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.

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The power of blending: On sherry, beer, and Brexit

Friday saw me thinking a lot about blending. I awoke to the seemingly impossible news that the UK (or, more precisely, English voters, as folks here in Edinburgh will be quick to point out) had voted to leave the European Union. And then I went to work, where we’re exemplifying the power of blending multidisciplinary research teams. I sat in a synthetic biology lab populated by microbiologists, geneticists, automation and biomedical engineers, computer scientists, designers, and me (the resident social scientist), by people from across Europe, Asia, and North America, where we all ended up spending more time mutually coping with Brexit than talking about yeast genetics.

Arguments in favor of the power of blending evidently didn’t win over British separatists. I can’t help but wonder whether Remain would have prevailed if the British population spent more time with good sherry and good beer instead of gulping unthinkingly through volumes of the cheap stuff. Granted, that opinion has a lot to do with the evening’s events after I left the lab, the first of which was an informal sherry tasting.

Sherry conveys one lesson about blending: resilience comes from interdependence. Fino and Manzanilla – “biologically aged” styles – age under a blanket (the unsuspecting would probably say “scum”) of oxygen-dependent yeast. In contrast with ordinary table wines, sherry barrels are only filled partially, leaving plenty of oxygen-filled head space to let flor yeast develop on the exposed surface. That space, plus the hot climate, means plenty of evaporation, which means that barrel volumes are topped up with wine from younger barrels, and so on down the line – the solera system, which also helps build microbial consistency from year to year.

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The “quality” of heavy bottles and cross-modal sensory perception (Social construction of wine appreciation at ICCWS, part I)

When Dr. Charles Spence stood up to speak at the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton a week ago, I was looking forward to the reaction of the audience as much as to his presentation. Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, and I’ve read some of his published research. He documents examples of integrative multisensory experiences – connections amongst taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch – and experiments with ways to manipulate experiences in one sensory mode by messing about with what’s happening in our other sensory channels. The data he generates are important for marketers, who would obviously love to sell more X with an inexpensive trick like changing the music or the lighting or the colors surrounding a consumption experience.

Much of Spence’s research has involved wine quality, and most people in the wine industry are interested in marketing (not all winemakers are trying to sell more wine or sell the wine they have at higher prices, but many are); ergo, his conclusions might be useful for helping industry folk generate new marketing ideas, like harmonious wine and music pairings to sell new and different wine experiences that increase perceptions of wine quality. But more than that, crossmodal sensory perception is fun to think about, to play with the idea that how “crunchy” a chip is depends on the sound it makes and not just the physical way it feels in your mouth, or that music can “make” a wine more or less astringent. “Taste” or “smell” isn’t a fixed property of food or drink, and more environmental variables contribute to how we experience taste and smell than we usually consider. That’s good food for thinking about how attending to all of our senses in an experience can make for better living, too.

On the one hand, Spence’s observations are pretty darn mundane. Tasting with unpleasant, discordant music makes wine taste more sharp and angular. Duh? On the other, Spence’s work is unusual in this still-all-too-reductionist world, and he’s an eminent Oxford professor, and his conclusions are useful for the money-making types. So as a science communicator, I wondered, were session attendees going to be delighted? Bored? Surprised? I need to consider that a goodly proportion of ICCWS attendees were British, and as a culture the Brits aren’t exactly known for being expressive in public. But there was one moment at which I absolutely expected to hear a murmur in the crowd and didn’t.

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