Aesthetic judgements and disagreements over questions of taste seem impossibile to avoid. We have an innate desire to express, and even defend, our opinions of things we encounter through the senses from paintings, to music, to film, to home furnishings, to wine. For as strongly felt as our opinions of these things can be, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile them with the variety of opinions, preferences and tastes of others. We continually agree to disagree on matters of taste because, simply put, how could anyone be wrong about what they experience. However, we do seem to agree that there is such a thing as good taste and bad taste.
If taste can be good or bad, excellent or terrible, than there must also be a way of measuring such a standard. But what purpose would a standard of taste serve other than to praise the worthy and condemn the misled in a matter that is so susceptible to personal preference and predilections? For one, it can help us discern a sound aesthetic judgement from an inconsistent or incoherent one. Secondly, it can serve as a guide to refining our own tastes and sensibilities.
When it comes to wine, the novice tends to blindly trust the expert, often undermining their own experience and shying away from ever expressing their own opinion. As in most cases, when in doubt perhaps we should consult an expert, and there are justifiable reasons for why some should be relied upon more than others for sound judgements and advice on a given topic. That being said, the notion that there are right experiences and wrong ones when it comes to wine tasting and appreciation is a discouraging attitude and pompous sentiment. There may well be good, well-informed judgements and “bad”, inexperienced ones, but there can not be right or wrong experiences given the complexity and uniqueness of each of our individual minds.
An effective standard of taste would act as a rubric for evaluating, not the wine or aesthetic object of choice, but the fitness of the mind at work apprehending it. We could measure ourselves against it and address areas of weakness with the purpose of cultivating our own sense of taste and developing our faculties of critical reasoning, ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of aesthetic experiences.
Such a rubric does exist and it was written with this spirit in mind by British philosopher David Hume. “Of the Standard of Taste” is a seminal essay on aesthetics which is part of a collection of essays in “Four Dissertations”, published in 1757. In this essay, Hume proposes five requisites of an ideal critic which outline a set criteria to aspire to in refining one’s aesthetic palate and ability to make sound judgements on matters of taste. They are every bit as beneficial for the wine connoisseur as for the art lover.
The first is really a pre-requisite, and it is the proper functioning of the mind and body, without which we are unable to rely on our senses for a comprehensive experience of the object. It is obvious enough that when you have a cold or a fever, your senses are dulled and you’re not able to detect all the aromas and flavours in the wine. However, Hume also emphasises the necessity of clear head, unhindered by stress or exhaustion,
“A perfect serenity of mind, a recollection of thought, a due attention to the object; if any of these circumstances be wanting, our experiment will be fallacious, and we shall be unable to judge… universal beauty.”
With a healthy body and tranquil mind, the first requisite is delicacy of taste. In this case, Hume actually compares the appreciation of art to that of wine by referencing a story in Don Quixote.
“It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.”
One’s ability to identify every minute nuance of aroma and flavour in wine is analogous to the ability to detect all the subtle details in a work of art. Delicacy of taste is defined as a quick and acute perception of each distinct characteristic, no matter how small, which the observer can describe with exactness and precision. This “sensible eye”, or palate, is a fundamental part of enjoying the finest qualities of an aesthetic object to the fullest.
If it is true that delicacy of taste is a rare trait, Hume believes it is also true that we can develop our sensibility through practice, the second requisite. The first encounter one has with a work of art is often confusing and overwhelming, with the observer being unable to distinguish its separate parts from the whole and evaluate its merits or defects. However, the more you are exposed to art, the easier it becomes to dissect the multiple features in a work and judge the excellence of its execution in relation to others of its kind. The same can be said of wine, an experienced taster will have the necessary knowledge, awareness and sensibilty to identify aromas and flavours and determine the wine’s quality. Through practice you can gain a more refined palate able to perceive beyond the most palpable qualities as well as a strengthened degree of decrement to form an opinion with confidence.
“But though there be naturally a wide difference in point of delicacy between one person and another, nothing tends further to increase and improve this talent, than practice in a particular art, and the frequent survey or contemplation of a particular species of beauty.”
The third requisite is the ability to form comparisons. Almost every work of art or glass of wine, no matter how poor, will have some redeeming quality if in nothing else than it is “interesting”. However, to give the highest praise to an object less deserving is an insult to the object of true beauty and perfection. In order to judge a wine as good or bad, even excellent, it’s necessary to contextualise it within the framework of the other wines one has had. Through forming comparisons it’s possibile to evaluate the merits and defects of a wine consistently and in proportion to the others of its kind, making your judgement more reliable and verifiable.
“One accustomed to see, and examine, and weigh the several performances, admired in different ages and nations, can alone rate the merits of a work exhibited to his view, and assign its proper rank among the productions of genius.”
A sound judgement on the quality of an aesthetic object should be based solely on the observance and contemplation of the object within its rightful context and not on factors external to it. For this reason, the mind must be freed from prejudice, the fourth requisite. Our judgement of wine can be influenced by numerous factors such as habit, intimidation, fashion trends, mistrust, and even our mood. All of these influences have the power to taint our experience and are best avoided by anyone who has a sincere interest in deepening their understanding of wine’s complexities.
“It is well known, that in all questions submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It is no less contrary to good taste: nor has it less influence to corrupt our sentiment of beauty.”
The fifth and final requisite is good sense. If reason and intellect are not necessarily essential qualities of a sensory experience, they are instrumental in evaluating any possible influence of prejudice or weakness in the other requisites. This sort of self-awareness allows us to be honest about our experience and honest with others. At the same time, developing one’s reasoning and critical sense leads to clear and comprehensive understanding. Good sense and sound judgement go hand in hand.
“the same excellence of faculties which contributes to the improvement of reason, the same clearness of conception, the same exactness of distinction, the same vivacity of apprehension, are essential to the operations of true taste, and are its infallible concomitants.”
All that being said, Hume certainly admits that variances of judgement are somewhat inevitable. Much of how we view the world is formed by our personal experiences, beliefs and attitudes and it’s nearly impossible to separate ourselves from them entirely. These five requisites, in their best light, don’t distinguish an elite group but rather set a standard of taste based on reason for us all to aspire to.
Click the link below to read David Hume’s “Of The Standard of Taste”