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).