Contributed by Dwight Furrow


In the art world there has long been a debate between two methods for approaching a work—an empiricist approach vs. a contextualist approach. There is a similar contrast in the wine world.

Empiricists claim that experiencing an artwork is a matter of being affected by its observable properties which can be more or less objectively verified. The way a painting looks or the way a piece of music sounds. Facts about the historical or cultural contexts in which the work was produced or a consideration of the artist’s intentions, while interesting,  have no relevance for the evaluation of an artwork as an aesthetic object. What matters are the surface features and their forms?

In the wine world, we can see empiricism at work in the practice of blind tasting. In double-blind tasting, we intentionally mask all the contextual features of a wine—its origins or producer and any facts about its production—and evaluate the wine strictly based on how it smells and tastes.

There are many advantages to such an approach. The aesthetic pleasure we experience in encountering a work of art or a wine can be more or less straightforwardly attributed to the physical properties we observe, which suggests something like a “science” of aesthetics. Being affected by a wine is not different in kind from being affected by the warmth the sun or a cold wind. The work of art or wine is a well-crafted physical object  that can be judged based on whether the physical properties produce the desired effect on the viewer, hearer, or taster.
The artist or winemaker can then be understood as a master craftsperson who aims to design a work of art or wine so that it achieves some desired effect measured in terms of sales, positive reviews, scores, or some other objectively measurable assessment. This approach however has an obvious flaw.

The viewer (in the case of art) or the wine taster is understood as a generic subject with well-functioning sensory capabilities. But she is essentially unrelated to any specific cultural or historical circumstance. The wine or painting is severed from its origins and so is the viewer or taster. There is no room for interpretation in light of a viewer's or taster’s perspective. In other words, the empiricist's stance ignores the meaning of a painting or wine emphasizing instead its properties as a physical object.

Empiricism ignores the fact that in addition to generating perceptual experiences, a work of art or a wine generates meanings. It conveys messages that are shaped by culture and the work’s emergence and presentation as a cultural artifact. For example, our ability to appreciate a painting often depends on the other paintings with which it is compared just as our ability to appreciate wine from Côte-Rôtie depends on whether we compare it to its neighbors or a Shiraz from Barossa Valley. In fact, which physical properties of a wine we tend to focus on will often depend on what we compare it to.

With regard to wine, if we take the empiricist approach, blind tasting and score keeping are the primary evaluative tools. If we take the contextualist approach, the more we know about a wine’s origins, the more we can connect with the producer and her aims and the context in which a wine is enjoyed, the better able we are to provide a holistic assessment of a wine. For the contextualist, we are responding as much to the discourse about wine and its place in the wine world as we are to the wine itself.

The contrast is not so much between objectivity and subjectivity but between an empiricist vs. a contextualist account of appreciation. Both approaches will include more or less objective and subjective elements.

Many of the debates in the wine world about how to evaluate wines come down to a preference for one of these competing accounts about how to approach work.


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