by Dwight Furrow
The wine world is never short on controversy. Among the most persistent are worries about how wine quality is assessed. Are scores the best way of assessing quality? Why do I disagree with wine critics so much? Why do price and quality often seem unrelated? Are cult wines worth their cost? And what about those florid tasting notes and esoteric descriptors wine critics use that seem to have nothing to do with what I taste?
We need some distinctions to sort out these issues.
Begin by distinguishing two distinct objects of evaluation.* First, there is the process by which we become aware of the aesthetic properties of the wine. This is the process of appreciation, and the object of attention is an experience which is of course guided by the wine. Secondly, instead of evaluating the experience of wine, we could evaluate the wine itself. This might sound odd. How can I gain access to a wine without experiencing it? And indeed, sometimes there would be no difference between my evaluation of the experience and my evaluation of the wine. However, sometimes there is an important difference because each is focused on a different kind of value. When we focus on evaluating an experience we are focused on intrinsic value, the value of an experience independently of how it is used or for what purpose. We enjoy experiences not because they are useful for some purpose but because they are good in themselves. By contrast, we can evaluate a wine for its instrumental value in causing our experience. Wine is good if it brings about an experience that we enjoy.
Here is why this is an important distinction, although I will use something less esoteric than wine as an example. Most of us value cars because they get us where we want to go. Some people value cars because they are fast and can win a race. In both cases the value of the car is instrumental and there are reasonably objective criteria for evaluating cars as a means of transportation. But some people value cars because they like to drive them or look at them. This is also instrumental value but in these cases the car is useful at causing an aesthetic experience.
So the phrase “aesthetic value” can refer to either of two things. It can refer to the instrumental value that adheres to public objects like cars, works of art, wine etc. and their ability to cause an aesthetic experience. Or it can refer to the non-instrumental, intrinsic value caused by the object, my experience itself, which of course is subjective since only I have access to my own experience. The key point here is that we can assess the instrumental value of things if we know their purpose even though we don't care about that purpose. I don't care about the aesthetic value of cars but some people do. As long as I understand the aesthetic properties cars exhibit, I can assign aesthetic value to them even though they don't have that value to me. My experience of a cherried-out “57” Chevy leaves me uninspired but I can nevertheless assess its instrumental value at causing an aesthetic experience when compared to other cars.
Like cars, wine has instrumental value. It can be used as an alcohol delivery system, for greasing the social wheels at a party, or as a prop in a film about upper class ennui, and we can evaluate a wine for how it performs those functions. But we can also value wine just because it provides an experience that we value for its own sake. In this case, the wine has instrumental value. Assuming I know and can discern the properties of a good wine, I can evaluate it for its ability to produce an aesthetic experience even if I don't care for it. This is what competent critics are adept at doing.
Of course, most people don't assess wine in that way. Except under unusual circumstances only wine critics bother to positively assess wines they don't prefer. That is because most of us when we drink wine are interested in the experience; the wine is necessary for the experience but it's the experience that matters. When we assess our experience we're focused on intrinsic value, the value of the experience itself independently of any purpose it might serve. Or, to put this point differently, for anyone other than critics it is really appreciation rather than evaluation that takes priority. Appreciation is focused on intrinsic value because appreciation has as its object an experience, and experiences have intrinsic value. And appreciation is subjective at least in the sense that the experience is my own. It belongs to me and no one else.
Appreciation and evaluation play by quite different rules. Appreciation focuses on a specific experience, what you are experiencing right now. And appreciation is not fundamentally comparative. You can enjoy a particular wine for its aesthetic properties without explicitly comparing it to other wines. More importantly, an appreciative experience is open to every aspect of the experience, a process of discovery rather than critique or justification. It requires a heightened sensitivity to the wine experience which can be positive, negative or involve aspects of both.
By contrast, evaluation abstracts from any particular experience. It looks at many experiences over time, and assigns instrumental value to the object responsible for those experiences. In other words, evaluation asks the question how good is this wine at producing a positive aesthetic experience when compared to other wines. An evaluation assigns instrumental value to a wine by concentrating on features that should stand out to any competent taster—complexity, intensity, depth, balance, etc.
Thus, evaluation requires general criteria that contribute to repeatable elements of the experience that are unlikely to change from circumstance to circumstance. When we evaluate, we arrive at conclusions about a wine by referring to criteria that can be specified in advance about the kind of thing we are evaluating. With regard to wine that involves judging whether the wine is characteristic of its varietal and region.
And in principle, we can formulate reasons to praise or condemn a wine without experiencing it first hand. If someone were to report accurately that a wine lacks complexity or tastes thin and watery that would be reason to condemn it without tasting it.
By contrast, appreciation is open to discovery because there is no prior decision to stay within boundaries that can be specified in advance of experiencing the wine. Appreciation requires competence just as evaluation does but only as a skill, not as a set of fully articulated criteria. Knowing what features a particular wine should have given its varietal, region, and style might call our attention to features that frame our expectations about a wine. But appreciation, instead of judging the presence of qualities we anticipate, aims at discovering whatever is to be found in experiencing a particular work—standard and non-standard, good or bad. Wine writers often perform the mantra “drink what you like” but that captures only a very small part of the appreciative wine experience.
With evaluation, the absence of a standard feature yields a negative evaluation. With appreciation, the absence of a standard feature can be a positive property. A Chianti that lacks high acidity might be negatively evaluated as a Chianti. But that lack of acidity might be interesting and revealing as an aesthetic experience. However, appreciating a specific wine does not rule out interest in it as a kind of thing or an instance of a genre. I can bring my knowledge of the tradition and conventions within which the wine is intended to be understood to aid in appreciation. Much of my appreciation of that under- acidified Chianti stems from its subversion of my expectations of Chianti. So in appreciation we have expectations but we don't judge in relation to those expectations.
In summary, appreciation differs from evaluation in that they have different goals and focus on different properties. The goal of appreciation is to savor what is there and to discover the various kinds of experiences on offer. The goal of evaluation is to render a verdict and assign the wine a ranking. Appreciation focuses on all the properties available in an experience while evaluation focuses on the properties specified in advance as markers of quality.
The aforementioned controversies in the wine world are often the result of conflating these two quite distinct activities. From this analysis it's easy to see how the judgments of critics and consumers might diverge. The primary job of a wine critic is evaluation. Wine critics are telling you something important about the wine—its instrumental value for the drinking public when compared to other wines in its comparison class. What they can't do is assess your experience. Only you can do that. This doesn't mean they are wrong or full of baloney when their judgment doesn't conform to your judgment. It means they are focused on instrumental value while the wine consumer typically is focused on the intrinsic value of her experience. (Consumers and critics can of course switch roles. Nothing precludes the consumer from playing amateur critic or the critic from appreciation her experience.)
We value wine for diverse reasons and applying a set of fixed criteria, as the critic, does will not be sensitive to that diversity. A wine that is great in one context will be dreadful in another. But wine criticism by necessity abstracts from this and looks at wine in a generic context, assessing its instrumental value in producing aesthetic experience to a broad spectrum of individuals under ideal conditions. Thus, just as critics should avoid leaping from the conclusion that a wine is instrumentally valuable to the conclusion that anyone who tastes it in any context will find it pleasing, consumers should not expect a judgment about the instrumental value of a wine to conform to their personal taste preferences.
Regarding the lack of coherence between price and quality the most important factor has nothing to do with tasting. Price reflects supply and demand not intrinsic quality; the cult wine phenomenon is in part a function of restricting supply while using strategic marketing to ramp up demand and with it the price. But this doesn't quite explain why connoisseurs, if they are neither investors nor easily fooled by marketing, flock to these wines. Putting aside explanations such as following fashion and showing off which surely explains some of their popularity, another factor is that at least some so-called cult wines are distinctive. They provide a taste experience different from their competition and are for that reason highly valued. But distinctiveness is not easily assessed using standard criteria such as complexity, intensity, or depth and is not well captured via a ranking. In other words, recognizing distinctiveness or uniqueness requires an appreciative stance along with skill at comparison. Since the object of evaluation is in part the experience of distinctiveness which itself has a kind of intrinsic value there will be a good deal of subjectivity to these judgments about what is distinctive and how worthy that distinction is. At this level of highest quality, assessment hovers uncertainly between instrumental and intrinsic value as its aim and thus involves both objective assessment and subjective appreciation. This is why wine critics can disagree vehemently about these wines—the value of that distinctiveness does depend on personal taste.
And finally, regarding the florid tasting notes and unusual descriptors often found in wine criticism, these are attempts to describe the distinctiveness that some high quality wines exhibit. In other words, the tasting note is in part an attempt to capture the experience of appreciation. Thus, they are inherently subjective since they aim to describe an experience. I suppose some might argue that wine critics should stick to an assessment of instrumental value and avoid describing their experience. But that is unnecessarily restrictive and opposed to criticism in music, film or literature all which include some information about the critic's (hopefully well informed) personal reaction.
If criticism is treated not as answering the question what should I drink but as answering the question what is there about this wine that is interesting, these controversies about objectivity are mitigated. There is room for objective assessment as well as subjective appreciation. Both are central to the wine experience. When subjective elements having to do with a critic's personal preferences enter the picture in the description of the wine that's a good thing. It's doing what all good writing should do—providing a window into someone else's experience, giving you information from a different point of view perhaps one that you don't share.
What criticism is not doing is assessing your experience.
But that conclusion must include a caveat, which requires that we introduce one more object of criticism. The third thing we might evaluate in addition to a wine or an experience is the cultural significance of the wine or perhaps the people who drink it. We can evaluate the preferences of individuals or groups and the cultural implications of those preferences. Aesthetically evaluating a specific wine is a different project than evaluating whether it is good for society or not, and the latter evaluation requires a significant shift in perspective. Judging a particular wine involves accepting the conventions of the established categories in which the wine fits, appreciating it as the kind of thing it is, thereby enabling comparative rankings. But when evaluating trends in wine culture we might be looking at the aesthetic consequences of a trend that challenge those conventions.
A few years ago, critics, somms, and some winemakers began to disparage high alcohol wines for their lack of finesse and nuance. Such judgments are thoroughly aesthetic but have as their object neither one's personal experience nor the instrumental value of a wine but a kind of taste preference in general. This begins as an appreciative judgment about one's personal experience but shifts to a cultural perspective. Today, many of us argue that the current trend toward consolidation in the wine industry with small producers being swallowed by multi-national corporations has negative consequences for wine culture generally. This judgment is partly aesthetic since wines made by large corporate entities tend to be less distinctive and the personal, intimate aspects of wine culture are diminished. But there are moral and economic arguments that come into play as well that are not fundamentally aesthetic.
Again, it is important to distinguish the object of evaluation. You can have a perfectly fine appreciative experience of an industrially-made wine while condemning its social consequences or larger aesthetic impact because the object of evaluation and type of value are distinct—one is the evaluation of an experience, the other an evaluation of a set of preferences on the wine community as a whole.
Debates in the wine world tend to generate more heat than light because we fail to attend to the object and kind of value being evaluated.
*These distinctions in aesthetic judgment have been deeply informed by Theodore Gracyk's analysis, especially in his book Listening to Popular Music.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution