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The subjectivity in wine: a titanic obstacle?

Wine dates back thousands of years and entices even more consumers across the world. Undoubtedly, it is a product that we feel and experience. It carries emotions. Wine is deeply linked to our senses, thus in the middle of a dualism between subjectivity and objectivity.

On one hand, wine would be a matter of sensations, of personal taste — different strokes for different folks — a peculiar product, with plentiful possibilities of interpretation. On the other hand, it would be possible to objectivise wine: consider the many guides or awards contests designed to be GPSs for consumers.

How to objectivise the wine jungle in order to offer relevant points of reference to consumers? How to build objectification that benefits consumers?

A unique product with plural taste

Sight, smell and taste are involved in the wine tasting process. Everybody receives and interprets sensory stimuli differently. Consequently, it gives way to a lot of subjectivity.

Wine experts created a lexicon and adopted forms of common language in order to talk about wine. For most consumers, it is basically a jargon. A jargon that swings between poetic and technical words — astringency, empyreumatic, minerality… — often inaccessible to most consumers. The latter are under the impression that wine is a foreign language. This increases the feeling of uneasiness and complexity they experience when purchasing wine.

Despite its status of “N°1 Country of the wine,” France and French people remain mostly neophytes, thus are often looking for advice. Connoisseurs represent just around 3% of the consumers.

When it comes to buying wine, consumers deeply appreciate being helped by professionals. They often give free rein to wine advisors, sommeliers, or any other wine professionals who master the language and knowledge of wine. Are these wine experts more objective than consumers? Probably.

With some significant biases though: the more wine references, the harder it is for a human to take into account all possibilities. To face this human issue, a wine merchant or a sommelier often has his choices, his top wines of the moment. Moreover, when a professional uses this wine jargon, his words can be interpreted differently according to consumers. Ask a sommelier, then consumers to define “sweet wine”!

But let’s move forward. What is left to consumers to have objective advice?

dégustation de vin à l'aveugle

The weight of guides and other labels

Guides like La Revue du Vin de France, Robert Parker, Hachette, Gault & Millau, Bettane & Desseauve aim at tasting, marking and rewarding cuvées and new vintages for the consumers to buy more easily. Their objectivity strength comes from a methodical marking of wine and the ability to lessen the “expectation effect” and the “contrast effect.” But as always, there are some limits.

On one hand, from a guide to another, advice on the same cuvée may differ a lot. We are within reach of subjectivity of judgement. It does not help in any case consumers that are in strong need for guidance.

Furthermore, we know from now on that a guide can have a strong impact on how wine is produced. And consequently an impact on the standardisation of taste. The famous Robert Parker, well-known for ranking the wine out of 100 points, rarely gave good marks to Bordeaux wines when they lack oak notes. Concerned about their marks and of the growing significance of the guide, some wine estates did not hesitate to adapt their vinification (more new barrels, extended aging in casks…). In order to please the subjectivity of one man and reach the Graal of a good mark, many Bordeaux winemakers fell into the trap. A dangerous path, of which some wine estates came back.

Another way of guiding consumers? The awards given during contests like CGA, IWSC, Concours des vins des Mâcon or Vinalies Internationales. Juries are composed of professionals (winemakers, sommeliers, wine merchants, etc.) and consumers, be they neophytes or connoisseurs. This diversity is a fundamental principle on which these institutions rely on. It is a guarantee of a relative objectivity, since for some people and statistically speaking “a sum of subjectivity is a beginning of objectivity.” Nevertheless, here again there are some drifts.

Henceforth can we objectivise using… AI? Artificial Intelligence offers promising avenues to bring more objectivity to the subjective world of wine. By leveraging vast amounts of data as well as advanced algorithms and mathematical models, AI can help consumers make more informed choices, essentially reproducing the role of a wine advisor, but in a more objective and consistent manner.

AI's ability to process complex datasets and recognize patterns that might elude human senses makes it an invaluable tool for the wine industry. It can offer personalized recommendations based on individual preferences, suggest food pairings etc. By doing so, AI helps demystify the wine selection process, making it more accessible to the average consumer.

Toward a more transparent way to objectivise?

No need to deny it, the objectification of a product such as wine is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, we have to believe in and move toward a more transparent way to objectivise. Some professionals and startups are involved in the approach of providing objective, accurate and quality advice, without any jargon.


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