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!
35 thoughts on “Do Wine Experts Taste Differently Than You (And Does It Matter)?”
Joe, I think you need to look more closely at the study's actual conclusion, and not the conclusions alleged in the various media articles discussing the study. There is a large disparity there, and the main problem is that too many people are confusing Taste and Flavor.
Taste, which is experienced primarily on the tongue, includes the big five: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. The “Supertasters” have a different sensitivity to these five tastes, especially bitter. The study only addressed the bitter taste, and didn’t even concern itself with the other four Tastes.
Now Flavor is experienced primarily through the retronasal smell, and how that interacts with the brain. The study did not address this aspect at all, and it is far more important to the role of wine critics than Taste. The experience of flavors of fruit, herbs, spices and such basically nothing to do with Taste, so Supertasters gain no advantage in this regard. You don’t experience blueberry flavor on your tongue, only whether you might taste sweet or sour.
So all the study can conclude is that critics might be able to detect bitter better than some people. That does not translate into a greater generalization that consumers cannot detect subtle Flavors that critics do experience.
Richard – thanks, I think that underscores the point that the study isn't that big of a deal for wine people, and that it shouldn't turn off would-be wine aficionados… The media has done a terrible job in reporting this study, jumping immediately to the conclusion that wine critics broadly taste differently than non-critics, which as you point out is not necessarily the case. Although I suppose the bitterness finding suggests that the other tastebud components would function similarly, but that has yet to be proven/tested.
I kind of see every bottle of wine I open as a crapshoot. It could be great, it could suck, or fall somewhere in between. I think most people would agree that they would rather have wines that are closer to the 'great' end of the continuum than the 'suck' end. I see wine critics as a way for people to hedge their bets a bit. It takes a little of the 'crap' out of the 'crapshoot' I guess. Personally, I try and drink wines that are off the critics radar since for me, wine tasting/drinking is about the experience (the food, the company, the setting, etc.) as much as it is about the wine. I think that people do get too caught up in scores and commentary about wine and they forget that wine is supposed to be drunk and preferably shared. That is my biggest problem with professional critics–they usually taste and score wines in a context that is totally foreign to the way I taste wine (with people and food while watching American Idol–OK that last part isn't true, but I was being serious for far too long).
Masi3v – thanks. Context is everything with wine. It's why I decided not to sample wines blind for the most part, because no one ever drinks them that way :).
Since we all have physical differences, why are people surprised or skeptical that our ability to taste or smell varies as well? It wouldn't make sense that we come in all different shapes, colors, etc… but the only thing that doesn't change is our senses of taste and smell?
PA – great point. But in skeptical that those senses are so dramatically different that we cannot reach common ground to talk about aromas and flavors.
Richard (and Joe, too),
"Taste" is not experienced on the tongue. Look at the study again. You should discover that those five elements are not classified as tastes–rather, they are sensations.
Taste is experienced by way of the olfactory canal sending signals that marry with the sensations on the tongue.
If you want to test the theory get yourself some strawberries; crimp your nose closed; take a strawberry or two in your mouth and chew. You should feel the sensation of the tartness of the fruit, and also its texture, but you won't taste much.
Release your nose and take two strawberries in your mouth–that's what the olfactory does for you when you "taste" food and wine.
Guess it all depends on definitions. Most of the literature considers "bitterness" to be a Taste, and that is what the study was about, bitter. Strawberry is a Flavor, and the olfactory system plays a significant role there. An excellent, recent resource on the matter is "Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters" by Gordon M. Shepherd.
You are right about flavor.
Maybe the best way to refer to sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami is as "taste sensations."
As the nose crimping experience shows, without experiencing flavor, food and drink would be reduced to those five basic sensations, and from the perception of our brain, food and drink would be sensationally tasteless.
try it with a coriander seed, odourless, tasteless until the nose release. I do this regularly with friends and students
I've done a few of these experiments with different foods; highly encouraged, as the difference is quite startling. But perhaps the coolest takeaway from it is how much more you pay attention to the textural sensations when the taste/olfactory portion is muted/eliminated – sort of like heightening your hearing or touch when you have your eyes closed!
I'm glad the different perspectives folks have taken are getting attention. My Facebook response to Joe (thanks for including it, and your musings on it!) sums up my own belief in this regard. No two people are the same enough for us to focus just on the hard details of what any one person might smell or taste. Focus on the enjoyment that comes from sharing the experience. That is something that we can share and discuss without forcing the issue of our differences that we are so under-educated to actually understand.
Jason – amen to that.
You are so right.
The differences in our tastes that we do not understand are complicated. Joe mentions his nostril problem–well, that problem must have a direct effect on what he tastes, as without the nose capturing the taste of wine is close to impossible.
This subject clearly points out why I have little regard for aesthetic wine criticism. It is meaningful mainly to the critic alone.
Yes, the way this study has been reported would pretty much make any WSET student give up. Especially if they encountered the Reisling we had last night with its kerosene aromas throwing the first punch. But I believe people can be taught to identify tastes. When I have my friends "help me study" by wine tasting with me, if they are having trouble, I break it down very simply first: 1) Do you smell something edible or is it like a woman's perfume? This gets us into fruits versus flowers. Then we do the same for other aromas so when we taste it, they usually get even more specific on their own. I also think pairings with fresh and dried fruits, bread, and other simple foods really help, too. I'm fired up about this because it's distasteful (pun intended) for people to come up with more excuses to talk down to non-wine experts. If you really love wine, you want to share it and your knowledge, not hoard it.
@SnugglesMAR – agreed. Liked how you broke that tasting down from the general first!
I believe that the overwhelming majority of individuals that pay attention to scores do not process the fact that critics may be in the elite group of tasting professionals. People see the score, and automatically assume that one wine is better than the other based on the institution that has been in place for quite some time now. If anything, I would say that critics or wine professionals have a better basis of comparison to work with regarding descriptors and also years of experience with varietals and vintages, and therefore they are better at discerning what they are tasting (which falls in line with one of Joe's points). This does not make them inherently "better" at tasting or more able to discern different tastes or flavors.
I encounter this in the tasting room frequently, where one person is dancing around the descriptors I would use, but when I describe the wine in "geek" language they look at me like I am speaking Swahili. I always say the most important descriptor of all is "like" or "don't like"; although over generalizing (merlot bashing and the like) is rampant and is most definitely for douche bags as Joe postulates so eloquently. People gravitate toward numbers, and more importantly gravitate toward people of "authority" on any given subject producing these numbers; regardless of science or the definition of terms and test results.
Don't get me wrong, I am extremely interested in the science behind the issue here, and I believe that studies such as this should pursued for industry professionals and us nerds who are interested by that kind of thing. However, in the long run regarding average consumers (I would place myself in that category more than I would in the "industry professionals" at this point) I seriously doubt most of them are contemplating the information given in this study, or how critics are able to discern hints of petrol or honeysuckle in the $50 bottle of Trimbach they are about to buy. If anyone actually has the patience to read this, I applaud you.
I'm glad that so many people are looking at this more objectively. Although the study is not that surprising in itself, I think the biggest problem was the press release. It appeared to include "facts" that weren't actually evaluated in the study at all, but generalized assumptions to grab people's attention.
Additionally, this study only looked at PROP, and I believe other research has shown varying bitter sensations that are perceived through varying genetics. If I remember correctly (although I could be wrong), I think there are a couple different bitter receptors that have been identified – so that while some people may not be sensitive to PROP, as they lack the appropriate receptors, they may be sensitive to another bittering compound.
We know that each person's tasting ability is unique, but I agree with some of these people that a lot can be learned… especially when you start thinking about what you are tasting. Other research shows that winemakers differ in how they approach wine compared to wine judges and then again to consumers. And really – it all comes down to what Joe said earlier – do you like the wine; yes or no? For those that like it, that pay attention to what they are tasting… can't we just let them talk about it?
I too came across the study and discussed it with a few friends who like to drink wine but aren't experts. One friend agreed saying, "When I stick my nose in a glass of Cab, the only thing I smell is wine."
I personally feel that you can "learn to taste," however, it made me think. I've come to the conclusion that unless you're a wine geek or a serious novice, descriptors don't matter as much as someone you trust telling you that the wine is of good quality or will work with what it is that you're eating. I'll be interested to see further research on the subject in the near future but in the meantime, business as usual!
@QuitWINEing – Thanks! I am 100% convinced that pretty much ANYONE with a normally-functioning olfactory cavity can learn to ID aromas in wines. The trick is, do they WANT to. I'm also convinced that most people don't want to do that – and that's okay. I will probably never distinguish between different styles/techniques of needlepoint… simply because I lack the drive/passion for it. Doesn't make me wrong, just as most people not caring enough about wine to get deep into the complexities doesn't make them wrong. Cheers!
I want to! So….if critics and tasting rooms decide to dumb down descriptions for the lowest common denominator, what exactly does that do for wine? The is a large group of budding wine geeks out there (myself included) that crave these descriptors. We can agree or disagree, but we want to try to find those things also as we train our noses and our palates. "Most people" look just at the Parker rating. "Most people" avoid drinking Merlot because they saw one movie. "Most people" can't drive (okay I'm off topic here)…"Most people" like fruit bomb and too much oak. "Most people" don't know a good wine from a bad wine, and don't care! If the wine critics and industry are catering to them then we will all end up with nothing but Two Buck Chuck. End rant.
Robin – that quality of rant is always welcome here! :). I understand the fear of dumbing down wine, I don want to see that happen, either.
Do I ask my Gran what sort of car to buy? Do I ask my 14yo Maccas munching son which restaurant I should go to? Do I ask my luddite Uncle (who has never owned a mobile phone much less a computer) which modem I should buy? Of course not. I look at reviews and look for the item which is well reviewed by a person or persons I can trust.
I have no interest in pushing a car, restaurant or modem to its limits, I simply want it to be the best fit for my criteria.
Therefore why wouldn't a person use the same logic for wine? I don't blindly follow whatever anyone says and so what if I cannot tell fennel from aniseed, that's quite simply irrelevant to the purpose of using a critic to help make a purchase decision. If they didn't have more knowledge or capability than you then there would be little point in listening to them.
I don't need a dumbed down review of a wine, I can do that. I want an expert to tell me what flavours and smells they detect in the wine so I can determine whether it fits into my flavour profile before I buy. Reviewers will become more important rather than less as we move increasingly into the digital age where the majority of wine will be bought online.
As a postscript, I am studying to become a wine professional and for instance, using Le Nez du Vin regularly is a great tool for training one's senses. I totally agree that you can train your senses, it just takes practice and diligence
Thanks, Ross. I think in some ways you are in the minority, if what you are looking for are critics to get very specific about the details of a wine’s aromas and flavors. Nothing wrong with that, in fact I think it’s great, but you’re confidence in your tastes for wines certainly means that a more technical reading of what a wine is offering would be more helpful to you than the average wine drinker, I’d wager. I would challenge though any dumbing-down of wine, and that is not what I was (or ever will be) after here (though I acknowledge it is a danger of where non-technical reviews could end up if we’re not careful!); rather than dumb it down, I think we should amp it up by adding context and emotional impact in reviews. Not easy to do, but possible, and will speak to those who are not looking for as technical a description. Cheers!
I cannot add anything to what has been already been said….except as a friend and follower this is one of your best posts ever. You rock Joey San!
A brilliant post. And really like the "Like" button idea!
Reminds me of a lovely anedote – when Andrew Jefford met Egon Muller and asked him for his view on the point of wine, and Egon Muller recounted a meal he had once when the restaurant only had one unknown wine on the list :
“We didn’t have any option …
we started drinking it …
it was lovely …
and before we knew it the bottle was empty.
And that,” he said with surprising sudden emphasis,
“is the point of wine. That’s it.”
Tai-Ran – well stated!!
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