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Are ‘Matters of Taste’ Matters of Taste?

Michael Langford argues for a degree of objectivity in aesthetics.

In this article I am concerned with matters of taste quite literally – in the context of wine-tasting. I have a particular interest in this topic because, in addition to having been a teacher of philosophy, from 1970 until 1996 I was professionally involved with the wine trade as wine consultant to the Liquor Control Board of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland.

Many people use the term ‘matter of taste’ to refer to matters thought to be purely subjective, implying that no judgments concerning them have objective authority. Horace’s aphorism De gustibus non est disputandum (‘matters of taste are not properly disputable’) is sometimes quoted in support of this view. In other words, matters of taste are personal preferences only, not matters of right or wrong, or otherwise responsive to reasonable dispute. I shall argue that in the case of wine-tasting it is not, at least principally, a matter of taste in this purely subjective sense.

Horace was probably referring to sexual preferences, although it is evident that, rightly or wrongly, those tastes are hugely open to dispute. In contrast, some matters of taste, such as a preference for pea soup rather than onion soup, might seem to be obviously completely subjective. However, even here there is room for dispute, because gastronomes often claim that education and the cultivation of discrimination ought to affect judgments. I shall not pursue this complication here, but it does raise the issue of whether any ‘matter of taste’ is immune from rational judgment. In what follows I shall assume that there are some areas of taste that ought not to be the subject of rational debate (whether or not soup falls into this category), and thereby make a contrast between issues where rational debate is appropriate, and where it is not.

Before concentrating on wine, we should also note that this issue is related to more general themes in aesthetics, and in particular to the old saw ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. This familiar saying is obviously true in the trivial sense that what I enjoy or appreciate (which are not necessarily the same) is a matter of my disposition, physical make-up, personal history and so on. However, in the much more robust sense in which the saying implies that matters of aesthetic taste generally are purely subjective and do not admit of objective judgements, I join with those who claim that this belief is mistaken.

The issue, properly understood, is not (for example) whether classical music is intrinsically superior to jazz – to which question there may indeed be no rational answer – but whether, within a particular genre of music, there are objective standards that one can learn to appreciate. For instance, there are manifest reasons why Bach, let us say, is a much greater composer than many of his contemporaries also writing in the baroque style. The superiority of the mathematical structures of his fugues can actually be demonstrated, up to a point; but my argument relies more on the observation that the vast majority of those who familiarize themselves with his music end up with a similar judgment. I am not saying that Bach would score ten and Handel (say) nine on some objective scale (see Jefford and Draper on the analogous problem of scoring wine, in Questions of Taste, p. 216, ed. Barry Smith); but rather, that both Bach and Handel are examples of great baroque composers, in contrast with many others within the same genre. Among other things, this means that their study is more rewarding and is more likely to open vistas of understanding to the whole realm of music. I would make parallel claims for the other major fields of art too. In this article I shall argue that given the possibility of aesthetic judgment in music, painting, ballet, etc., wine-tasting should be credited with an analogous possibility of judgment, and that in this particular sense, wine-tasting can be objective. (Notoriously, ‘objective’ is used in several different senses. Here I mean more than ‘without personal bias’: in my usage the term also implies that there are non-subjective rational criteria for the judgments involved.)

My argument for an element of objectivity in the aesthetics of wine begins by pointing to a series of close analogies between serious wine-tasting and other areas of aesthetics.

Five Analogies with Traditional Forms of Art

Before listing the analogies with the traditional arts, I want to acknowledge an interesting difference. Most art forms involve just one of our senses – sight or sound – while others, such as opera and ballet, both of these. Wine-tasting, however, involves four, and possibly all five, of our senses. Smell and taste are clearly dominant: but sight plays a significant role, because of the importance of colour, and also (although this is less often appreciated) touch – for example in the viscosity or ‘prickliness’ of certain wines. (I have heard it argued that sound also comes into the picture, namely with the fizz, or even with the popping of corks, but I would not want to push this point, and I prefer to say that wine is unusual in making claims on at least four of our senses.) However – and this is an important clarification – when we refer to the tasting of wines, we do not usually think of ‘taste’ in the sense of one of the five senses – the one that has the ability to discern flavours. Instead we nearly always refer to an overall judgment made through four senses.

Let us turn now to the analogies. First, there is a clear difference between the pleasure response “I like this claret” and the aesthetic response “I judge this to be a good example of a claret.” Despite the obvious fact that most of the time we tend to like what we also judge to be aesthetically good, this distinction is one reason why I reject the ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ attitude to art. For example, it is perfectly coherent for someone who happens not to like Impressionist painting to say: “This is a good example of Renoir,” and if they are an educated critic, to be able to give reasons for this judgment. Similarly, I happen not to like sherry (with certain exceptions), but when I was involved in professional tasting, I was perfectly able to observe something like: “This is a good example of a fino.” (On this point see also Cain Todd, The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication, 2010, p.116.)

This leads immediately to the second analogy. We make aesthetic judgments within certain reasonably well-defined categories. In music, the influence of the stylistic features of the Romantic period for instance, means that one judges the quality of a piece within certain boundaries. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of much great art is that the very limitations imposed by its genre (for example, in writing for a string quartet with sixteen strings and no more, each with a defined range; or designing a building entirely in stone) actually enable extraordinary elements of creativity. Similarly, if I am judging a range of red Burgundies, I am judging within the parameters of what can be achieved with a single variety of grape, or cepage – in this case the pinot noir – in addition to other limitations, for example, concerning permitted regions and methods of vinification. I am not trying to evaluate the Burgundy as if it were a claret – where, in addition to differences of soil, or terroir, and of climate and method of vinification, up to five different grapes are allowed to be blended. Again, whether or not I happen to be a claret or a Burgundy fancier is not the point: rather, it’s that making a cross-genre judgment, in this case by comparing claret with Burgundy, is rather like trying to argue that classical music is better than jazz. This is not what aesthetic judgment is about, although such opinions may quite properly be matters of personal (purely subjective) taste. What I have noticed, again and again, when a range of clarets is blind-tasted by professionals, is how similar their tasting notes often turn out to be. Here is overwhelming evidence that there are objectively-discernable patterns and structures in the tastes of wine. (Todd makes a similar point.) Relating art criticism to discernable structures also facilitates giving reasons for a judgment, for example about why a certain painting is a good example of a Renoir. These reasons will be very different from “I like it,” and will include, in the case of a Sauterne, comments on the balance between fruit and acidity, and parallel comments on all other kinds of wine, taking into account not just wine in general, but the kind of structure or balance that typically goes with being a good claret or Burgundy or Chianti, and so on.

A third and often unrecognized analogy lies in the historical dimension that acts as a background to most aesthetic judgments. If some ancient Greek sculptors were awoken from a frozen state and presented with a Henry Moore, what would they make of it? Their likely bafflement should not give rise to a criticism either of their judgments or of ours, because Henry Moore’s works (only) make sense within the context of the history of sculpture. This context illustrates his reasons for the way he moulds his figures.

Wine, likewise, fits into an historical pattern. Wine-making probably began in the Fertile Crescent some five to eight thousand years ago, and we know that by classical Greek times there were aesthetic judgments being made about wine; for example, about the excellence of a vintage we reckon as 121 BCE and call Opimian. Whether or not our tastes would now respond positively to an amphora of Opimian miraculously preserved in prime condition would be a most interesting experiment; but a negative assessment would not necessarily signify a failure by the wine-maker, or by the ancient Greek critics, or by us. (Interestingly, one reason for the possibility of creating fine wine in addition to plonk was the invention by the Greeks of non-porous amphorae that allowed wine to mature. Because wine was mostly matured and stored in porous wooden barrels following the collapse of the Roman Empire, fine wine was then much less in evidence until long-term storage in glass began in the seventeenth century, although claret was not generally matured in bottle until the great ‘comet vintage’ of 1811.)

A fourth analogy concerns those art forms in which one can distinguish the ‘art object’ itself from its particular manifestations. In this case we find both an analogy, and a significant difference, with music. In music, we could take Beethoven’s Eroica symphony as a superb example of an artistic creation, and particular performances of it as manifestations of this creation. In the case of music, there is no one ‘perfect’ manifestation or representation, because part of the nature of music is that there are many legitimate variations in the interpretation of a score – as well as countless illegitimate interpretations. An obvious example of the latter would be when the violins are out of tune, but I would want to include more interesting examples, as when a conductor uses wildly inappropriate tempi. Indeed, one of the great features of music is that there is creativity both in the score and in its interpretation and performance – which, for example, allow a whole variety of tempi, but not just any tempo!

In the case of wine there is both an analogy and an important difference here. The 1921 Chateau Cheval Blanc (the greatest claret I have been privileged to drink) could be seen as a great work of art, and the particular bottles as manifestations of it that differ one from another, especially as they age. Further, up to a point, one could claim that there are legitimate variations in flavour, because wine lovers have different preferences regarding the amount of ageing, with corresponding reductions in flavours such as tannin. There can also be bad or corked bottles – perhaps these correspond to what I have called illegitimate interpretations of Beethoven. However, this analogy cannot be pressed, in particular because Beethoven’s score represents a kind of eternal pattern. It might be possible to argue that the precise chemical formula of the 1921 Cheval Blanc stood for an equivalent eternal pattern; and if this suggestion were entertained, there could be an interesting counter-argument to Tim Crane’s insistence in Questions of Taste that “wine is essentially ephemeral” (p.144) and the similar claim in The Philosophy of Wine that wine is only present “in its instances” (p.143). In support of my view, I might add that an analogous situation arises with painting, especially in the case of frescoes that deteriorate in a way that parallels the eventual deterioration of wine. One could make a case for claiming that in both cases the ‘art object’ is the eternal pattern – of the vintage or of the image. However, I hesitate to go down this road, in part because the range of legitimate interpretations of a symphony is not analogous to a range of bottles, as the differences there represent a variation by chance rather than by the creative design of great conductors. Also, there is no reason in principle why paintings must change which corresponds to the way in which wine, as an organic product, must.

A fifth analogy concerns the experiences of both private and social occasions in which art is typically enjoyed. Listening to a recording of a great string quartet in the privacy of one’s drawing room is one kind of experience, playing it another, and listening to it in a public performance is a third. All three have their place in the life of music, and I much regret the lack of opportunity in many places for people to experience the third, in which (notwithstanding the nuisance of the occasional cough) the audience’s participation can somehow contribute to the overall experience. In the case of wine, the first and third examples of appreciation are made evident in Roger Scruton’s book I Drink Therefore I Am, and also stressed by Barry Smith. Intoxication, at least in a certain measure, is quite different from drunkenness, and Professor Scruton is right to refer to “the social virtue of communal drinking” (p.144). (For an example of participation in the actual making of the art form, one would have to look to the art of the wine-maker, who corresponds to composer, conductor and player.)

I suspect additional analogies could be provided, including concerning the memorable occasions of great performances and great bottles, but I hope the five described provide sufficient ammunition for the plausibility of the claim that wine-tasting should be considered a predominantly objective activity, even if further argument is needed to show that this activity should be ranked with more traditional art appreciation.

Some Likely Objections

The apparent absence of emotional expression is the most serious objection to the claim that wine is an art form. But before discussing this I shall consider three other objections.

The first builds on some familiar research carried out by the psychologist Richard Wiseman and widely reported in the press in April, 2011, which showed that most people, tasting blind, could not tell whether an unknown wine was plonk or expensive. This objection would only be relevant if the public being tested had the kind of experience which parallels those who can distinguish a good performance of say, a Mozart symphony, from a poor one. Given the probability that only some five per cent of the general population would have the experience to make such a judgment in music or wine, any analogous test would have to take these five per cent as their sample. I fully admit that in principle a test of experienced people might show that my belief in the objective element of judgment in music or wine was misplaced: but given the rigid nature of the examinations of those applying to be Masters of Wine, for example, I think this is highly improbable. This is not to deny that there can be serious disagreements among wine experts, but these parallel those between music experts.

A second line of attack might accept the similarity of judgment of this taste-educated five or so per cent of the population, but argue that the commonalities of judgment are the result of similar (subjective) prejudices: the ‘experienced’ or cognoscenti may have similar tastes, but these are what they have been told to have, or conditioned to have by cultural factors – perhaps sinisterly orchestrated by financial interests. Further ammunition for this argument might relate how Australians, for example, have somewhat different palates from the French.

While admitting a quite proper place for regional tastes and preferences, I do not find this argument persuasive in the light of the evidence for objective criteria of quality. Similarly, many of those familiar with (say) classical Chinese music may well prefer that genre to classical Western music; but this would not reduce the plausibility of the claim that music may be objectively evaluated.

A third line of attack focuses on the difficulties of giving reasons in objective language for the discernment of the structures I claim underlie good judgment in wine-tasting. Tasting notes can indeed be parodied only too easily: ‘An inoffensive little wine’; ‘traces of lychee mingled with the tannins’; ‘a hint of chestnut streaked with smokiness’ and so on. (See Lehrer’s chapter entitled ‘Can Wines be Brawny?’ in Questions of Taste.)

Despite Cain Todd’s defence of much of this language in Chapter 2 of The Philosophy of Wine, I must admit to a nervousness over the objectivity of many tasting notes, and the extraordinary inexactitude of some wine language – which does indeed contrast with the precision of language used by an experienced music critic. I do not have a knock-down refutation of this line of argument, and indeed, I think that the nature of wine language and the related reasons for preferring one wine to another, even within the same genre, merit more discussion. I suggest that human beings have not yet developed the same kind of subtleties of language in relation to smell and taste as they have in relation to sight and sound, probably because these subtleties are not so essential for our survival as they are for many other animals.

Wine As An Art Form?

As already indicated, if there are objective criteria in the area of wine-tasting, as I have attempted to show, this does not by itself demonstrate that wine-tasting should be elevated to the position of an art, alongside music and painting. The major problem is that wine-making and wine-tasting cannot express or evoke human emotions in a systematic way that parallels the power of the classic art forms. Cain Todd makes a valiant attempt in Chapter 5 of The Philosophy of Wine to argue that wine can, but I remain unconvinced. Certainly, if the ability to express or evoke emotion is taken to be one of the defining characteristics of being an art form, then wine is in trouble. However, I do not think that we always use the term ‘art’ so strictly. Further, it is sometimes hard to draw a sharp line between a craft and an art. For example, we might say of a great wood carver or potter that they were ‘true artists’. A wood carving, for example of a pieta [Mary cradling a crucified Jesus – Ed] can certainly express emotion: but it is less clear how a pot does so. Further still, up to a point, it is the job of a philosopher to recommend linguistic usage as well as describe it; and since I wish to elevate those aesthetic activities that contribute significantly to human well-being, I would tend to grant art form status to those aesthetic activities that satisfy two conditions. First, they must have objective criteria of judgment within the context of a long history of appreciation. This is one reason why I would not, at this time, place beer-tasting in this category. However, in the light of the huge aesthetic interest in microbrewing, I might change my mind on this matter. Further, tea-tasting, especially in China, might well pass this ‘historic’ criterion for being an ‘art-form’. Second, for an activity to qualify as an art form it must have the capacity to open new vistas of aesthetic experience.

In the light of these criteria, and of the fact that the generally acknowledged art forms are so diverse, I propose a compromise: wine-tasting should be seen as an important form of art appreciation, which can significantly enhance both individual and social well-being, but we should not elevate wine to the same level of art as, say, music.

Some Practical Suggestions

Those wishing to explore wine as a potential art form are often put off because of the extraordinary price of the most famous wines. However, there is also a happy side to the story. In the past fifty years the application of wine chemistry, including the exemplary work of the Davis Institute of California, has resulted in a spectacular improvement in the quality of inexpensive wines. The very best wines, in all probability, are no better (and no worse) than in the past; but not only has vin ordinaire become very much better for the most part, most regions now have wonderful examples of fine wine for £10-£20 a bottle. As an academic I can no longer afford my favourite tipple of fifty years ago, Chateau Latour – much of which, alas, is bought by rich people for business lunches – but through good distributors I can still afford the occasional top wine from (say) the Minervois region of France, and with my wife and a group of friends enjoy a memorable bottle that enhances the fellowship and the conversation.

© Dr Michael Langford, 2012

Michael Langford is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, the Memorial University of Newfoundland; and in semi-retirement, an affiliated lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. His recent writings include a murder mystery novel, The de Vere Papers (Parapress 2008), which contains many references to wine.

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