a clearly defined set of rules, approaching how the wine looks, smells and tastes following principles developed to make the task as objective as possible. To that extent, perhaps, some people come to think of wine tasting as a wholly objective task for the trained professional, whether with his WSET Diploma, or her MW or MS qualification. I should probably admit to having gained my WSET Diploma, and so I know the rules I’m supposed to apply.

Of course, the unqualified, wine obsessive, amateur knows a few things about wine as well. She knows that scores can’t be wholly objective because our palates differ from other palates. They also differ physiologically from day to day (whether we are tasting on a root day, or whether we have a minor cold or a touch of hayfever). We also know about grade inflation, the temptation to mark a wine higher because it will get your tasting note onto a neck tag, or, through unconscious bias, because after a lovely winery tour the producer took you for a delicious meal. I’m sure that such hospitality doesn’t work on any blatant level, but the unconscious bias created by being treated nicely is no different to any other unconscious bias – I’ll tell you, it is really hard to be even non-committal about dull wines when you’ve been treated well, and every wine writer has to focus on the fact that this is exactly the reason why you got that slap-up meal and a case of samples to follow.

I won’t go into the larger universe of subjectivity in wine tasting – one man’s raspberry is another’s cranberry, and one woman’s vibrant, life-filled natural wine is another’s dodgy cider (more of this type of discrepancy later). In a way, I’m less sure that subjectivity in what a wine smells or tastes of is particularly important. Tasting notes filled with fruits, or the use of ubiquitous words like mineral, are pretty boring – take out every mention of cherries in a Beaujolais  tasting and you’ve probably cut the word count pretty significantly, although I will accept that a Burgundy lover may be interested whether his Beaune 1er Cru smells of strawberries or raspberries. As with the interpretation of art, music or poetry, a bit of subjectivity never hurts. It’s in the assessment of quality where subjectivity is our enemy, especially, when it asserts itself as objectivity.

Steve Slatcher looks at the science of perception, and at the aesthetic concepts on which wine quality, and its appreciation, are based. He also goes into bias and prejudice in far greater detail, and covers a far wider set of prejudices, than my sketch above attempts. The article itself is well worth reading if you can access a copy. It’s the kind of article that WFW does so incomparably well. His conclusions, balanced as they are, nevertheless come down on the side of subjectivity. He argues that “any attempt to make objective statements about the quality of wine is fraught with problems”. But he goes on to propose that the consequence is that we should “equally respect everyone’s opinion on how a wine tastes”. Quite rightly, he exhorts consumers to “[t]rust your own palate”. Understand what you like and don’t defer to a higher authority is also very much my own philosophy…and that in no way negates the value of wine writing. It is from knowledgeable wine writers that we take our own knowledge, and that we hear about exciting new discoveries, or changes, for better or ill, at producers we thought we once knew well.

There is a sentence tucked away in Steve Slatcher’s article which gets to the core of my own concerns about subjectivity in wine appreciation. He points out that when a group of wine professionals assess wines together, they don’t always agree. Indeed, he directly alludes to the divergences not uncommon in World of Fine Wine itself which have often been the subject of discussions on wine forums. In some cases, that disagreement is fundamental. In the same edition of World of Fine Wine, there are tastings, inter alia, of the wines of Roussillon/Collioure, and South African white blends. And in these tastings there are a couple of wines which I know well, and indeed have a fondness for. Their assessments make interesting reading.

The Roussillon tasting didn’t go especially well for the producers. The wines were generally marked positively by Andrew Jefford who, living in the region, presumably has quite a bit of experience of these wines. The other two participants appeared to mark the wines with less generosity. The specific wine I know and like from this tasting is Segna de Cor, an entry level type of red made by the talented Marjorie Gallet at her Roc des Anges estate, based at Latour de France in the Agly Valley.

Andrew Jefford liked the 2012: “…great fun…big, exuberant, fleshy”, giving it 88 points (equivalent, in the WFW scoring system, to a very good wine with some outstanding features). For another taster, it was ” [d]rying and angular…[j]ust dried out and overmanipulated in style”, and worth a miserable 76 points (a sound but dull or boring wine of little or no appeal). The assessment by Jefford puts this wine three scoring brackets higher than the second taster .

In the second, South African, example, it was Andrew Jefford’s turn to be turned off by a wine I know and, on all occasions I’ve tried it, had enjoyed – Mullineux Family’s Swartland White, 2011 (a blend of Chenin, Clairette and Viognier). Two tasters gave it 90 and 88 points respectively (90 points being “outstanding wine”). Jefford found a “heavy, dank nose” instead of “wild and funky”. He found “some sort of fermentation issue”, with an overall assessment of “not a success…though drinkable in certain contexts”. For Andrew, it was worthy of just 79 points. That’s hardly the same wine as that tasted by Andreas Larsson and Jancis Robinson.

Now, I’m not criticising any of the tasters here. I taste a lot. Sometimes my conclusions coincide with those of other tasters, and sometimes they don’t. My peers respect my opinion, and I respect those of the whole WFW panel (although some tasters have greater experience in certain areas than others, and much as I really admire Andrew Jefford, his assessments of Champagnes almost never seem to coincide with mine). Indeed, for the kind of wine lover happy to pay for an expensive subscription to World of Fine Wine, such differences can be fascinating. For the wine novice looking for greater certainty, however, they would find it better expressed elsewhere – the lone-tasting wine guru.

I’m being unfair to single out the examples I have, but one can’t hide them away. When it comes to assessing a wine’s quality, there is often such a spread of opinion that the objectivity of the process itself is called into question. You have to give credit to these writers, who have been prepared to allow such divergences to appear in print, stating clearly that one man’s faulty or dull wine is another’s joyous expression of fruit and terroir…well, almost. But if we can see the subjectivity at work here, why did we ever allow ourselves to place trust in any single wine guru (or god)? Now, as the pendulum swings in so many areas of wine, generally back towards restraint over bombast, from near-mono-culture to greater diversity, from new oak to cement, and from indiscriminate use of chemicals to lutte raisonnée and way beyond, could it not swing back in terms of our (over)reliance on points? Please!



About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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2 Responses to Is It All Tosh? (more on subjectivity)

  1. winenous says:

    Thank you David. With paper publishing, I find I miss the immediate feedback I get from blogging (even if it is just looking at the number of page views), so your comments are particularly welcome. And, as usual with what you have to say, I couldn’t agree more!

    Just one small point though… While strictly-speaking you described my background correctly, it might be easy for someone to come away with the impression that my PhD was centred in experimental psychology. Sadly, it was in a subject not nearly so closely related to my article on subjectivity: fracture mechanics. However I did study experimental psychology for 1/3 year as part of my first degree, and it was definitely one of the more worthwhile bits of my education.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. dccrossley says:

    Apologies for that error Steve. I’m sure you won’t mind that whilst I find your comments on wine to be always pertinent and eminently readable, I can’t profess a similar interest in fracture mechanics. But I’m sorry I got that wrong, and I’m sure there are some who found that research far more valuable than tasting COS Pithos for us. Just, sadly, not me. 😀


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