Essays - Summer 2015

Matters of Taste

A work of literature and a bottle of wine require similar skills of their respective critics

By Paul Lukacs | June 8, 2015
Illustration by David Herbick
Illustration by David Herbick


Taste can be a tricky topic. Defined as a judgment or an act of judgment resulting in the perception of quality, it carries a whiff of elitism, especially when it accompanies claims of objectivity. As a result, taste is not talked about much in literary or other forms of aesthetic criticism these days—at least not openly. People may still want to have good taste, or to be thought to have it, but in many academic circles, every taste is considered culturally valid. If a student, or more to the point, a teacher, prefers the Twilight series to Hamlet, or Thomas Kinkade’s paintings to Picasso’s—well, so what? When it comes to taste, the distinction between high and low art has become passé. As the old saying has it, there’s simply no accounting.

Interestingly enough, this view is less prevalent in the world of gastronomy, even though much food and wine criticism, based on a clear hierarchy of standards, can also be accused of snobbery or pretense. A Big Mac may seem okay at McDonald’s, but few food critics consider a taste for it equivalent to an appreciation for slow-cooked Texas barbecue, let alone chateaubriand at a Michelin-starred restaurant. So too with wine. Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay is fine, but no legitimate critic considers it to be in the same league as Chassagne-Montrachet.

For more than 20 years, I have worked as both a university professor of English and a professional wine writer—two jobs that are at heart about taste. And though the assumptions underlying critical practice vary significantly from one job to the other, I have found that food and wine critics and their literary cousins have something important to teach each other. I have learned valuable lessons about interpreting literature from my work as a wine writer, just as I have learned to broaden my focus with wine from my experience in the classroom. Put more generally, I have become convinced that how we talk and think about physical taste can inform how we talk and think about aesthetic taste—and vice versa.

People have long distinguished between foods and drinks that taste good and those that do not, but taste as an idea, even an ideal, is a modern concept. In the ancient and medieval worlds, taste connected human beings to brute beasts. It was a physical sensation, a necessary part of eating and drinking, activities required for survival. Not until the European Enlightenment, when the connection between physical and aesthetic taste was drawn, did thinkers argue that taste elevated human nature above mere animalistic need. When Voltaire defined taste in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie as the “capacity for discriminating,” he was not referring to the physical sense alone but rather to the idea of cultivating a natural proclivity to value the good and disparage the bad. Such cultivation was part of an emerging democratic ideal already suggested by the language of gastronomy, in which “I prefer” meant much the same thing as “it is good.” That language did not simply provide thinkers with a convenient metaphor for discussions of art. It also enabled them to focus on a single phenomenon—in Joseph Addison’s terms from The Spectator, the human ability to associate beauty with pleasure and imperfection with dislike. As Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin declared early in the next century, the pleasure of the table is not the same as the satisfaction derived from eating—the latter is a “reflex sensation” shared with animals; the former is “peculiar to the human species.” As with the pleasure provided by art, “it supposes care bestowed beforehand.”

Scholars disagree as to exactly when the word “taste” acquired its double meaning. The 17th-century Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián advocated the cultivation of good taste as a means of acquiring worldly wisdom, but the very notion of good taste had been first expressed at least two centuries before that, when the early Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti used the word gusto to mean “judgment.” By the 1700s, “taste” was being employed widely to denote discernment. “This sense, this capacity for discriminating between different foods,” Voltaire wrote, “has given rise, in all known languages, to the metaphorical use of the word ‘taste’ to designate the discernment of beauty and flaws in all the arts. It discriminates as quickly as the tongue and the palate, and like physical taste it anticipates thought.”

The Enlightenment also discovered—or perhaps better, invented—aesthetics, a new branch of philosophy centered on taste. The German thinker Alexander Baumgarten adapted the term from classical Greek to distinguish between things sensed (aestheta) and things known (noeta), or objects of perception and objects of logical understanding. Baumgarten argued that art’s beauty and value are sensed rather than comprehended intellectually. In much the same vein, the French writer l’Abbé Dubois contended that one’s judgment of a poem or painting is akin to one’s assessment of a ragout, as both require sensation, not reason, for verification. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant elevated certain sensations over others through his notion of “disinterested pleasure,” which supposedly separated critical judgment from subjective opinion. “I try [a] dish with my own tongue and palate,” he complained, “and I pass judgment according to their verdict (not according to universal principles).”

The problem of personal or vested interest continues to vex literary and critical theorists today. It also preoccupies people who think seriously about food and drink. They too want to set standards for enlightened appreciation. After all, since everyone agrees that tastes can change over time, a person’s tongue and palate may learn how to appreciate a previously disparaged dish or wine, just as the eyes and ears may come to recognize the value of a particular painting, poem, or piece of music.

Though the association of gastronomic and aesthetic criticism continued to be advocated by 19th- and 20th-century writers as diverse as Charles Lamb, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and M. F. K. Fisher, others contended that physical taste, by nature related to the body, was inferior to the refined sphere of art. As early as 1802, William Wordsworth complained that people talked about a taste for poetry as if it were much the same thing “as a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac [sic] or Sherry.” For him, the difference was that an appreciation of wine (or acrobatics) involves only pleasure, whereas a developed sense of aesthetic taste also involves understanding, its “object [being] truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative.” The distinction lives on today. Contemporary aesthetic criticism tends to be extremely uncomfortable separating local from general truth, but it adamantly insists on differentiating between amusement and comprehension. Objects of what used to be considered low literary culture—for example, comic books or pulp fiction—are now often perceived as aesthetically valuable. Their value, however, comes not in or from themselves but rather from the acts of judgment that validate them.

That may well be the most important lesson that wine and food critics can learn from literary scholars—that an object’s very status as something aesthetic comes from how it is perceived and hence judged. And how it is perceived depends in turn on the culture in which the judgment is made. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu notes, “A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.” Much the same applies to a dish or a wine. Without the cultural competence to know both what the object should taste like and why it might be valued, a critic is incapable of appreciating anything more than a momentary subjective response to it.

Most food and wine critics today, however, pay little attention to cultural coding. Instead, they try to display objectivity with numerical scores or stars—a 95-point wine being superior to an 85-point one, a three-star restaurant better than a one-star place. For many consumers, it scarcely matters who is making these judgments, since the tools employed remove or at least distance subjectivity from their own acts of judgment. Yet because criticism in general is no closer to identifying a single standard of taste than it was 250 years ago, this approach remains woefully inadequate. Plainly, who is doing the tasting makes a difference, as does who is paying attention to the critic. My tongue and palate are physically different from my neighbor’s, as is the extent of my experience. Furthermore, no matter how knowledgeable, the critic invariably has his or her own likes and dislikes. The influential American wine critic Robert Parker is well known for preferring bold over subtle flavors, and muscular wines over delicate ones. But how could he or anyone who cares not have preferences? After all, to prefer means to judge, and judgment is an integral part of taste. Even when he is trying to be disinterested and tastes a wine “blind” (that is, with its identity concealed), Parker’s—or any critic’s—preferences will come to the fore. That’s because, as Bourdieu argues, “the ‘eye’ [or palate] is a product of history reproduced by education. … The ‘pure’ gaze is a historical invention.” Food and wine critics need to acknowledge as much. The illusion of objective truth that they so often convey is just that—an illusion.

These critics usually aim to classify what they experience in a given moment. In doing so, they spend a great deal of time discussing what about a bottle of wine makes it worthy of praise (or what merits disapproval), but virtually no time investigating what about themselves leads them to value what they do. As a result, they convey the false impression that all tasters will sense the same things. “Trust yourself,” or more precisely, “there never can be any substitute for your own palate,” is a refrain heard repeatedly in wine criticism, the implication being that no real difference exists between a novice taster and a connoisseur. But as aesthetic criticism has taught us, your own palate is never completely or solely your own. How an individual assesses the taste of a particular wine depends to a considerable degree on the range of his or her knowledge and experience—that is, on cultural competence.

More than the identity of the taster is at issue here. Equally important is the context of the tasting. I judge a wine differently at a professional competition than at home. Even there, my focus is not the same when hosting a dinner party as when having a glass while watching a movie on Netflix. Yes, I devote greater critical attention at the competition, but that attention compels me to look for flaws or problems rather than to find pleasure. Much the same is true of my experience with books. Those that require great attention to form, say, Ulysses or Moby-Dick, do not seem to me to be suited to reading in a hammock or a beach chair, though equally celebrated ones, Pride and Prejudice for instance, do. The distinction does not involve different forms of reading (critical reading as opposed to simply reading for pleasure) so much as different contexts for a common experience. Moreover, what I find appropriate for a certain context may not be what someone else chooses. In a similar vein, the wine I praise and recommend that you drink may very well not be the one, or even the type, that another critic would choose in a similar circumstance.

As the dictionary definition makes clear, taste involves not only making judgments but also making them so as to reflect a perception of quality. What constitutes quality, then, when it comes to art and cuisine? Here gastronomic criticism has much to teach aesthetic criticism, which today not only fails to reach agreement on the issue of quality but frequently tries to avoid it altogether. In the 18th century, the quality of literature and indeed all art was easy to define. It centered on beauty, and the more beautiful the poem (or the painting or the concerto), the more valuable the art was held to be. For Alexander Pope, beauty, like life itself, reflected the divine order of creation and so was “at once the source, and end, and test of art.” In keeping with the language of his day, Pope called that order “nature,” and he urged critics to avoid temptations such as the pursuit of fame in favor of following nature, which “to all things fixed the limits fit.” Today, many people no longer think of reality as ordered in this way. Instead, they are just as likely to conceive of reality as a source of chaos or epistemological emptiness. Without shared agreement, is it any wonder that they also frequently disagree on whether a particular artifact is beautiful?

Moreover, modernism in all the arts has complicated if not subverted traditional notions of artistic beauty, and one cannot pretend that the past 100 years of creative endeavor did not exist. Modernist art celebrates abstraction and sublimity, with beauty often thought of as something superficial and transitory. (The American painter Barnett Newman went so far as to declare in 1948 that “the impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty.”) Even if the definition is expanded to include distortion and irony, anger or even violence, more is at issue for the critic than the adage that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The crucial point is the realization that there no longer is any fixed reference on which judgments regarding beauty can be made. And without such a reference, no matter if conceived of as sacred or secular in origin, people may judge whatever they wish in any way they wish.

This dilemma has led many contemporary critics and theorists to stop talking about beauty completely. Instead, they focus on art’s place in culture—both the culture in which it was produced and the culture in which it is being received. This shift of focus characterizes virtually all of the different movements that have transformed criticism over the past 50 years, from deconstruction to gender and race studies to reader response theories and more. As Stephen Greenblatt, one of the founders of the influential New Historicism movement, puts it, the goal is to challenge any “distinction between ‘literary foreground’ and ‘political [or social or economic] background’ or, more generally, between artistic production and other kinds of social production.” That challenge can make the painting no more valuable than the tube of paint (and the complex social system that manufactures, advertises, and sells the paint), the poem no more valuable than the pen. It also can make the very idea that beauty defines value in art seem hopelessly quaint.

How times have changed. One does not have to go all the way back to the Enlightenment to locate a more cohesive understanding of aesthetic value. As recently as the 1970s, literary critics largely agreed on which works were the most valuable, and why. Exposing people to those works was the function of the literary canon (and of great books programs), and no one better argued for the necessity of a canon than the English critic F. R. Leavis. One of the central figures in the 20th-century establishment of literary study as a legitimate academic discipline, Leavis identified four, and only four, “great English novelists” in his 1948 book The Great Tradition—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. At the start, he openly addressed those who might find his list bafflingly narrow:

The only way to escape misrepresentation is never to commit oneself to any critical judgment that makes an impact—that is, never to say anything. … It is necessary to insist, then, that there are important distinctions to be made, and that far from all of the names in the literary histories really belong to the realm of significant creative achievement. And as a recall to a due sense of differences it is well to start by distinguishing the few really great—the major novelists who count in the same way as the major poets, in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life.

For Leavis, then, the canonical author needs to have done two separate things, one technical and the other moral: advance the form of his or her art, and reveal through that art the prospects for living a fully realized life. These two together result in the highest quality. They constitute beauty. So even though he was writing in the same year in which Newman expressed a desire to destroy beauty, Leavis clearly wanted to celebrate it.

When Leavis’s view began to be disputed in academic circles in the 1970s and 1980s, the initial aim was to “open up” the canon (to women, to writers of different races, to texts written in the same language in colonial or postcolonial environs, etc.), but before long the objective for many became to reject the idea of a canon altogether. Those who advocated as much alleged that canons serve specific interests at the expense of others, and so are innately elitist. They argued that claims of artistic quality, no matter how quality might be defined, advance certain norms at the expense of others, and so inevitably become exclusionary. Contrary to Leavis, they insisted that distinctions regarding quality need not be drawn after all. Such distinctions are “merely” expressions of taste, and these critics followed another old adage in insisting that taste is something that simply cannot be disputed.

Contemporary anti-canon theorists contend that the cultural concerns to which art contributes and which art represents—matters of justice, equality, freedom, and the like—should be disputed instead. They argue that readers must draw distinctions regarding those matters, and that art is valuable precisely when it helps people to do so. “Canonicity itself,” declared the scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in 1990, constitutes a “pious obliviousness that allows for the transmission [of texts] from one generation to another.” Sedgwick wanted to use literature, and by extension all art, to expose just such obliviousness, and so to subvert what she considered to be deeply rooted but unjust cultural norms. She believed that all texts or artifacts have the potential for this kind of subversion (depending, of course, on who is interpreting them), but insisted that this potential cannot be realized when the artifacts in question become part of an elitist canon or tradition. Any canon viewed “as the repository of reassuring ‘traditional’ truths,” she wrote, “must always be treated as a loaded one.”

All this may seem to have little to do with physical taste, but gastronomy has been dealing with similar issues over roughly the same time period. Not very long ago, ideas of fine dining included almost only European-inspired dishes, just as quality wine came almost exclusively from two or three European countries. Today, the field has expanded, with foods from different places (and reflecting different socioeconomic origins) considered to be of equally high quality. Similarly, most people agree that some of the best wines in the world now hail from places in which almost no one grew grapes or even drank wine a couple of generations ago. The gastronomic canon has shifted as much if not more than the literary one. No one, however, seriously advocates getting rid of it altogether. That’s because, though they (and I should include myself here) do not often use the word, we need a canon, a set of dishes and wines from which we can distill those attributes that separate not only good from bad, but also good from better, and better from best. In the world of physical taste, then, the canon is less important for what it contains than for what it conveys.

With wine, any catalog of the best types, vintages, or properties conveys an understanding of what constitutes the best for the person who has compiled it. There are no hard and fast rules here, for as the English critic Jancis Robinson notes, “many complex factors combine to make a wine great, but it is impossible to define great wine.” Oenology, the science of wine, helps somewhat. Today, people know that acidity, alcohol, and sugar levels should fall within certain ranges, and vintners are able to manage both their vines and their winemaking practices so as to hit those targets. Yet they cannot manufacture greatness according to a formula, the ultimate arbiter remaining what it always has been—taste.

For the critic who is doing the tasting, a consensus exists that quality in wine involves certain criteria. Different critics may offer slightly different lists, but pretty much everyone would agree on the following five conditions: balance, complexity, depth, length, and typicity. Let me explain. Balance in wine means that no single element (for example, tannin or acidity) dominates over the others. Complexity refers to a wine’s multiplicity of aromas and flavors, depth to a sense of substance and presence when the wine is in your mouth, and length to the sensory impression left on your palate after you have swallowed it. Though recognizing these first four requires some degree of wine culture competency, they are mainly attributes of the wine itself. Therefore, they can be analyzed and to some degree measured. The last criterion, typicity, is considerably more complicated. It means that the wine tastes as it should taste, and hence is true to its origins—geographical origins, but also varietal, historical, even visionary ones. Recognizing typicity thus requires evaluating the wine in the context of other wines, and so explicitly involves the critic’s own assumptions, preferences, and prior judgments.

That few critics would quarrel with those criteria does not mean that comparable agreement exists to indicate which specific wines satisfy all five. Ideas of typicity vary, sometimes quite widely. In a celebrated tiff in 2004, Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker squared off over the quality of the 2003 Château Pavie from St.-Emilion in Bordeaux. For Parker, this wine was “off-the-chart … a brilliant effort” that merited a score of 96 points. It “traverses the palate with extraordinary richness,” he wrote. “The finish is tannic, but the wine’s low acidity and higher than normal alcohol (13.5 percent) suggests it will be approachable in 4-5 years.” Those were precisely the qualities to which Robinson objected. Using the older British scoring system, she rated the wine only 12 out of 20 points and wrote, “Completely unappetizing overripe aromas. Why? Porty sweet. Oh REALLY! Port is best from the Douro, not St.-Emilion. Ridiculous wine more reminiscent of a late-harvest Zinfandel than a red Bordeaux.” It’s noteworthy that the two critics did not disagree significantly on the wine’s balance; neither did they differ substantially on the wine’s complexity, depth, or length. They did disagree, however, on typicity. Put simply, to her palate the wine did not taste as it should, while to Parker’s, it did.

Château Pavie exemplifies a new style of Bordeaux—rich, ripe, and flamboyant rather than traditionally austere and reserved—and many commentators portrayed the conflict as being between two styles rather than two critics. That was not, however, what either critic said when responding to the other. Parker contended that Robinson was prejudiced against this particular property and its proprietors, his “proof” being that she did not taste what he insisted was so obviously in the wine. In turn, Robinson wondered why different tasters weren’t permitted to have different views. “Am I really not allowed to have my own opinion?” she asked rhetorically. “I do wish we could simply agree to differ.” But the subjectivity of taste was never really at issue. Instead, the dispute involved two disparate notions of typicity and hence of quality. Parker’s was at heart Platonic. He measured the wine he tasted against an ideal standard or form. By contrast, Robinson’s approach had her measuring the 2003 Pavie against other wines, particularly others from St.-Emilion, which she had sampled over the years.

These critics, then, formulated different opinions after tasting the wine in question because they came to it with different assumptions. And if their debate can be transferred to the realm of art and literature, it becomes clear that the conflicts that have plagued criticism over nearly 50 years involve comparable assumptions. What should art do, and how should it do it? What constitutes typicity for a novel, a painting, or a dance? To what degree can art go in new or different directions and still manifest that typicity? How one answers those questions will not determine irrevocably which novels, paintings, or dance programs one values the most. After all, tastes do change over time. But unless one mistakenly believes that taste is an objective judgment, one’s assumptions are apt to lead in certain directions and not in others.

Where do assumptions regarding typicity come from? Experience, surely, since even Parker’s ideal model is an amalgam of attributes compiled from many different wines that he had tasted previously, including many hailing from places other than St.-Emilion. Regardless of the specifics, experience provides the taster with the cultural competency required for critical judgments. Although those judgments may differ from individual to individual, or community to community, they are not based simply on personal response, as taste is always in part culturally constituted. Again, my palate, just like my vision, is never just my own, for I understand what I taste just as I understand what I see—on the basis of what I know. And because I live in the social world, what I know is invariably cultural and communal. This is true for me in my job as a wine writer, but it is equally true in my job as a teacher (and critic) of literature.

No matter the subject, a critic needs clearly defined criteria to make judgments about quality. For some people, such criteria come from the object being judged. For others, they come instead from the world in which the object is embedded. But in all cases, the criteria give the critic a standard of measurement to use when practicing his or her craft. And why are standards important? Because without them, criticism becomes mere fashion, subject like hemlines to often manipulated consumer desires. That is a lesson contemporary literary critics need to learn. A poem or novel or play may be judged in many ways, using many measures. To grant that value is not an inherent property of the object being valued is to also grant that no single standard is inherently superior to the others. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that criticism cannot function without some sort of standard or form of measurement. The anthology or class syllabus or pile of books on a nightstand cannot include everything. Neither can an art gallery or library, or, for that matter, a restaurant wine list. To echo

F. R. Leavis, a critic’s job requires drawing distinctions. Regardless of field, it’s not just the canon that is inherently exclusionary. It’s criticism itself.

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