The objectivity of subjectivity in wine tasting and UC Davis’s first enology professor

Dr. Steve Shapin is a professor of the history of science at Harvard and a distinguished senior scholar. He’s also an oenophile. Sometimes these things mix, especially when he’s talking about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. When they do, I end up with five or six emails from friends and colleagues saying, “Hey, Erika, did you see that wine article in [title of the most eminent academic journal in our field]?”

Yes, I did. And since you can’t, unless you belong to an institution that subscribes to Social Studies of Science, here are Dr. Shapin’s main points:

  • Maynard Amerine and the sensory science movement he engineered as the University of California Davis’s first enology professor were “objectivity engines” that turned uselessly soft subjective experience into reliably hard objective knowledge…
  • BECAUSE (at least in part) Amerine needed tools to help producers improve California’s wine quality, and then needed to be able to convince Francophilic American wine consumers that Californian wine was really, objectively, good wine
  • BUT: subjective and objective assessments are essentially dependent on each other, with the “objective” tools the product of documenting one or a group of individuals’ subjective experiences and asserting that everyone should use their terms…
  • AND: what counts as objective and subjective in any context depends on that context, and a bunch of what counts in the 20th c. Amerine/Davis tradition as Objective Wine Sensory Information would be called a subjective judgment somewhere else.

In short, capitalism (and egos or, if you’d rather, a man with a dream) had a lot to do with why we’re now all talking about raspberry and asparagus flavors instead of about elegance and finesse. Alright: some of us still use elegance and finesse, but Amerine wouldn’t have approved. Shapin, who spent time in the archive of Amerine’s papers, says that Amerine also didn’t approve of “flinty,” “petrol,” or “terroir;” the first two were characteristics he said he’d never found in wine, and the third was just the result of dirty winemaking. With very few exceptions, his terms didn’t refer to specific chemical compounds in wine (those came later, and Amerine was skeptical about explaining sensory impressions in terms of specific chemicals); they were about choosing terms that had some kind of “real” referent in sensory experience. According to his system, you could find raspberry in wine, but you couldn’t find elegance.

It’s hard – and maybe pointless – to try to disentangle Amerine’s interests in making academic researchers (especially UC professors) THE authority on winemaking from his motivation to improve Californian wine quality, and to improve Californian wine sales, and to build the field of wine science.* In addition, Amerine seems to have been honest-to-goodness offended by the idea of wine consumers being fed unscientific romantic nonsense. Florid tasting notes were clearly a pretentious British move, and Americans needn’t let themselves be deluded by that kind of nonsense. Americans could use the power of science to find the real truth.

I’m making Amerine sound ridiculous. He wasn’t, and Shapin doesn’t make him seem that way. Amerine was the first professor of viticulture and enology at the greatest agricultural university in the English-speaking world. He was absolutely central to both wine science and the California industry taking off so spectacularly in the 20th century. My father’s copy of his classic book on the production of table wines was one of the first experiences with wine science I had growing up. His opus is impressive.

But Amerine was also supremely confident in scientific objectivity and his ability to identify it, and he held an incredibly powerful position. And so we have this strange situation, of a university professor arguing the virtues of objectivity but saying that IF someone ever detected petrol in a wine, it was likely to have been the result of contamination with actual gasoline.

Dr. Shapin’s conclusion, in keeping with his interests as a historian of science, makes the point that “commercial concerns [can] turn the subjective qualities of personal preference into forms of objectivity;” that ideas about “objective” and “subjective” knowledge are flexible and able to vary not just with scientific but with commercial concerns. Absolutely. As a wine writer/science and technology studies scholar with a tendency to let her feminism show in public, I’m only left wanting to put some additional emphasis on how one domineering individual, who believes in the superiority of his ability to access the truth, can exert power over whole generations-worth of wine drinkers in the sacred name of scientific objectivity.


*I can’t feel comfortable writing that sentence unless I note that similar movements to scientification and professionalization and standardization were also happening in other agricultural sectors. Talking about wine just tends to attract more attention than talking about, say, wheat, or apples (though my former mentor Katharine Legun has plenty of interesting things to say about apples).

7 thoughts on “The objectivity of subjectivity in wine tasting and UC Davis’s first enology professor

  1. To that end, here are some of my similar observations with regard to objectivity/subjectivity in wine competitions.
    Thank you for your smart and provocative blog.

    After 29 years as judge for the prestigious Orange County Fair Wine Competition in California, I do have some observations.

    The OCFWC is not a concensus judging. The five jurists per panel are asked to score each/all wines and also recommend (or not recommend) a medal. The scores and recommendations are then weighted/averaged by an objective external awards committee. It’s a clean system wherein strong opinions do not drown others during the tasting. It is not, however, without flaws.

    Problematic to this competition (and all wine competitions in general) is the spectre of personal bias which is not at all the same thing as personal experience or skill. If the apple pies or roses at their respective competitions were to be judged as we do wines, Mom’s pie and Grandma’s roses would always be the marque…. whether they were actually entered or not.

    Judges bring with them the illusion of the perfect wine (usually one of their own or “Chenin Blanc cannot ever be of gold medal quality because Chardonnay is the best”). I argue that a wine competition is supposed to be about those who have gone to the time and expense of entering the competition and not some phantom product which has, more than likely, morphed over time.

    If there are three wines (or pies or roses) in a given class and none are flawed then there must be a Gold, a Silver and a Bronze winner no matter the judges’ biased style preference or convoluted taste memory. Consequently, it is not reasonable, fair nor accurate to have a class where any medals are given (can be no flaws) and have no gold medal or blue ribbon awarded.

    Absent personal ego, the best wine, pie or rose on the table that day is, by definition, the Blue or the Gold by definition and default. What is frequently lost on most wine judges is that they are not there to judge against their personal opinion of the world’s best but only among those wines which actually showed up.

    Ray Krause

    • Thanks for that insider commentary on wine judging, Ray. You’re highlighting an important factor in sensory experience: memory of past experiences and our associations with them, which obviously differ from person to person. Those memories may be convoluted, but they’re also a major and inextricable part of everyone’s sensory experience. You can’t smell lychees in Gewürztraminer unless you’ve tasted lychees, or unless someone’s told you how lychees are supposed to smell in that context, and in either case your peculiar experience of lychee will be different than someone else’s. That’s how we construct sensory experiences; relying on past experience isn’t a fault and we can’t (and shouldn’t) make our memories go away. What we can do is follow a standardized protocol for applying our individual, subjective, memory-influenced sensory experiences to creating a score or other value judgment — patterning our individual subjective experiences in similar ways so that they can be lined up with other people’s subjective experiences and compared in an agreed-upon way — and I think that’s what you’re indicating makes a good wine judge: someone who agrees to follow the agreed-upon rules.

  2. I love your blog. As a Canadian sommelier who has lived in France now for the past 14 years and one who has studied and has been certified in viticulture and oenology.. this article made me blush many times. Bravo. Thank you for this article. Perspective is complicated and surely when cultures and traditions, education and then science and emotion are introduced into the mix… I could write pages!!! But then that would be my perspective lol.. Thanks again for posting on this this subject.. awesome blog ! merci beaucoup 🙂

    • Thanks, Stacey! Do write about your thoughts sometime. Your perspective is clearly informed by lots of useful experience and thinking, and bringing together lots of perspectives improves our understanding of wine and of each other and of the world we create together. Merci beaucoup pour votre commentaire!

  3. Very provocative blog post! I too have been thinking along these lines of subjectivity but more in terms of how our wine speak is not being used to truly service others — to serve as tools of connectivity. I keep thinking about whether we are evolving or devolving in the way that we speak about wine and why we seem to be moving in the direction of privatizing that “speak”.

    • Thanks, Karen. Those are interesting questions. First, I think that most wine writing is more about the person writing and/or about selling wine than it is about providing a service for consumers, but that’s only a small part of the bigger question you’ve raised. To ask whether we’re evolving or devolving, whether we’re improving or getting worse, we have to have some idea of what wine writing and/or tasting notes is trying to accomplish. Is the point of a tasting note to accurately describe the wine according to some standard? Then the point isn’t about maximizing “access” or understandability, and we need some standard for “accuracy,” and improving is about following that standard more closely. Is the point to excite readers, to make the greatest number of people as enthusiastic as possible about wine? Or maybe the point is to express your feelings as the taster/writer, or to write something elegant, or to write something that appeals to a particular market and increases sales. If the goal is to help people, we have to specify which people, and what we’re trying to help them to do. All of these are different goals, served by different kinds of language, so we can’t talk about whether we’re getting better or worse without answering the question about goals first. As for me, I’d far rather NOT try to have a unified goal and NOT judge whether we’re improving as a field, but make the question more individual about whether any given person is achieving their aims.

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