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Thinking Taste
By Paul Lukacs
Aug 9, 2016
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I have a neighbor who will drink only red wine.  White wines don’t give him headaches or cause him digestive problems.  He just doesn’t like them.  Or as he said to me once, “they’re not my taste.”

I’ve been thinking about taste a lot lately--what we like and why.  It’s a tricky subject, with a long history of debate and disagreement.  It’s also a subject that won’t go away.  That’s because we’re constantly expressing our tastes through our judgments.  And we judge all the time, with everything from the mundane to the profound.  Coke or Pepsi, the Beatles or the Stones, Star Wars or Star Trek, Manet or Monet, even Clinton or Trump--which you choose, even if you refuse to choose, reflects who you are.  That is, it reflects your taste. 

But where does your taste come from?  It may be tempting to think that tastes are personal, ours and ours alone, but that’s clearly not true.  The algorithms used by the folks at Netflix or Pandora demonstrate as much, as does the entire field of psychology.  And if we really believed that taste was completely personal, we wouldn’t spend so much time trying to convince other people that we’re right.  I wouldn’t, for example, keep trying to get my neighbor to try white wines.

Eighteenth century thinkers, led by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, thought they had solved the puzzle of taste.  Kant posited that, at least in the realm of art, disinterested judgment is the key.  We take pleasure in a painting or a piece of music because we judge it beautiful--not the other way around.  He went on to argue that in making that judgment we implicitly expect others to agree with us.  He acknowledged that beauty is not an inherent property of an object being judged, but contended that we act as though it were.

In making that argument, Kant distinguished between aesthetic taste and gustatory taste.  To him, the one was higher than the other because it involves the mind, not the body, reason rather than desire.  The very fact that food and drink are literally consumed makes judgments about them suspect.  For Kant, my neighbor’s declaration that he likes red wine but doesn’t like white inverts the aesthetic order.  Pleasure (or its absence) leads to a subjective, personal judgment.

It didn’t take long for subsequent thinkers to poke holes in this theory.  Some argued that judgments about art, like those about anything else, are culturally influenced if not determined.  Others contended (wrongly, I think) that all taste is an affective response--i.e., that a statement like “this wine is really good” means nothing more than “I really like it.”  Still others argued that these sorts of judgments reflect what we want even more than what we experience.             

Today, while there is no more agreement about the philosophical issue than there ever was, it seems clear that the distinction between aesthetic judgments and gustatory ones is pretty specious.  That’s because bodily consumption no longer seems all that different from mental comprehension.  As psychologists tell us all the time, desire is as much a mark of humanity as reason.  Moreover, many people today treat food and drink as objects with aesthetic value.  Wine, for example, may not be as “serious” an art as sculpture or dance, but I strongly suspect that most people who read this website think a really good glass of it as has at least some artistic worth.

Strangely enough, while people who think seriously about art spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what is involved in formulating judgments of taste, people who do the same with food and drink tend to ignore the subject.  That’s a shame.  If what we eat and drink has the potential to provide aesthetic pleasure much as what we see or read or listen to does, we devalue the experience of appreciation if we refuse to spend time thinking about what such appreciation entails.

For some reason that word has fallen out of fashion.  Perhaps it sounds snobbish to some ears, but appreciation surely is a worthy goal.  It requires both knowledge and experience, and is not an ephemeral, seat-of-the-pants sort of thing.  To appreciate means to take the time to try to understand.  And what needs to be understood is not just the object of appreciation but also our own response to it.
 
Why do you respond as you do--to a certain dish at a restaurant or a particular glass of wine, let alone a book or film?  If your goal is nothing more than momentary gratification, then it’s fine to say, “Because I like it (or don’t like it)” and move on to something else.  But if your goal is appreciation, the language of personal like or dislike simply can’t be good enough.   

The question of “why” probably never can be answered definitively.  After all, tastes change.  A food or wine that we once disliked can become something we now enjoy--and vice versa.  Moreover, we are phenomenally suggestible, as critics of every sort, including wine critics, know all too well.  Though it may seem personal (after all, no one shares my tongue or my nose), gustatory taste ends up having all sorts of social and communal aspects in much the same way that aesthetic taste does.   

That we probably never will be able to answer why does not mean, however, that we should stop asking the question.  As Hugh Johnson, the esteemed British wine authority, once jokingly remarked, in order to really appreciate wine, you need, “To think as you drink.”

The point of this column is to encourage you to do just that.  Think about the wine you drink, and think about how you respond to it.  Don’t be satisfied with the simplistic vocabulary of “like” and “dislike.”  Go further.  What specifically about the wine do you like or dislike?  If something about it seems surprising or different from what you expected, is the difference exciting or off-putting--and why?  Try to better understand the wine and, equally important, try to better understand yourself and your taste.

In my experience, far too many wine drinkers are happy in their prejudices.  When they find a wine they like, they buy lots of it and stop thinking about it.  And when they find a wine, or type of wine, that they dislike, they file that information away and never consider trying it again.  How silly.  If we agree that tastes can change over time, how can anyone be sure that a judgment made in the past still holds true today?

The famous literary critic, F. R. Leavis, once defined criticism as being “as clear as possible with oneself about what one sees and judges.”  In this regard, we are all critics, for we are all judging all the time.  But in the world of wine, too few of us, whether professional writers or amateur enthusiasts, are sufficiently clear about what and why we taste as we do.  Put another way, we’re happy to drink, but not necessarily to think.
 
Professional critics have much to answer for in this regard.  That’s because we--and I include myself here--constantly send mixed messages.  On the one hand, we celebrate taste’s inherent subjectivity and tell our readers or listeners to trust their own palates.  On the other, we try to objectify taste through the use of numerical scores and language that treats analogies as facts.  (No wine tastes of cherries or lemons or minerals or any of the often-silly descriptors that critics use; at best, it might taste like such things--or more accurately like how someone imagines them.)  We frequently fail to be clear about our subjects--which again include not just the wine we taste and judge but also ourselves.

Taste is, as I noted before, a tricky subject.  But for anyone who reads this website, it quite clearly is a subject of real importance.  I think we would do well to start treating it as such.  Too often, as my exclusively red drinking neighbor’s language suggests, we instead use it as an excuse.  After all, “my taste” is never mine alone, and my preferences, when unexamined, only have solipsistic meaning.