Sunday, June 22, 2008

Subjectivity vs. Objectivity in Analyzing Wines-Part II

Loyal readers will know that I've posted in the past on whether one wine can be deemed better than another on an absolute basis. We can certainly disagree with what we like better subjectively, but not to hold that one wine can be "better" than another is ludicrous in my opinion. This notion was put to the test in a thread recently on the eRobertParker bulletin board when someone challenged the collected geeks to defend Lafite against Boone's Farms (see my analysis here).

There are normative criteria by which we judge anything, be it art, wine, literature, etc. Some may weight the factors differently, but the whole exercise of talking about wines assumes some common touch points. If one wine cannot acheive what the other does in terms of those factors on which we judge a wine, then it technically can't be "better." Maybe better for the subjective tastes of the individual drinker, but a not fair summary of the common criteria. Whether one person likes Boone's Farms better doesn't negate either that it is "better" to them or that society as a whole does not regard it as "better." It is not for someone to argue that Lafite is better than Boone's Farm, as anyone remotely knowledgable about wine would concede that it is (even if they don't prefer it). It is for the outlier, the person that thinks the opposite, to challenge the societal norms and explain why they are right. For example, abstract expressionism challenged tradition forms of art. It went from not appreciated by the mainstream to a hierarchy of artists. Those artist join the pantheon of great artists and then it becomes about preference. Nobody, however, can make a viable claim that Red Skelton's clowns compare to Picasso's unless we throw out all normative criteria on which we judge art. Obviously, those most fluent in the accepted criteria can better judge, but they certainly don't have a monopoly on determining "what is art."

What about the fact that different groups may value different criteria differently? If all you prize is beat (or lyrics), then maybe Tupac is better than Mozart (or maybe Bach is better than Mozart). So, what we are discussing here is clearly group dependent. Notwithstanding that, music has other elements that anyone else that studies it with any seriousness considers to be an integral element, even when it is absent. Sometimes the absense of an element emphasizes something intellectual, such as a Phillip Glass work. There is the point though, right? The overlay of the intellectual over the subject taste elevates it. We value in wine not just the physical taste, but the trigger of intellectual cues. Those cues aren't necessary to the enjoyment of a thing, although all of us here regard them as a sine qua non for our personal enjoyment. Why? Because knowledge is power and provides context and links us to a broader wine-loving community. Whatever visceral pleasure I get from wine is enhanced by my knowledge of it. Fights within the knowledgable subgroup as to the subtleties of the normative criteria do not mean they don't exist. In fact, the deviation is small and is preference based, partially as you say, on biology. For example the level of acceptable of sweetness in fruit is a subject of great debate, but it is an exceptionally small part of the overall picture. If we agree on 90% of the factors, does the remaining 10% negate the whole and make everything subjective? The subjective part is small and only within a defined universe for people like us.

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