In Defense of Sommeliers

This is part of a conversation between Dr. B at buddha walks into a wine bar and I on the topic of what he calls “deplorable wine tasting notes” and the question of subjectivity vs. objectivity. In an effort to “steel man” his argument, Dr. B believes that wine tasting notes with an endless list of fruits (the fruit salad bingo, as he calls it) and technical jargon not only make non-experts feel inadequate, they are irrelevant and unhelpful as what any one person perceives in a wine is largely, if not wholly, subjective. He quite accurately uses chemistry, Kantian philosophy and the phenomena of anosmia to support his claim, concluding his argument by saying that wine lovers should have faith in their own tastes and wine professionals should make a better effort to serve their customers rather than showing off their wine knowledge, insisting that they are absolutely right and if you don’t agree, then you just don’t understand. This is my defense:

I like your concept of the fruit salad bingo. I think it’s funny and I can certainly see your point when you read some wine descriptions on Instagram with long lists of fruit that all sound really nice but seem like a stretch of the imagination. (I mean, these people must work in fruit shop to have the olfattive memory of all these fruits!) and your right in the sense that not everybody has that kind of sensitivity so it’s somewhat irrelevant.

However, I do not consider the examples you gave at the beginning to be of this category. To me they sound like professional, well written notes that give me important information about the wine, like it’s age, structure and style. There is not a long list of fruit, but rather a category which allows me to discern for myself what individual notes I may perceive based on my perception. It is clear from the notes that the Chardonnay is a young wine with tropical fruit character that is balanced yet with a significant amount of acidity. The Medoc is also a young wine with concentrated aromas and flavours, a significant structure and aligns with what you would expect of Cabernet. This helps me know what to expect and to choose the wine based on the criteria of my preferences, when I plan to drink it, who I plan to drink it with, and what I want to drink it with.

“Chardonnay from Meursault France, Wine Tasting Note: Clean, limpid medium yellow with a hint of green, quite rich, a really lovely colour. Touch of new wood on the nose, ripe melony fruit, slightly exotic, stylish and very expressive. Fine, floral, honeysuckle fruit on the palate, with hazelnut overtones, rich and quite buttery, yet good lemony acidity, very elegant but still young. Very good balance, oak and fruit well blended in, an excellent example of grape variety dominated by terroir, great persistence, very good future.”

“Medoc, Bordeaux France Wine Tasting note: Deep colour, velvety red, no real sign of ageing, still very youthful and firm berry fruits on the nose, heavily Cabernet in style, blackcurrant leaf, with a cedar wood / cigar box spice coming through, concentrated fragrance followed by rich fruit. Same concentrated, tightly knit fruit on the palate, wonderful ripeness, still showing youthful black currants and blackberries, firm backbone but ripe tannins, superb structure. Overall, a classic Medoc from a top chateau in a great vintage.”

Dr. B’s example of wine tasting notes from a highly reputable wine magazine

And yes, I do talk like this when I taste wine with other sommeliers, enthusiasts, and wine makers because it is an evaluation based on a series of parameters to dissect the individual components in the wine that create its unique expression, and the terminology used has the purpose of creating a language within these parameters that everyone can understand instead of relying on idiosyncratic descriptions. The purpose of having a template of parameters to describe a wine is to create a system, used for all wines, that avoids purely subjective judgement based on preference by providing criteria to quantify and qualify the characteristics of the wine within the context of all other wines. It is precisely this mechanism which allows me to discern that I may not LIKE this wine, but it is made well and has a certain character. So, while the purpose is to create a method to be more objective, it can not be avoided that some people’s intentions are affectatious in nature.

Of course, if you have no direct experience of an aroma, you cannot recognise it when it meets your senses. That is why many sommeliers and enthusiasts have “aroma kits” with samples of common aromas in wine so that they may repeatedly smell them and incorporate them into their olfattive memories in order to be able to recognise them in wine. It is like a sort of training for the senses. The fact that a certain fruit or vegetable or flower has a certain volatile chemical, and that same volatile chemical is also found in wine, means that that volatile chemical is objectively part of the character of both. The fact that I have no direct experience of that aroma, or am not able to detect it amongst all the other aromas, is irrelevant. Some people will, some people won’t, nonetheless it is there.

However, that isn’t very interesting to people who are not behind a mass spectrometer and doesn’t come close to the delight and enigma that drinking wine excites. Furthermore, a mass spectrometer may be able to tell us what individual volatile aromas there are in a wine, but it cannot perceive the interactions between all of them and the physiological associations we make, as we can. And that’s what makes wine such an interesting topic of conversation and beautiful experience for our senses.

We ARE trapped within our subjectivity, but to fully rely on that alone, and to assert that there is no point in trying to do otherwise, no point in smelling and tasting a strawberry in order to know it better, no point in listening to the opinions of people who have spent so much time trying to understand the structure and composition of wine, where the only question you should ask is “Do I like it?”, is to diminish the appreciation of wine in all its complexity and magic.

Read the Dr. B’s post and the full conversation by clicking the link below:

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