Taste and Expertise in Wine
The three competencies that we have discussed may, taken together, be said to make up ‘expertise.’ An expert is someone who is seen by others as having relevant competencies in a particular field, and whose judgments are accorded normative force. It is not terribly difficult to understand how someone could come to be an expert gardener, heart surgeon or deep-sea diver. Nor is it difficult to see how such a person’s competencies come to be recognized, or why in their field their judgments are accorded respect. But, how can anyone claim expertise in wine appreciation – or for that matter in aesthetic appreciation more generally?
One issue is the credibility of the world’s experts on wine – why should we trust them? Linked to this are probably the assumptions behind the implicit claims that wine can be assessed or judged with validity extending beyond the utterer at the time of utterance.
No less than the practical and theoretical competencies on which it depends is the aesthetic competency a requirement for judging wines as part of an aesthetic project. However, a crucial part of the development of this competency is to be subjected to exemplars of wines and to the typical ways that they are evaluated and discussed. From such wines, under the guidance of an expert and within an aesthetic project, aesthetic attributes such as ‘delicate,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘profound’ and so on might emerge. The project is what allows aesthetic features to emerge, be noticed explicitly, and to be appreciated. The development of the competency also requires exposure to wines that fail to exhibit positive aesthetic qualities – or fail to do so very marginally. We can agree with all the above and perhaps still wonder exactly how the rest of us know who is an expert, and why anyone should pay them any notice.
To try to answer these questions, this article will return to Hume’s essay, to find out what critics do, and how. We will then discuss the facts concerning expertise in wine today – for example, the Master of Wine qualification – and evaluate their philosophical significance. Finally, we will look at Jerrold Levinson’s analysis of the role of a canon in identifying and giving credence to experts.
Taste and Discernment
The capacity to discern the aesthetically relevant features of an object, to have taste, is a precondition for utterances on aesthetic matters having normative force. Hume even claimed that “it is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste ,” 1 by which the difference between good and bad judgments may be decided. To attain this standard, however, is no easy matter since “all sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself, and is always real, wherever a man is conscious of it.” 2 Aesthetic judgments are not objective; they are subjective in the sense that their grounds are present to a single consciousness at a given time. A classification or deductive reasoning like “This is a rose and roses are beautiful, so therefore this rose is beautiful” is not a judgment of taste, and not properly aesthetic. One way of characterizing aesthetic judgment is that it is a singular judgment made by a subject about an object or phenomenon at a specific time. Aesthetic judgments are solely made with reference to what is present to the mind of the person making the judgment, even though – of course – we take those attributes we claim are present to be derived from the object. I judge this sunset to be beautiful, or you might find Munch’s painting Sick Girl to be poignant. The subject judges the object. This is the general assumption when normativity in aesthetics is discussed. Even allowing for this essential subjectivity, says Hume, some statements about aesthetic merit seem to contradict or at least restrain the familiar proverb de gustibus, non disputandum est . A species of common sense holds that “Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between OGILBY and MILTON, or BUNYAN and ADDISON, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as TENERIFE, or a pond as extensive as the ocean … The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot …” 3 The question that has exercised the great minds of aestheticians from Hume and Kant to the present day is what the source of normativity in aesthetic judgments can be. The classic problem of taste is how one can claim objective or inter-subjective validity for judgments the basis of which are the contents of a single mind at a single point in time.
It is important to note that Hume’s examples are from literature – if we except his comparisons with matters topographical – and they relate to the relative merits not of works, but of the quality of the output from authors. Rather than singular statements about the aesthetic merit of a work, then, the “extravagance” refers to the common agreement about the general skills or merits of individual authors based, presumably, on their œuvre . Hume’s examples are not about single works like Milton’s Paradise Lost but, in a manner of speaking, about these authors as sources of greatness or mediocrity. There is, thus, an important difference between the grounds of an aesthetic judgment and the judgments of relative value regarding the entire output of the authors mentioned in the quotation from Hume. It is not about the relative merits of a poem by Milton and a work by the long-forgotten Ogilby, but about their standing in the culture. The former would be an aesthetic judgment; the judgment about their cultural standing is not. Hume’s point, then, is that aesthetic judgments although singular are and must be informed by wider cultural values – such as we see with the formation of formal or informal canons. There are canons in wine just as there are canons in the arts.
Hume’s approach to loosening the hold of the de gustibus through common agreement finds easy accommodation in the world of wine. Sedimented judgments about “genius and elegance,” to use Hume’s phrase, in wine find their locus not on the œuvre of a vintner but in ‘sources of greatness’ such as specific sites, or properties souring their grapes from sites within a defined area – such as Champagne. Both for Hume’s examples of authors and for the aesthetic quality in wine, the supra-individual normativity is sedimented as the canonical status of the origin – be it the author, the site or the property.
It appears, then, that in order to address ‘the question of taste’ in wine, we need to examine both the claims to expertise of the ideal critics Hume introduces, and also how the canons of taste are established.
According to Hume in his 1757 article, “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character [of true judge in the finer arts].” While Hume ostensibly refers to judgments regarding “the finer arts” in this quotation, we think we have shown our position that wine appreciation belongs squarely with other kinds of appreciation to be valid. However, wine differs in many ways from works of art. Most of Hume’s examples are from literature, an artform which he claims is “nothing but a chain of propositions and reasonings.” Wine, is of a different stuff altogether. It is a liquid with properties that can be sensed, as his wine-tasting example from the literary fiction of Cervantes so amply demonstrates. What does having “strong sense and delicate sentiment” mean in the case of wine appreciation, and are these really essential for having expertise?
Delicacy of Taste and the Supertasters
The ideal critics of Hume’s essay can, the assumption goes, settle critical disputes by exercising their superior qualities in the judgment of taste. One such quality, already remarked on, is the quality of “delicacy of taste.” “Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; 5 and at the same time so exact as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense.” 6 The fineness of the organs may, if Hume is consistent, have more to do with the mental powers of concentration and identification than with the physical thresholds of detection, since he makes a distinction between a delicate palate and a delicate taste: “A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality.”
Their abilities exceed those of the great majority of us, and in his book Cain Todd is worried about these supertasters. “There can be no doubt that some of this research poses serious challenges to expertise and the objectivity of wine tasting; particularly threatening, I think, are the existence of ‘supertasters’.” 8 However, we argue that this threat appears to be overrated since there is no evidence to suggest that wine experts are ‘supertasters.’ The standard way to measure the threshold for detecting odors is to use butanol – a relatively pure olfactory stimulant, 9 but none of the studies of the relative abilities of wine experts and novices shows any significant difference between them on detecting butanol. 10 The wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., who founded The Wine Advocate , famously insured his nose and palate for one million dollars, but he may not necessarily be a supertaster.
There is yet another problem with equating supertasters and wine experts, since supertasters or supersmellers are only identified on the basis of being good at detecting one particular molecule in minute dilutions. This is unlikely to give these people an advantage in assessing wines, given that there is a multitude of input to sort out. Having one element, if present, stand out may not be at all helpful – it may even get in the way. Wine experts do not, then, appear to have any initial perceptual advantage. Wine experts are better than novices at discriminating between wines, 11 but any difference between wine experts and regular wine drinkers is not detectable. All the available evidence is compatible with no innate ability in wine experts, but only abilities that come with training, and Richard J. Stevenson concludes that “what [the experts] can sense, we can sense too, if we just consume enough wine.”
Todd’s worry about supertasters may be completely misplaced for the above reasons. However, let us assume for the sake of argument that wine experts are supertasters or supersmellers. On this assumption wine experts can detect and judge a range of elements in wines that are just unavailable to the less physiologically fortunate members of the human race. The implication is that these supertaster wine experts would belong to a group of their own in terms of what they can sense. In a way, they would be like people who had X-ray vision, or could see colors beyond the range of the normal – like infrared. Their views would not necessarily be relevant to the experiences that are possible for the vast majority.
While the majority of us could not possibly share the experiences of the supertaster critics, there might be other, non-aesthetic reasons for wanting to follow their recommendations. Keeping in mind our emphasis on projects, there are many projects for which the pronouncements of supertaster critics could be relevant. You may want the wines recommended as a trophy – to show off to friends and the public at large, demonstrating your credentials in wine. This is not irrational. However, although you choose the wine to show good taste, this taste would not be your taste but somebody else’s, and it may for this reason alone fail to impress your friends in the way desired. Furthermore, for those with financial projects it could be rational to follow the advice of supertasters should they have the power to move the market. Given the incredible prices commanded by the top wines from Bordeaux, it is likely that these wines and some others in the high-end of the market are not purchased to be enjoyed by the owners, but rather acquired as a component in a differentiated portfolio of various assets. Here, too, the rationality displayed has nothing to do with taste or experience, but with altogether other values.
Todd claims that the existence of supertasters opens the question of whose standards would be the right ones, 15 but is this enough to worry us about the aesthetic implications of supertasters? The basic assumption, we have seen, behind the supposed superiority of supertasters is that they can taste or smell something beyond what normal tasters for physiological reasons ever taste or smell. No amount of training, experience or knowledge could give you or me access to these experiences. This is why the issue of supertasters is completely different from the acquisition of cultural, practical and aesthetic competency. These competencies are available to all who put in the required effort, an effort most likely fuelled by a strong interest that may have been instigated by a kind of conversion experience, but the experiential aspect of this is the motivator. What, within an aesthetic project, could be motivating about wine experts who are, as it were, locked away in a world of taste of their own? Todd’s opening the question of whose standards are the right ones presupposes that standards can be discussed without reference to experiences.
The exclusivity of those who have worked to acquire the relevant competencies is different from the exclusivity of the supertasters. Competency is available to those of average physiological abilities who put in an effort, and it is thus in principle available to all – or at least the great majority. The overachievement represented by the supertasters is of a different kind since it cannot be attained by those not congenitally gifted. It is our claim that wine expertise cannot be based on physiological exceptionalism if it is to have any normative force in an aesthetic practice that is ‘democratic’ in the sense of being open to people with normal physiological abilities. Supertasters could, one supposes, form an organization (Nosa, on the analogy of Mensa), and have their own aesthetic community. But non-members would have no reason to be jealous. It is irrational from the point of view of appreciation to follow the advice of these experts. For inter-subjective validity in aesthetic matters, some sort of physiological sensus communis must be in place. It is thus not irrational, from an aesthetic point of view, to follow recommendations that are based on perceptions one cannot as yet take part in, for reasons of insufficient knowledge or experience. Indeed, the recommendations of experts who do not differ markedly from us in matters physiological may be spurs to attain the levels of expertise necessary to enjoy the wines to the full.
We would go so far as to say that if it were the case that wine experts, the Jancis Robinsons and Robert Parkers of this world, were much better equipped in the olfactory and other sensory respects than non-experts, then we would have actually less reason to defer to their taste. It is only reasonable to care what ideal critics of your cultural–temperamental sort recommend if you are not in fundamental respects cognitively or affectively different from such critics. So, both empirical findings and philosophical reasoning suggest that Hume’s insistence on “delicacy of taste” as a necessary and desired characteristic of the eminent critics cannot possibly mean that they should have access to a realm of taste taking them beyond the reach of others for physiological reasons – like being a supertaster does. Knowledge and experience enable directed and relevant attention, but physiological superiority does not guarantee aesthetic superiority. Hume, presumably, is making a point about the mental qualities necessary for “the true judge” – emphasized by his insistence on “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment.” 17 “Sense” here means a mental ability – for example, the ability to give the object relevant forms of attention – and not a physiological sensitivity.
But what about the reverse problem: not ‘supertasters’ but ‘subtasters’ or ‘hypo-tasters’? Todd does not worry about these, apparently, but should he and should we? Anosmia is a clear-cut case. Given the importance of smell to the overall sensory experience of wine – what we normally call its taste, anosmic people would be highly unlikely to act as wine experts. But what about something less all-encompassing like specific anosmia which, is quite common? Are the wine experts among the minority of people who do not suffer this kind of deprivation, and does this have any bearing on expertise and normativity? Here the kinds of molecules may matter. It would be difficult to claim expertise in wine, perhaps, if one simply could not detect one of the most prevalent defects in wine such as TCA – also known as ‘cork taint.’ However, not all molecules are relevant in all circumstances. A molecule that is important in judging Rieslings may not be found at all in other varieties. Could it be that some wine experts have a less than universal range of competence? This appears true in the present state of play in the wineworld: Many wine experts do have specialisms, and may be generally aware of their limitations. 18 It is the awareness that is important for normativity – just as in our discussion of blind tasting. The same thing can be said for aesthetic appreciation and judgment. It may be, although unlikely, that a particular scent is important in the emergence of aesthetic qualities for person X; but person Y cannot detect it. So, they disagree. Provided Y has the kind of self-awareness we just mentioned, it is likely that Y will simply defer.
In the absence of any further evidence we hesitate to say that not suffering from specific anosmia is a criterion for wine expertise or inclusion in the group of ideal critics of wine. The abilities of ‘supertasters’ are of detecting one molecule in minute dilutions, the disability of ‘subtasters’ with selective anosmia is the complete inability to detect one kind of molecule; but aesthetic judgment is something other than the detection of elements in the wine. Even though all and any judgment will have to be based on elements and wholes sensed in the wine, the ascription of aesthetic attributes goes beyond these in the sense that they are emergent properties: They are founded on but not found among the perceptual elements of the experience. For one molecule among multitudes to be detected or not by a minority does not threaten the normativity of aesthetic judgments or the expertise of subjects within the sensus communis .
Practices and Comparisons
The two next criteria introduced by Hume – “improved by practice, perfected by comparison” 19 – are well covered by our emphasis on practical and cultural competency. The relevance of these criteria in this context reverberates around the question of whether they enhance the normative weight of judgments by critics. Have the critics improved through practice, and have their judgments been perfected by comparisons? And if so – why?
The main thrust was an emphasis on the importance of informed and directed attention in the appreciation of wine. There is nothing that prepares you better for appreciating a wine than having tasted it in other vintages, or being familiar with wines of the same type – and having cultural knowledge about these wines and their reception. The criteria for judgment of wine are contextual; thus the ‘one size fits all’ idea that certain aesthetic features will be found to be the same across different types, or even different instances, is not applicable. Thus familiarity with this type, or this region, or even this producer may be as important as broader competencies.
That contextual knowledge and experience should be relevant with regard to the question of taste and Hume’s essay is first of all explicable through the experiential basis of any aesthetic judgment. Aesthetic judgments are made with reference to what is sensed – although obviously only on the sub-set we are able to attend to. Both practice and comparison are useful preparations for directed attention, but are they also necessary for the emergence of aesthetic attributes? Is it possible that aesthetic attributes like harmony, elegance and complexity require practice and comparison just as much – or perhaps more – than the identification of elements of taste in wine? It is therefore relevant to bring these criteria into our discussion of the question of taste – particularly when the normativity of aesthetic judgments are at issue, and when the necessary qualifications of expert wine writers come up for scrutiny. That the aesthetic practice of wine appreciation facilitates the emergence of aesthetic attributes is its main purpose, and this practice also provides the criteria for the application of terms like elegant and complex. But what are the implications of this for the question of taste and the normativity of the true judge and ideal critic?
Before we consider this, it is worth keeping in mind a fourth criterion from Hume, that the true critics must be “cleared of all prejudice.” 20 Fashions and personal preferences get in the way of true judgment, but with the help of good sense the ideal critic avoids just those fads and fashions we lesser mortals are prone to. This appears quite self-evident. The true judge cannot give a final verdict and command respect for it if the verdict is in some way not about the object considered but based on preconceptions. However, for example, in our discussion of blind tasting – the ideal of a pure judgment, in the sense of not being based on any prior knowledge of the object, is likely to come into conflict with necessary background from practice and comparison. The more you know about the object, the better you will be at directing your attention to its relevant features – and this includes the aesthetic attributes. Highly relevant for our discussion of the question of taste is the relevance of standards of judgment, and the comparisons giving rise to aesthetic competency.
Who Are the True Judges of Wine?
How do the wine experts measure up to the criteria of true judges of the finer arts in “Of the standard of taste”? There is a gold standard for expertise in the world of wine. Master of Wine (MW) is a qualification from The Institute of Masters of Wine. It is recognized as the most stringent test of ability and of knowledge in wine, with a substantial rate of failure even among those who qualify to take part. This means that one may get an ostensive definition of ‘wine expert’ by clicking the link on the web-page of the Institute to its list of existing MWs. 21 This pinnacle of achievement is widely respected by wine enthusiasts and experts around the world – though judging from the names of the Masters of Wine, they have a worrisome tendency to be from the anglophone parts of the world. 22
The qualification of Master of Wine is primarily a qualification for wine business professionals, and “equips those that have attained the qualification with a unique understanding of and set of skills for dealing with all aspects of the business of wine” 23 – according to the Institute. Part of the ‘equipping’ is a training process that sees candidates assigned a coach, with whom they taste – which mirrors the inter-subjective role of perceptual guide that the newly qualified MW will have, in turn, with respect to the wider tasting community. The exams are, predictably, theoretical and practical. The practical consists of two papers on two consecutive days, with each comprising 3 flights of 12 wines to be assessed blind for grape variety, region of origin, wine making, quality and style. The theoretical exam consists of four three–hour papers on four separate days, with questions on the wine business, current issues, viticulture and wine making. It is interesting, though, that both the practical and the theoretical competencies are recognized as valuable for the highest achievement within the industry as such. 24 The failure rate is very high, but should you pass the exam stage you still have to write an original dissertation on a wine-related topic which is relevant to the industry.
This means that while MWs are experts on wine, they are not selected only or even primarily on the basis of their superiority in aesthetic matters. It is not an aesthetic qualification – whatever one imagines this could be. Only two of the parameters by which the candidates are asked to judge the wines are remotely aesthetic in character: quality and style. However, both cultural and practical competencies (which the MW examination certainly does test) are necessary for the relevant direction of aesthetic attention, and thus for aesthetic competency. So it is with good reason that most people would be inclined to trust the aesthetic pronouncements of highly knowledgeable people, and it is a fair assessment that the letters ‘MW’ after the name of a wine writer is noted with approval by all who know the achievement they represent.
That said, many of the most influential wine critics, those that move the markets and are heeded by wine makers, are not MWs. These include Robert M. Parker Jr. himself, as well as other high-profile wine experts like Stephen Tanzer and the Burgundy specialist and ‘Burghound’ Allen Meadows. The tasters comprising the rest of the team of Parker’s high-profile journal The Wine Advocate have only one MW among them, Lisa Perrotti-Brown, which means that the ultimate source of the authority of Antonio Galloni, Jay Miller, and David Schildknecht cannot be referred back to an MW qualification.
If we apply Hume’s criteria to wine-expert journalists we find that their expertise is not for defining what beauty in wine is or could be. Their background is not in aesthetic theory 25 – not that that would necessarily help them – and they do not have some privileged access to an ideal of what ‘elegance,’ ‘harmony’ and ‘profundity’ are or should be in wine. So, while the critics do not and cannot pronounce with authority and expertise on what aesthetic qualities in wine are, their approval of a particular wine may be indicative of the presence of such qualities. Of course, approval may occur while there are different evaluative projects in place. A wine could be approved of insofar as it is a good example of its type, good with a certain kind of food, excellent value for money, a good example of this or that style of wine making and so on. None of these amount to an aesthetic evaluation. However, the higher one goes in the hierarchy of wine, the less likely these other projects become. An expert’s approval of a Musigny 2005, for example, would be very unlikely to mean just “a good example of a Pinot Noir,” but more likely to indicate a wine of depth, vigour, elegance and transparency.
The high-profile wine writers and critics make it their business to pronounce on the present and potential aesthetic qualities of wines they review. Judging a wine to be delicate, harmonious – or for that matter, a ‘great’ wine – are aesthetic judgments. They are not classificatory or based on an access merely to the facts of the wine. Thus, this wine is not great because it is a Château Lafite 1982 and costs a vast sum of money, but it is great because the experience I have when tasting it warrants such a judgment. The grounds for the judgment are what is present to the mind of the taster, and thus at the time inaccessible for anybody else.
Experts and Projects
There are, as we know, many projects that may be undertaken with regard to wine, and in practice several of these may be combined. The particular role served by various experts in the printed and the internet media may be said to comprise several projects. First, they try to describe the wines in tasting notes (TNs), which may be said to be a typically analytical undertaking – drawing as it does on the abilities of the taster to identify and describe elements in the totality of the percept. However, the readers are probably not chiefly interested in what the wine was like for the taster, they want to know what to buy. Therefore, the TNs are likely to include typically aesthetic terms like ‘refined,’ ‘graceful,’ ‘elegant’ and ‘profound’ – and thus not be purely analytical by any means. The main purpose of the TNs is not to give readers a vicarious experience of the wine, but to give an idea of whether or not it is worth purchasing. Quite often the TNs are based not on the wine such as it appears from the bottle you may buy in the store, but on samples from cask when the wines have fermented, but before they are bottled and well before they are released. 26 Consumers may, with some justification, wonder if the wine tasted by the reviewer will be the same as the final assembled wine that goes into the bottles, or if it is only composed by samples from the best casks. Have the producers only chosen samples that are showing well at the time of the tastings? This is because some high-end wines are sold en primeur – as ‘futures’ – the rights to buy cases of the wines are sold when the wines are still ‘babies’ nursed by the wineries. The judgments by experts taking part in tastings from cask have a major role in purchases of wine both with a view to future enjoyment and future financial gain.
Scores thus include the taster’s judgment of the wine’s potential, especially if it is a baby or still young. A good bit of experience 27 as well as – let’s face it! – guesswork goes into assessing wines at an early stage, and it is fair to assume that in addition to directed attention to those elements of a young wine that will allow it to age with grace there is added a knowledge of the producer’s track record with previous vintages. Olfactory reticence and tactile astringency may more easily be considered signs of promise if the taster knows that the wines of this producer have previously turned out to emerge as real beauties after a protracted period ‘in the shell.’ 28 Big tastings often allow the taster only half a minute in the presence of the wine that at some time in the future should not only show well, but also develop in a desirable manner in the glass and the decanter over an evening.
We are forced to the conclusion here, then, that the projects other than the aesthetic are likely to distort and make more difficult our hope of providing a clear account of the true judges of wine. The experts are in some instances more guides to purchase, and purchase with a wide variety of motivations, than they are ‘true judges’ of aesthetic merit of what is in the glass they are tasting from. We are not claiming that other projects necessarily distort aesthetic judgment, certain other projects have to be seen in partnership with the aesthetic – but they do make the philosophical task of pinning down true aesthetic expertise more complex. However, what is clear is that the role of experience, relevant comparisons and directed attention in projecting the future aesthetic merits of wines from early barrel samples only serve to emphasize the importance of competencies for claiming expertise.
Experts and Evaluation
Acknowledging their role as guides to purchase, many wine experts have adopted a 100-point scale 29 in their reviews. One of the first to use this was Robert M. Parker Jr. in The Wine Advocate . Even though this scale has not been universally adopted, it remains highly influential in communication about wine in the media – not least among wine enthusiasts on internet fora. One may well feel, like Hugh Johnson, that scoring wines is as absurd as scoring works of art (“who would think of trying to rate Manet and Monet …?” 30 ), but numerical rating of music recordings and performances, films, novels and other presumed works of art is quite common in the press and on the internet. The scores communicate effectively and across linguistic divides, and this should not be underestimated in an ever more global world of wine. It is not given, for instance, that what makes sense as a tasting note in English for a Western audience communicates with a Chinese audience when translated literally. One reason may be the culturally specific range of metaphors used, and another is that tastes and smells may well – and do – have different referents in the Chinese world of smells and tastes. Furthermore, in publications like The Wine Advocate , with its thousands of tasting notes, scores make it easier for readers of every nationality to navigate to those notes that may be of interest.
The reason why we discuss scores in relation to the issue of expertise in wine is simply because the scores all on their own have come to communicate the expertise to a wider public. “It is a Parker 96”and similar pronouncements have come to stand in for aesthetic evaluation of wines, and the effect of this on the public perception of wine appreciation is a serious matter. While there are some good practical reasons for rating wines numerically, there are also some insidious effects of the 100-point scale and its widespread use. Any numerical scale carries with it a presumption of precision, and with 100 points 35 the precision presumed is more fine grained than with any other scale currently in use. One may wonder whether it is possible to evaluate wines with this degree of precision, even though there is help in the written commentary to the scoring system. 36 Increasingly, we would argue, the scores take on a life of their own, with few interested parties paying much attention to the descriptions of the wines, how scores translate into normal language, or even the provisos. What matters are the points and the place of the wine in the hierarchy of these points, with few now paying any attention to wines scoring less than 90 points (‘outstanding’), and this fuels a tendency to a points fetishism which, in turn, is closely related to wine snobbery. So what exactly is this fetishism, and why is it undesirable? After all, according something value and power, and cherishing it beyond what is perhaps warranted by its objective properties is not in itself objectionable. The crucial aspect of the points fetishism in relation to wine is that it is the points that are accorded the value and power, and not the wine. The points come to take on a meaning and a value of their own through being taken to represent the wine’s ‘quality’ – whatever that might be. The danger is that this points fetishism comes to obscure the attentive appreciation of wine. The consumer might not even read the accompanying description or even recognize the necessity of patient involvement, hard work or competencies. In other words, the score and the mere consumption of high-scoring wines act as misguided substitutes for a genuine involvement with them. We discussed snobbery in the Introduction; snobbery without competencies was one of its manifestations. Our point there was that while snobbery, and other instances of the manipulation of social power, are unfortunate aspects of wine tasting, they did not necessarily rule out the possibility of aesthetic judgments.
Nevertheless, if within the wineworld any practice contributes to snobbery more than it contributes to appreciation, it cannot be healthy.
Scoring wines has other and more systemic drawbacks as well. A logical consequence of using a scale with a point of ultimate perfection such as 100 out of 100, is that the ultimate really must be ultimate. The 100-point scale is particularly likely to invite this implication. Five out of five possible stars, for instance, implies a wider range of achievement among wines with the identical score than does 100 points out of 100 possible. No one expects all five-star ratings to be an ‘ultimate.’ If taken seriously, a reviewer cannot give a cuvée, such as Château Latour 1982, 100 points on release and then 100 points ten years later and claim that is has improved – or 100 points one year and 100 points the next with the added comment “even better than last year.” Systems of scoring have, it appears, a built-in tendency to inflation unless there are some independent criteria which, when satisfied, yield the best possible wine and one that cannot get any better. As we know these criteria are not forthcoming, and the logical consequence of the possibility of the better wine is to score all wines at 0 points, since there is always the possibility that a better wine comes around that must be rated higher than the previous 100 point wine, and so on ad infinitum .
To leave the ultimate point of the scale unused, or imply that it is not really ultimate, is not a solution. If 100 points is no longer ultimate, then the scale changes and now implies that 99 is the ultimate point. This will therefore also with necessity compress the scale down to 0. 37 By the same reasoning, the possibility of a yet more awful wine would, from a logical point of view, compress the scale from the other end as well, and force all scoring of wines to be at the precise midpoint – which is 50 so long as the whole scale is used (which it is not in The Wine Advocate , where only scores from 50 and over are used). However, there is a ‘get out of jail card’ in the guidelines to scoring. Ten points can be granted for potential: “Finally, the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement – aging – merits up to 10 points.” 38 This makes it possible to say that as it matures it gains in complexity, harmony and other desirable qualities and thus gets better, but it receives the same score, given that its potential has gone down in the meantime. The wine is better, but the potential is worse! It is far from clear that most consumers of the scores notice this. The extra points for potential also imply that the potential quality is just as valuable as the actual quality, which many may find it hard to accept.
Our discussion of the-100 point scale may appear to take it too seriously. Clearly, the 100-point scale as well as others should be read and used as approximate information about relative merit as well as tools for navigation, rather than substitutes for appreciation. Scores may reveal how a particular taster judges the quality of different wines relative to each other, but the apparent precision of a numerical system with an ultimate point should not deceive us. As Parker himself revealed “I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment. I think when I look back over all the wines I’ve tasted — now it’s probably close to 300,000 wines — less than 1/10 of one percent have ever gotten a 100. Which is very few. It’s still around 120 or so wines.” 39 The warning on the front page of the print version of The Wine Advocate urges readers to read the tasting note and not rely only on the score, 40 but this appears to be ignored by many and the scale is adopted by many others who do not point out its shortcomings.
Wine evaluations are ultimately aesthetic and not naturally suited to mathematical precision, and it should be noted that there appears to be a stage in the development of the competency of wine enthusiasts when they are prepared to state that they do not agree with the pronouncements of wine experts like Robert M. Parker Jr. and Jancis Robinson. At this stage, though, it is not the case that enthusiasts in general veer off the general consensus on wines and quality – they do not go off and pronounce on their own canons of wines and taste. This sense of empowerment, of being secure enough in their own competency, is most likely to concern individual wines, vintages or other parameters at the same level of specificity. This stage, too, may be when enthusiasts come to recognize the critics’ blind spots or hang-ups; for example, their preferences for a particular style, area or producer. While Hume’s ideal critics are unaffected by prejudice, most actual wine experts are not ideal in this respect – and it would surprise us if actual critics or experts in other aesthetic domains were not similarly afflicted.
Wine enthusiasts have probably a better chance of making use of the critics’ scores and tasting notes – the pronouncements based on their expertise – after having compared their own appreciation of specific wines with those of individual critics, and a vital part of this process is precisely to identify and take into account various prejudices. For instance, it has been maintained by many 41 that Robert M. Parker Jr., with his trusted pronouncements on wines in The Wine Advocate , has shaped a major part of the wineworld through his preferences for fruity wines with a ‘big’ mouth-feel. Hence, to understand tasting notes and scores there is no substitute for effecting some kind of triangulation between the wine, yourself and the experts’ pronouncements – a kind of calibration. The experts’ scores, as we have argued, very easily acquire lives of their own. When The Wine Advocate reassigned responsibility for various areas of wine production between its journalists in February 2011, it spurred a very long discussion on its online discussion forum. One worry was precisely this: Now we will have to calibrate our taste to a new person covering this area. Another was a worry that the points awarded the wines of a given area would not be on the same level as before, thus affecting its prestige – which is probably more of a worry for producers negatively affected than for enthusiasts already ‘in the know,’ unless they had several cases tucked away as an investment.
Such concerns mostly pertain to individual wines only just coming onto the market, or not even having been bottled yet, and not the merits of sources of greatness such as Grand Cru Burgundy or its like. Hume’s ideal critics are unaffected by fashions and personal preferences, and their expertise is linked to their experience and thus ability to compare and contrast. Having discussed how wine expertise functions in the wineworld, there remains the question of what do these experts do for the rest of us. In other words, why should we heed their recommendations or defer to what they think are the best exemplars of the kind?
Ideal and Izeal experts – And You
Let us for the moment assume that the wine experts are like Hume’s ideal critics in all respects, whether they score the wines or not. Let us also assume that they are not exceptional in physiological respects, and that the vast majority of people can at least in principle experience what they can – provided they are prepared to put in the effort to upgrade their competencies. With their strong sense, delicate sentiment and extensive experience in their field of expertise, the experts are nevertheless different from most people who do not (by not being experts) share these traits. So why, then, should normal people heed the recommendations or defer to the judgments of ideal critics when they are not ideal themselves? The traits of the ideal critics are, presumably, those that enable the possessors to have superior aesthetic reactions from eminent works. But why should this be the case and, perhaps more importantly, why should you care what impresses the ideal critics if it doesn’t do anything for you?
One may reasonably assume that it would be more sensible to seek out the recommendations and judgments of people who share your relevant traits – such as formative aesthetic experiences, preferences for styles and epochs – or parameters such as age, gender and nationality. In wine, if you find a critic who more or less likes what you like – there would be no reason to care about his or her credentials with respect to Hume’s criteria. This, according to Jerrold Levinson, is “the real problem” of taste. 44 To be sure, Hume’s standard of taste is a principle for resolving the disputes regarding the beautiful, and not “a guide to what I should endeavor to enjoy .” However, those of us sympathetic to Hume’s approach, such as Levinson, are left with the worry that there appears to be no reason why the standard of taste should matter to those of us who are not ideal critics. “The primary burden of a defender of a Humean solution to the problem of taste is thus to show in a noncircular, non-question-begging way why a person who is not an ideal critic should rationally seek, so far as possible, to exchange the ensemble of artistic objects that elicit his or her approval and enjoyment for some other ensemble that is approved and enjoyed by the sort of person he or she is not.”
He introduces an alternative to the ideal critics: The “izeal critics” are introverted, zany, endomorphic and left-handed. 47 The challenge for a Humean account, then, is to justify why the ideal and not the izeal critics have normative force. Probably, we do not share all the characteristics of either the ideal or the izeal critics. Hume correlates superior aesthetic experiences with having the traits of the ideal critic – not the izeal. Levinson asks why this should be so.
Aesthetic experiences emerge from other experiences in a particular way, and do so founded upon an array of competencies. Expertise in these ways correlates with greater reliability and communicability of aesthetic judgments. This means that the judgments formed by someone without such competencies will probably not be genuinely aesthetic in nature, while the ideal critics really are good at forming aesthetic judgments. But that doesn’t solve the problem of why the rest of us should care. It will be instructive in the context of taste and expertise to examine Levinson’s solution to what he calls “the real problem” of taste – not least because it may lead us to examine more closely the normative status of the canon in the wineworld.
The Canon and Ideal Critics: The Special Relationship
Levinson’s suggestion is that a Hume-inspired solution to this ‘real problem’ has to show that there is something special about the ideal critics in virtue of their relationship with the aesthetic sphere, and further that the objects that are approved by the ideal critics also have something special about them. In a noncircular and non-question-begging way reasons must be given as to why it would be rational for non-ideal people to give up their present preferences, and to turn their attention to the objects getting the approval of the ideal critics. The challenge, then, is to say something more substantial about the ‘somethings’ involved: what is special about the critics and what is special about the objects or works they approve of. In other words: why the ideal critics are “credible indicators of what works are artistically best, in the sense of ones capable of affording better, or ultimately preferable, aesthetic experiences.” This can only, he says, be because of their special relationship with masterpieces which in their turn can be identified by their passing the test of time. Here Levinson relies on Mary Mothersill’s argument that there is a subtext in Hume’s essay. This subtext runs contrary to the doctrine apparent in the essay that there are rules of composition and principles of goodness that, although hard to discern, the ideal critics are nevertheless able to access through the deployment of the virtues that identify them. The critics are ideal because they judge in accordance with these standards of taste.
The subtext that Mothersill discerns, however, indicates that there are no rules and principles with universal application in the realm of taste. This, after all, would appear to run counter to a fundamental tenet of the essay: that judgments of taste are singular and subjective. The works standing the test of time constitute the standard of taste in any given artform, and the ideal critics are those who are attuned to this greatness and suited to identifying and explicating it for us. According to Levinson, the missing part of Mothersill’s account is a credible connection between the indubitable exemplars of artistic worth and the role of the ideal critics in guiding aesthetic appreciation and settling aesthetic disputes, and it is this he sets out to provide through his solution to ‘the real problem.’
On my view, only some form of artistic-value-as-capacity theory, appropriately coupled to a canon of masterworks passing the test of time, which in turn is used to identify ideal critics, who then serve as measuring rods of such value generally, is adequate to resolving the question of artistic objectivity that Hume’s essay so usefully raises. 52
So how can this connection be provided? Levinson claims that masterworks, the canon, cannot be identified according to rules of composition or other principles of goodness. Here he follows Mothersill’s argument that the apparent support for this in Hume’s essay is not in keeping with more fundamental tenets of Hume’s position here and elsewhere. The masterworks are magnificent in different ways , and the only reliable connection between them and any other work are the ideal critics since the works themselves, often innovative and original, cannot provide criteria of artistic merit even within a given medium. They can, however, provide guidance as to who the ideal critics are. They are those who can appreciate the masterworks in any given medium to the fullest, since they have the best chance of comparing any other offering of the medium to the best. That these works, the canon, are the best is independently secured through their survival over time and across cultural barriers. Also, their appeal is broad since all who engage with them can appreciate them at some level.
The crucial connection made by Levinson here is between the masterworks, also known as the canon, and the expertise of the ideal critics. The presumption is that the tastes and appreciative abilities of the ideal critics – but not the izeal ones – have been formed and improved by the masterworks. They are thus more capable of recognizing the presence or absence of aesthetic merit in works not – or not yet – considered masterworks. The masterworks are thus benchmarks – not for artistic quality through their normative power for modes of artistic creation – but as means of influencing the evaluation and honing the appreciative abilities of ideal critics. It is by surviving the test of time that masterworks are recognized as such. Any given epoch or cultural sphere is likely to have its own hang-ups, blind spots, fashions and other impediments to appreciating true artistic worth. Over generations, though, these works have proven their durability in the face of changing fashions, moods and other cultural or temporal irrationalities. The criteria identifying the ideal critics in Hume’s essay are clear and supported by Levinson, but they cannot on their own justify heeding the judgments of the ideal critics. The “aesthetic-experience-affording capacity” 54 is the key here, and the presumption is that the masterworks possess this to a higher degree than lesser works. That is, aesthetic experiences have value – and thus we have a genuine motivation to pursue those conditions that would allow us to experience such things too. Ideal critics can guide us to that value; it is for that reason that critics are valuable to the rest of us.
But how do we know that the rewards of aesthetic experience will be worth the time and effort? Ideal critics have themselves, at some point, been non-ideal critics and are therefore better placed than anybody else to judge whether the time and effort involved in developing what we have called the competencies is worth it in terms of higher aesthetic rewards. 55 They can also compare, the reasoning goes, the aesthetic rewards of their previous selves and their more aesthetically competent selves, and the judgment always favors their more evolved aesthetic selves. The value of aesthetic experiences is self-proclaimed by the critics.
Levinson asks whether anyone could be better placed to make this judgment, and his answer is clearly “No.” Even though Levinson may be right in claiming that better judges than the experts themselves cannot be found, there are systematic biases in such self-evaluations that we should take into account. Psychological research shows that people’s self-assessments tend to be inflated, and that we are loath to conclude that efforts made have been in vain, 57 and any such concession on the part of ideal critics would completely undermine the social standing and quite often the livelihood of those concerned. We are reluctant, therefore, to give credence to the self-evaluations by ideal critics regarding their present and former aesthetic selves. We are still more reluctant to allow that self-evaluations should provide the motivational force necessary to move any outsider from one set of gratifiers to another set of gratifiers empirically unknown. That the idealness of ideal critics can be established by self-evaluation is not a sure-fire way out of ‘the real problem.’ Can the existence of masterworks show us the way?
Several of Levinson’s basic premises in his use of the canon to solve the real problem are themselves problematic. One of these is that the masterworks can be enjoyed at some level by all – the broadness aspect. 58 The weasel word here is ‘enjoyment.’ Unless the enjoyment and the status of the work – its canonical value – are linked in some non-incidental way, the broadness aspect fails to provide the link between the masses and the masterworks that Levinson assumes. While it is fairly uncontroversial that a great literary work such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness might be enjoyed for its basic storyline, it is not that storyline with its exotic, brutal and enigmatic journey up the unnamed Congo that explains its canonical status, but rather elements that require aesthetic competencies to appreciate. Many other works of lesser standing also have stories that a majority of readers find enjoyable. Artistic canons are institutions in their own rights. A nine-year-old child knows that Bach and the Beatles are supposed to be great composers, even if he or she has never knowingly heard any of the music. Neither a child nor an adult needs an expert, per se , to know this. It is a cultural fact, so to speak. Likewise, the standing of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or La Giaconda . Everyone knows the names and moreover, standing before these paintings, can see that they are well executed and pretty. However, unless this enjoyment by those of us without expertise in this part of the artworld is unambiguously connected with the judgments of the ideal critics, then the broadness of appeal of canonical works is incidental to their canonical status. In a parallel with those celebrities famous for being famous, their cultural valuation ensures their presence in the conscience of broad strata of society – for most of us they are canonical for being canonical, but this latter presence is not due to their artistic and aesthetic qualities as adjudicated by the ideal critics. So if this is true, or can be true in a significant number of cases, what bearing does it have on the identity and normative power of ideal critics?
For one thing, it may indicate that far from masterworks acting as independent benchmarks of the aesthetic prowess of ideal critics, we have a cosy little circle. Who creates the canon? Not ordinary people or the izeal critics. It is not these but the assumed ideal critics that do so – on the basis of their skills in appreciation acquired over time and with sufficient training. Without the help of the broadness aspect, ideal critics and the masterworks will be defined by each other. If this is the case, Levinson cannot argue that the canon is an independent means of identifying a group of critics whose views we should therefore adopt as our own. His argument is no longer noncircular and non-question-begging.
The Canon and Wine
All this, of course, is discussed and evaluated with reference to the arts where originality is at a premium to a far greater extent than in wine. Hume’s main examples are from literature, and both Mothersill and Levinson operate within the parameters of art and artistic creation. Is it possible, then, that wine as an aesthetic object is subject to quite other evaluations than works of art? Gloria Origgi sees great similarities between wine, with its experts and rating systems, and other epistemic systems. She further maintains that deference to indirect criteria is a fundamental epistemic strategy. 59 We assess the experts’ reputation in order to gain information, and a critic’s standing and non-aesthetic credentials – as well as his or her relationship with the canon – are relevant to his or her credibility. 60
Our starting point is that wine is an aesthetic object also in terms of evaluation, and not just an epistemic system like any other. Origgi is probably right on the empirical point that in fact people do use a number of pointers to gauge the reliability of critics or experts. ‘The real problem,’ however, is not an epistemic one – it is prior to the epistemic pursuit of identifying experts since the desire to do so comes from the idea that my present set of aesthetically desirable objects is deficient. With social facts such as a canon comes a cultural value, though. There may, prior to any personal experience, exist a motive to try to join the group of people who can understand why it is that Bach or the Beatles are considered to be so great – in other words to develop the competencies required to appreciate them (or, for the same reasons, a counter-cultural motive to consciously avoid them). Fine wines are not part of common culture in the same way as Bach, of course. But if we become aware of a group of cultural experts who claim that an aesthetic experience is possible with wine, then we already know something of what this means. Two components may be present in such a motive. One is social or group identity: I don’t want to be on the outside of such an important cultural group – if this is what it is. The other, though, is aesthetic: I know from other, perhaps very rudimentary experiences, the difference between liking and appreciating, and thus I know the distinctive rewards that might accrue from the latter in other aesthetic media. That is, I borrow my sense of possible aesthetic value from other domains. I have some insight that there is something special about the experiences I have with X; my culture says that similarly special experiences can be had with Y, and this might motivate me to give it a try.
Scores notwithstanding, there is no point at which one might credibly state that this wine has properties P 1 –P n and therefore it is the best possible of its kind. Like the masterworks of art, there are many ways in which a wine – even within a type (such as Grand Cru red Burgundy) – can be magnificent. There are no known ways of apprehending the attributes of a wine except through the exercise of aesthetic discrimination and evaluation – or taste in Hume’s terminology. With regard to wine and expertise we are therefore in much the same position with regard to the problem of taste as the arts, and the discussion of ‘the real problem’ of taste is also of concern to us.
Levinson’s solution crucially involves ‘the canon,’ which is assumed to be a fairly stable entity once the test of time has been passed. As we have argued above, this is a problematic notion even in the arts. In wine, however, it may be considered even more problematic, that wines are vague objects and moving targets: Every vintage gives a new range of wines, bottles of a wine may vary considerably even within the same bottling, they develop in unpredictable ways and show differing characteristics over the span of their ‘drinking windows,’ and ultimately they decline and ‘die’ – even though this may take a century or more in the case of some wines. While the Mona Lisa is there in the Louvre for anyone to view several centuries after it was painted, the Château Haut Brion that Samuel Pepys praised in his diaries 61 is long gone – as are the bottles that gave rise to the ranking of Bordeaux châteaux in 1855. So where is the stability and independent existence of a collection of masterworks?
The key here is Hume’s own way of putting the patent absurdity of stating the equivalence of unequals. 62 It is not the undisputed qualities of Paradise Lost versus a poem by Ogilby that are brought out in defence of undisputed unequal aesthetic merit – it is, as we pointed out earlier, the sources of genius and elegance that are used as examples. The canon of great wines must be modeled on Hume’s principles here: The world of wine uses the sources of greatness as points of reference for the pinnacles of aesthetic achievement. We need to look at the particular ways in which the canon of wine has been formed.
There is a canon of wine just as there are more or less disputed canons of painting, music, literature and so on. The canons in the arts are masterworks and not the sources of greatness that Hume referred to, and in wine we may also refer to wines by name, vintage and (where appropriate) producer when we want to draw attention to particularly successful wines. There are widely recognized hierarchies of quality in wine as there have been for millennia, and definitions of greatness tend to be ostensive definitions by origin rather than specifications of necessary or sufficient criteria. Can these help to identify the ideal wine critics in the way the masterworks were used to this end in Levinson’s essay? That is, can they provide an independent measure of the aesthetic reliability of eminent critics that can provide some kind of ‘standard of taste’ in wine, give independent credibility to the expertise of the experts, and show why one should follow their recommendations?
In book 14 of his Natural History , Pliny the Elder ranks Italian wines according to their quality in a way one expects was in accordance with a widely shared view in his day. In 1644 the council of Würzburg in Germany’s Franken region ranked the city’s vineyards into four groups according to the quality of wine they produced, and there were rankings in Hungary as well. But in more recent times it was the 1855 classification of the Bordeaux châteaux of Médoc and Graves that gave an impetus for the creation of hierarchies of quality in wine. These have become codified to a degree that canons in the arts never have. Canons in the arts are mostly vague notions about which works, composers, painters and so on embody aesthetic qualities that set them apart, but in the world of wine we have, beginning in 1855, seen several explicit canons based on sites or properties. This explicitness means that there is little or no ambiguity or debate concerning whether a French wine is in the canon or not; although there is strenuous debate concerning the value of the canon itself as it currently exists.
The 1855 classification was effected by brokers simply on the basis of the selling price of the wines of the top châteaux of the left bank. It was the producers – the châteaux – which were classified. At the time this meant that their sites were as well, but with more than 155 years passing since this date the vineyards of these châteaux have been expanded to include other sites. It is hard to determine whether or not the changing fortunes of the properties have been affected by this. Bordeaux wine even then had a large world market, and this classification was timed for Napoleon III’s Exposition Universelle in Paris. Judging by the prices fetched by the same château today, the ranking appears to hold up remarkably well. Some very few adjustments have been made to the ranking, such as the elevation of Château MoutonRothschilds to the top tier in 1973, but given the advances in wine-making technology and know-how, the 2011 Liv Ex classification 68 based on the same criteria as the 1855 version shows remarkable consistency. This may also be due to the self-perpetuating character of classifications: Given a high classification the property may get higher revenue which, in turn, is invested in lower yields and other quality-enhancing procedures in the vineyard and the cellar. The status thus becomes self-perpetuating; a virtuous circle of success, price and investment.
The rankings of left-bank wines from Bordeaux were something of an anomaly, though, since most classifications before and after have been of ‘sites of greatness’ – a bit like Hume citing authors rather than any of their creations – and not like the Bordeaux classifications based on the prices fetched in the market. The best-known and most widely emulated system of vineyard classifications is that of Burgundy in France. In the same year as the first Bordeaux classification Lavalle published a detailed map of every vineyard from Santenay to Dijon, and these were divided into four different classes. This difference may be less clear when we note that the classification by Lavalle took price as its starting point as well, but the enduring assumption of his and most other classifications is that the sites at which vines grow confer characteristics on the wines – that some sites have a distinct taste profile. An interesting result is that Benjamin Lewin finds that the Burgundy classifications, based as they are on sites with often a wide range of producers rather than properties, have proven more stable in terms of their valuation than the Bordeaux classifications of 1855.
The named and classified sites can be more or less finely grouped into a hierarchy of quality, but it is important to note that the different sites themselves have an identity that is present in the wines produced and thus available to the senses. Suffice it to say here that there is wide agreement of different taste profiles of sites at the top levels of the hierarchy. This remains the case in all classifications of wine as well as in art: Similarity in standing and approbation do not imply further similarity. The French AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin), extends to all kinds of farming products and was enacted in 1919, and the first wine areas became AOCs in 1936. Something had to be done following the wine plague phylloxera vastatrix and the resulting problems for wine production all over Europe. Desperate times led to desperate measures. The general quality of wines dropped, and then the trust of consumers evaporated. In later years several other European countries have followed France in introducing their own versions, like Italy’s DOC and DOCG. However, it is only with a hierarchy and a defined top tier that these classifications can help us identify the canon of wine, and given that only France – and then only in some regions like Burgundy – has a top tier, a Grand Cru , then we are forced to identify this top tier in other ways in other areas. This may or may not coincide with the classifications of established wine-producing areas in Europe, but in newer and more egalitarian wine-producing areas like California, New Zealand and Australia these classifications do not – or not yet – exist as formalized entities. This does not mean that informal hierarchies do not exist, because they do. Prices may, of course, be influenced by fashions and the laws of supply and demand, but they can at the least act as broad measures of aesthetic success, and wines such as Penfolds Grange in Australia and Screaming Eagle in California, are among the most highly regarded wines of their respective origins.
The top sites in Burgundy have in many cases been recognized since the Middle Ages and the location of the highest ranking châteaux on the left bank in Bordeaux appears to be on top of ridges of gravel. These and other objective measures point to there being criteria that may indicate which sites can produce the best wines. These, however, can take one only so far. As in other aesthetic disciplines there is no other ultimate judgment than that of aesthetic discrimination – or ‘taste’ – which is why ‘the question of taste’ is still with us in wine as well as in other aesthetic disciplines.
Wine Canons and Ideal Wine Critics
In the context of our discussion of the question of taste, the important issue with regard to classifications of wines is whether or not these can help us identify the ideal critics. Levinson proposes the canon as an independent criterion – not to settle questions of taste but to identify the ideal critics.
One important feature of the relationship between critics and canons is that there is a presumption of greatness in the established canon – whether in the arts or in wine. The aesthetic object judges the critic, in a manner of speaking. Whether the object in question is Milton’s Paradise Lost , Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon or a Domaine Romanée-Conti “La Romanée” 1999, the onus is on the critic to justify a negative verdict. Being canonical, they judge the taster just as much as the taster judges them – at least in the sense that a would-be wine expert is expected not only to describe the wine analytically, but also provide the appropriate aesthetic judgments and be able to defend these. The canonical wine may turn out to be a faulty bottle given the variability inherent in wine production, 72 but the unanimity of the ossified judgments of competent critics over time poses a challenge to the individual critic that he or she has to measure up to. Aesthetic competency has to be acquired in addition to the cultural and practical competencies, and this involves experience of wines which have different degrees of success. This means that Levinson’s requirement of a close relationship between masterworks – a canon – and the ideal critics is an integral part of our general outline of aesthetic competency. Its implications for the question of taste, however, may not be so straightforward.
Some of the issues that we identified above as being problematic for Levinson’s account of the relationship between the canon and ideal critics of the arts are also relevant in the case of wine appreciation. First, the broadnessn requirement may not be fulfilled. A crucial connection between the ideal and the non-ideal critics in Levinson’s account was that both groups enjoyed the masterpieces. However, if the two groups enjoyed them for non-identical reasons, the motivation to acquire the experts’ taste disappears. We may well have the same situation for wine. 73 The canonical wines may be enjoyed by the public for their alcoholic content, the status they confer on the owner or drinker, and many other reasons not clearly related to their aesthetic merits. If so, the experts are the ones conferring the status of aesthetic superiority, as it were, on the canonical wines, and the canonical wines cannot therefore act as an independent criterion in the identification of the experts as ideal judges of taste. The ideal critics may belong to a self-perpetuating group that just happen to share preferences, but the particular wines (or vineyards, styles and so on) that they claim as superior cannot independently provide reasons why the wider public, whose preferences may be different, should use these critics to identify a standard of taste.
Taste, the Competencies and Trust
If a canon of wine is based only on the ossified judgments of a self-recruiting (and self-regarding?) group that for no good reason considers itself an elite, we cannot use the appeal to canonical wines to identify the ideal critics. We may again follow Levinson and trust the self-reporting of those who have developed competencies and claim that they have been elevated to a higher realm of aesthetic enjoyment and that their previous taste was inferior. We have again to consider how trustworthy self-reporting is, and how well one can remember a former standard of taste and its approved objects and thus hold them up against each other, as it were, for comparison. It may not suffice, if I am a different sort of person from you, if I say that my present aesthetic enjoyment of the objects I now like are much better than my previous aesthetic enjoyment of the objects I used to like. From an empirical point of view it would appear that for some it works, but the vast majority do not bother to go for this promised ‘upgrade’ of their aesthetic sensibilities. If Levinson’s way – from Jacob’s Creek through the canon to Cascina Francia, so to speak – does not work, are there other and more reliable ways from one ensemble to the other?
Underpinning Levinson’s analyses, which we have not found convincing, is an idea with which we wholeheartedly agree: It is not what the critic has that brings us to consider him or her an expert, but what the critic does . What the critic ‘does’ is to guide others towards fruitful aesthetic encounters with things. The competencies are necessary aids to the adequate perception of wines. Our account strengthened, we believe, the prima facie credibility of Hume’s criteria of delicacy of taste, experience, comparison and strong sense. Likewise, we made the case for aesthetic competency as an essential part of appreciation. We were concentrating on the conditions of aesthetic appreciation. However, we too have been claiming that competencies are only significant insofar as they belong to and contribute to communication. We have stressed the inter-subjective nature of these conditions (they belong to culture), and the inter-subjective nature of the experiences themselves (they are communicable). Some, but not all, of this acquisition of competency will be with wines of a high standing – the canonical ones. Just as important, though, is experience and analyses of wines that have – unexpectedly or not – turned out to be mediocre or to have just not made the grade. Discrimination and appreciation require contrasts and comparisons, so it is through what we might call ‘mixed aesthetic company’ that competence is built – not only by hanging out with the best. These other wines will be aesthetically incomplete or impoverished, but on other terms perfectly respectable: They may be perfectly pleasant wines, or good examples of some variety for instance. Experts, too, must deal with wines that are more familiar to the rest of us, and they must constantly be experiencing these other wines in ways already familiar to us. Moreover, we probably have some aesthetic competency in another domain – progressive rock, say, or Modernist literature – and from such experiences we are familiar both with the nature of aesthetic experience, and with the difference of this from other kinds of experience, such as mere liking. It is not the case that what experts ‘do’ belongs entirely to another realm of experience from us; whatever the state of our own competencies, we share some experiences with experts. In short, experts are not ideal critics in every aspect of their activity, and they are not entirely unlike the rest of us. The way Levinson sets up the problem is therefore misleading.
Our version of ‘the real problem,’ then, centers on the notion of trust. This is the crucial ingredient – which unsupported by anything else is tantamount to a leap of faith. Why do we trust experts or critics that wine appreciation offers aesthetic experiences of a higher value? And why do we trust this critic rather than that one? The first of these questions we have answered philosophically – that is, by arguing that wine experience is a legitimate aesthetic practice. We have not, though, answered it experientially – that is, in terms of why a member of the public would seek out fine wine. Most of us go to qualified medical practitioners with our physical complaints and worries because we believe them to have the best chance of identifying what may be wrong and of suggesting procedures that will get it right. Medicine is an established knowledge system and these days there are good reasons for believing in doctors’ relative competence in matters medical, 77 but this is not what is at stake in trusting the expertise of ideal wine critics. The average consumer knows full well that the experts know more about wine than him or her, but that does not entail that wine experience can be aesthetic.
You may be lucky, and be served with a ‘road-to-Damascus’ wine like the one Jancis Robinson had in 1970. This is a path many have found themselves on, and it may be a kind of bridging experience and convince the fortunate wine drinker of the possibilities inherent in wine. While this may open up the mind to the possibility of a range of new experiences, it does not, however, on its own constitute a reason to trust any wine experts unless one such expert has recommended this particular wine. Based on anecdotal as well as autobiographical evidence, the epiphany wine is a common enough occurrence. It may not be as powerful or as well described as in Robinson’s book, but some experience like it may well spur an interest. But some wines one were led to believe were great failed to live up to the expectations one had for them – as when people return cases of Barbaresco 78 that were praised by the experts. What happens with them? They may stick to what they like already, as most do. Or they may try to exchange the ensemble of viticultural objects that elicit their approval and enjoyment for some other ensemble that is approved and enjoyed by the sort of person they are not. 79 How far you want to go down this route is dependent, we think, on the ability of the expert not just to recommend but to guide the perception of the neophyte in such a way that experiences can be had that make becoming like the expert in these respects seem like a good idea, and worth the effort. The core of this appeal, we think, is not the ‘special relationship’ with masterworks, but the perceived ability to guide the neophyte to experiences more worthwhile. Trust is, we think, the key to solving ‘the real problem.’ Epiphanies may be a start, but if we are right in what we claim for aesthetic competency, the normativity of judgments rests on competency acquired in situations of guided perception. The way to build trust in wine appreciation is through an ability to guide the perception of the neophyte to experiences that were formerly unavailable to him or her. Thus, not only would the competencies have to be in place for the expert, but apparently also a communicative ability that may have to be well above average. 80
Of course, trust is also a social phenomenon – a criterion of social cohesion and harmony no less – and if the experts have guided others to what they claim are superior experiences this builds up inductively to a stronger case for trust. Still, we have no more reason to trust those others than we do the original experts. We do still maintain that a person’s own experiences are unique as a foundation for trust in matters aesthetic. Moreover, when the neophyte is no longer so new, and has acquired some degree of competencies specific to wine appreciation, he or she will naturally trust the critic(s) who made this acquisition possible. These experts will continue to influence, but more in the manner of a dialogue – which above we called ‘calibration.’
Iconic or Iconoclastic Critics
However, we look to wine experts; we trust them, for two different purposes. The first purpose is to confirm the distinction between an order of hedonic enjoyment, and the order of aesthetic experiences – that any wines are fine wines, which means possible objects of positive aesthetic experiences. Here it is not one expert who has our trust, but the set of experts, or even the phenomenon of expertise as such. The very idea that wine could be an aesthetic object comes from this trust. This is a prerequisite for the second kind of trust which concerns which wines are fine wines. We have claimed that there is also an experiential element necessary in coming to trust or accept that there are aesthetic dimensions to wine, but provided this is in place, there are other factors that enhance the chances of being trusted as a critic by the wider public. One such is to succeed as an iconoclast.
In May 1976 Steven Spurrier organized a wine competition in Paris (later known as “The Judgement of Paris”) where revered wines from Burgundy (white) and Bordeaux (red) met the Californian ‘upstarts’ in a blind tasting by French and British experts. The Californian wines came out the best in both categories, as the same wines did in a replication 30 years later, but the results have been the subject of discussion ever since. The iconoclast in our example is not Spurrier, however, even though the tasting in 1976 possibly prepared the ground for what was to come. The change came with Robert M. Parker Jr.’s judgment of the 1982 vintage in Bordeaux. He thought it was superb – while other established critics considered it to be lacking in acidity and too ripe. The strong influence of Parker in the years following and up to this day can be linked to this judgment which appeared to upset the received wisdom. His 100-point scale and the judgment of every single wine according to this worked against the normative power of the canon of fine wines, and in favor of a new measure centered on the tasting abilities of one man. 83 It was not the case that Parker turned the world of wine on its head – he did judge favorably most highly classified wines in his favored European areas of Bordeaux and the southern Rhône – but Levinson’s model of the canon acting as an independent measure of the true critics did not quite match the reality of Parker’s rise to influence.
As we have noted above, Parker’s The Wine Advocate has changed from a one-man operation to a whole band of advocates, its ranks of critics now numbering seven, so that much criticism of Parker’s palate and the influence of the magazine and internet site now appears out of date. However, his rise to influence during the 1980s puts him into the frame as the Humean ‘ideal critic’ incarnate. Far from pursuing elitism, though, one criticism of Parker’s judgments is that they have tended to favor styles of wine – certainly among the more affordable cuvées – that are easy to appreciate for the neophyte. Parker cast himself as the consumer’s voice, and could not be seen to favor wines that were impossible to understand by the average wine enthusiast consumer. In the final decades of the twentieth century, wine consumption in the developed world increased dramatically, not least in the United States, and this ensured a growing public eager for unbiased advice on which wines to pursue.
This points us towards an important insight into how wine appreciation interacts with public experts in the wineworld of today. The key here is calibration – the accumulated knowledge from comparing your experience with the judgments of the critics. When Parker abdicated from reviewing Californian wines, many subscribers to The Wine Advocate were worried about the calibration of their palates to the new kid (Galloni) on this particular block (California), and we think this is a key to how the crucial element of trust works in the acknowledgment of expertise in wine. Through one’s experience with a set of wines, and the critic’s judgments and comments on these, this triangulation builds trust for some critics’ judgments and an understanding of what particular phrases in tasting notes mean. Wine enthusiasts do not trust just any of the publicly available experts. 85 The crucial factor for trust in one expert or group is the accumulated experience of coming to understand judgments and evaluations through calibration. I may say that such and such a critic “speaks my language” – even if what I mean by this is that the critic has proved capable of guiding the development of my own taste to the point where I have come to speak the critic’s language. Hume’s criteria of “strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” 86 matter far less than the experience gained from following a critic and building a repository of triangulations. By this we do not mean that the criteria are irrelevant – we have repeatedly acknowledged their importance for the perception and aesthetic judgment of wine. However, they do not provide a solution to either ‘the real problem’ or to the more pressing day-to-day concern of whom to trust. In matters aesthetical, and certainly in wine, trust in judgments requires an experiential element. Critics who point out elements you then notice, and those who provide general descriptions you come to understand wines by – such as elegance, depth and so on – are more likely to be trusted than those whose prose and judgments fail to change or connect with your experiences.
To claim expertise in wine appreciation one needs to acquire cultural, experiential and aesthetic competencies. Here, however, we have seen that the question of taste also covers the motivational aspect: Why should I change what I like to what ideal critics like? Here both communication and experience matter. It is not the case that ideal critics are supertasters, nor can they be. If their expertise was founded on physical exceptionalism there would be no motivation to change one’s set of gratifiers for their set of gratifiers since we could not share their experiences anyway. ‘The real problem’ showed us that no matter how many good reasons one cites in favor of the idealness of ideal critics, the crucial element is trusting in there being a realm of fine wines providing a range of experiences beyond what one is used to experiencing. Being ‘taken there’ either by an exceptional wine or by someone who is able to guide your perception of wines you know in a way that provides an enhanced experience is essential to ‘solving’ the real problem. This experiential element is also operative in solving the more mundane question of which critic to trust. Calibration – the building of trust through comparing judgments with one’s own experiences – is important. The real problem is one of motivation, and to exchange a set of gratifiers for another set requires trust.
We have here demonstrated that the wine expert has to be like me in terms of basic capacities; what makes him or her an expert are the knowledge and know-how that build on top of those capacities. Then, it is at least possible for me to think “Maybe I could experience that too.” Furthermore, we need to distinguish between mere sensory liking and aesthetic appreciation. The latter may include sensory liking, but certainly comprises other experiences also (particularly the experience of aesthetic qualities). If what I get from wine and what the expert gets from wine are both sensory liking then there is indeed no reason for me to seek to change my tastes; deliberately setting out to change my preferences in this regard may not even be possible. If the expert engages in appreciation, however, then at least it is possible for me to think “Maybe I am missing something.” That is, the expert is having a different type of experience, and one that I could have.
Let us further accept that knowledge and know-how are conditions of aesthetic appreciation, and that there is some agreement about what kinds of knowledge and know-how are relevant. There are no doubt famous instances in every aesthetic domain where one prominent critic accuses another of gross incompetence. However, this is not the direction critical rhetoric typically takes, although disagreeing critics can get heated. The izeal critic, for example, is ruled out by virtue of this agreement on conditions. The argument from the izeal critic only makes sense if there is no background information that defines broad areas concerning which the expert would need to be competent, and the various signs by which that competence is to be recognized (the Master of Wine designation, for instance). But there almost always is; and perhaps the canon epitomizes this knowledge. Levinson’s problem seems to be that he is talking about a cultural phenomenon (art, aesthetic experiences, normativity, trust, expertise, etc.), but at the same time tries to abstract it from its original embeddedness of such phenomena in culture. That is why his argument, initially, appears to be noncircular.
On these premises concerning the agreement on competencies, it is reasonable to claim that, with a few exceptions (proto-aesthetic experiences, for example), the expert is the one having aesthetic experiences, and the non-expert is not. Within the aesthetic project, the expert’s judgments are normative. Furthermore, I know from culture, broadly speaking, that there is something good, valuable, uplifting or what-have-you about aesthetic experiences. Probably I already have had aesthetic experiences, or at least proto-aesthetic, in other aesthetic domains. So I already understand something of the aesthetic encounter with wine by analogy. Moreover, because aesthetic attributes emerge on the basis of what is sensed, I do not have to simply give up sensory pleasure – to some extent, I can ‘take it with me,’ alongside my new aesthetic experiences. Likewise, I will likely also believe that there is something valuable about being part of an aesthetic community. Since the only thing standing between me and such experiences is some hard work (the democratic principle), I do have a motive to pursue such experiences. Of course, whether that motive is enough to move me to action is another matter – I may be lazy, or busy, or frankly quite happy with my sensory pleasures. Also, every other aesthetic domain will be calling to me for the same reasons, and I cannot with the best will in the world respond to all such motives. So, that there are experts at all, and that there is some reason for me to try to join them, is clear. This is trust based upon cultural knowledge. From here on, though, experience takes over.
Not all experts say the same things (this is Hume’s problem) – not only do they disagree in their verdicts sometimes, but also employ different communicative strategies. So why should I try to be more like expert A rather than expert B? Because I trust A more. For which rational reasons? Because A’s judgments on wine seem to accord with mine already better than B’s, A’s tasting notes make better sense to me, maybe because I had a friend who was guided by A and gives testimony, and other such reasons. This is trust based upon my own experience and ‘calibrated’ by that of the chosen expert.
For Hume, the standard of taste was introduced for resolving disputes regarding the beautiful. Like Socrates in Plato’s Hippias Major we may well conclude that “All that is beautiful is difficult,” or at least that to understand and experience ‘beautiful wines’ requires the competence to attend to and apprehend them, in ways that you may best learn from others who gain your trust through guiding you to experiences that you would not want to miss.