I don’t mean here that if you lick a wine expert (something I do not recommend, unless you happen to be Heidi Klum and the wine expert you plan on tasting is me) they taste like chocolate-covered hazelnut while you taste like a dog coming out of the rain.
I mean, are wine experts hard-wired to taste wine in a fundamentally different way than you are, physiologically?
Sound crazy? Well, crazy or not, that’s the conclusion suggested by results published in a recent issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, from a study performed by John Hayes (assistant professor of food science) and others at (WE ARE!) Penn State. Even NPR jumped in on this action despite the study results not having been repeated yet (see “Most Of Us Just Can’t Taste The Nuances In High-Priced Wines” – not that they’d stoop to using an incendiary title that insinuates the conclusions as unalterable scientific fact or anything gimmicky like that…).
The coverage of the study at PSU.edu is pretty sparse, and open to some rather gaping critical holes, but assuming the results hold up to further scientific scrutiny they will bolster the controversial position taken by Master of Wine Tim Hanni (and others) that individually we perceive wines differently based on a number of factors, some of them physical.
To the tape, quoting Mr. Hayes (emphasis mine):
“While learning plays a role in their expertise and other factors matter, such as how they communicate their thoughts and opinions on wines, some wine experts may have an innate advantage in learning to discern small differences in wine.”
The most interesting thing about this study? For my money, it’s the further implication that reviews from wine experts are actually even less helpful to the general public than previously thought…
In other words, if we really do taste a hint of elderberries in a rustic European red wine, we’re better off not telling you, because you can’t discern it anyway; so the geekier and more specific we get, the less helpful we are. (I won’t even get into what this means for wine certification blind tasting exams like the WSET, which are graded in part based on how close testers get to describing a wine the way that the exam’s resident expert would).
That further disparity between critic and audience in and of itself is pretty sad, but it’s made worse by another potential implication: that you could never pick up those tastes; an implication which I happen to think it total bullsh*t.
I come to that BS-pronouncing conclusion having worked my way towards being able to describe a wine’s details despite having physiological impediment of my own: a narrow nasal cavity on my right nostril (that, and being 5’5”, and looking a bit like a troll… okay, so my height and looks don’t really count for tasting… whatever, you try getting people to take you seriously about anything when you look like me…!). In other words, I did it through a ton of trial and error and just plain old effort, finding a way around the issues no matter what they were (I am not unique here – we are, after all, a resilient species).
I remain convinced that anyone can, in fact, learn to taste wine and describe its aromas and tastes with equal (or greater!) acuity than me or just about anyone else, based on the overwhelming data from other fields suggesting that doing ten thousand hours of anything well pretty much makes you world class at it. For a cogent dissection of the PSU study that underscores that view, check out this piece on the results by Fred Swan.
Even if Fred and I are 100% wrong and the PSU study is 100% right, it probably still makes sense for wine experts to eschew uber-detailed tasting notes in favor of trying to convey a wine’s total experience and high-level, common-ground flavors and smells, if only to help maximize the benefits of a review for the greatest number of consumers.
When I openly mused “aloud” about the PSU study recently on Facebook and twitter, a few responses came back that seemed to agree with the view of keeping it simple to avoid making it stupid, study or no study. The first came by way of the saxophone player in my band, who argued that getting too specific is simply too geeky to be really useful for most people; his comparison to music is, I think, borderline-brilliant:
“Such as it is easier to say ‘that was a funky bass solo, I dug it!!’ rather than, that bass solo was filled with lots of 1/4 note beats on 1 and 3 with driving 1/8 notes filling the space between to make a groove riff in the key of F major; I dug it!’”
It was a sort of underscore for my suggestion that we ought to just publicly give wines a “Like” button rather than burdening people with too-esoteric descriptors.
Another came from wine blogger Jason Todd Phelps, who in a rather Post Modern, ultimate-possibility-in-the-seemingly-random-chaos way took a glass-is-half-full (and equally borderline-brilliant, I think) view of the PSU study (emphasis mine):
“What it means to me is that since we aren’t genetically predisposed to share much in the way of taste genes, that our ability to relate to others over what we taste is more a social construct that pure science. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun though… To me it signals a change in approach to sharing my wine and food experiences. More about the overall experience and helping people pick new experiences for themselves. Less about individual bottles.”
In either case, both of those gentlemen are spot-on, I think, having reached the same finish line through taking completely different routes. Isn’t it just more damn fun to talk about fine wine openly and without pretense, share it generously, and explore our differing perceptions of it graciously and with enough patience and understanding to allow them to slowly evolve over time, just like its tastes and aromas will in the glass?
I sure think so. Which is kind of why I dislike the shortcut of wine ratings, including my own – shouldn’t we take them all with a grain of salt, and defer ultimately to our own tastes? After all, no one is a better arbiter of what tastes god to you than… well, you!