The experts strike back?

There’s something of a cottage industry that has emerged in trashing the reputation of wine experts. Richard Quandt of Princeton wrote an hilarious essay entitled “On Wine Bullshit.” Bob Hodgson had his two devastating papers about wine competitions. The Wine Trials books suggest high-volume, low-priced wines are all that you’ll ever need. The WSJ got in on the action too a while back.

So at some point, someone had to ride to the rescue of the experts, right? Well, now we have it: a new study suggests that “wine experts” can discern more flavors than regular Joes. Yay, experts, right? Well, not really, the authors say:

“What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” said John Hayes, assistant professor, food science, and director of Penn State’s sensory evaluation center. “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”

Oh noes! We’re back to the wine-experts-as-useless line! Granted, there’s a lot of pretension and bluster worth bashing but let’s not throw the Burgundy out with the bathwater.

Looking at the details of the study published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, the authors had volunteers identify themselves as wine experts or not. Fully a third of them were classified as “experts,” which seems not quite a representative sample of America (or perhaps Canada, where the data collection occurred.) Moreover, these self-selected experts showed a higher rate of detected the bitter compound, PROP, thus possibly making them “super-tasters.” As Mike Steinberger pointed out in his lengthy (self-)exploration of the physiology of taste, having a sensitivity to PROP does not make one a supertaster and being a supertaster does not make more of a wine expert. (As we’ve seen, blind tasting can have more bitter outcomes than PROP.)

So, yes, there may be biological differences in tasting ability. But in this nature-versus-nurture discussion, I vote for nurture as being more influential: it’s the catalogue of knowledge and tasting references, the experiences with wines in the glass, that make most of the great tasters I know really good. Also, many wine experts are self-styled and have varying capabilities, so I am skeptical there’s a genetic explanation for superior wine tasting ability. And what about the disconnect Hayes suggests between the masses not picking up on tasting note descriptors? Well, for some notes, there may be more than a whiff of what Quandt was talking about.

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14 Responses to “The experts strike back?”

  1. Great minds. This is what I had to say about this:

  2. God above, what navel-gazing drivel seems to consume wine writers and critics! If people agree with your opinions then it is probably because you are consistent, fairly honest in your appraisals and what you say rings a bell for them. If you don’t engage with people then you can write all you like, no-one will ever pay any attention.
    Do experts taste differently to amateurs? Of course – they have been trained to examine a wine in a particular way. The “Bullshit” paper mocks the use of standard flavour descriptor which we know exist in wine – why do this? Is someone trying to make themselves look smart?
    The point of a tasting note, as I am tired of pointing out, is as a personal aide-memoire (note the word personal). Anyone who publishes tasting notes is missing the point that the note is aimed at an audience of one – the original taster.
    The real key with being an expert is to be an expert communicator, to get across the passion and enthusiasm that you have for wine, not to reel off a list of flavours or textures.
    I once opened two wines in a shop I ran for a tasting for customers. A guy, who would be described as “blue-collar” in the US and who never bought beer, tasted both and gave his opinion simply: I know which I like and I know which I can afford. Without any training he could assess, to his satisfaction, relative quality. All I do, is taste more wines and try to communicate as simply as he did.

  3. Is it my imagination, or are men better bullshitters than women?

  4. Many super tasters can’t stand the acidity and tannins in wine and don’t get as far as nurture to learn any nuance. I think the middle ground normals make up the majority of the great palates I know, most of us have done the PROP test, it’s always good to have a doctor around. When trying the test strips we were not sure it was the proper substance (it was bitter but not that bad) until a friend tried and almost turned her mouth inside out to get rid of the taste, she is a picky eater and obviously a super taster.

  5. Hi Tyler,

    Greetings from beautiful Saarbrucken, Germany on a glorious spring day. I think that you are spot on about the importance of tasting experience in the shaping of wine experts’ palates and ability to taste, and one should add that experience in a vertical manner that knows wines through their varous stages of evolution is even more key than a broader base of tasting across regions and continents in the sole context of new releases or relatively young wines. I would argue that one of the great shortcomings in much of the writings I see on wine is the obvious lack of tasting experience with wines at their peaks of maturity- which for many wines can be after thirty or forty years of bottle age. It is hard to argue that a well-trained and newly-minted MW (where encyclopedic knowledge of all wines and regions is required to past the exam) is going to have the same skill set as someone like David Peppercorn (and his decades of claret tasting) in handicapping a young vintage of Chateau Figeac and its potential for ultimate glory in some way, shape or form. To be fair, the new MW might be the better choice for discovering a new producer in the Valle d’Aoste, but in the context of the historically most important regions and their wines, depth of tasting experience is essential to really have an ability to taste and evaluate accurately younger wines from these regions.

    That said (or at least opined), there is also a very real difference between people’s innate ability to taste and as one travels areound the world tasting with some regularity, it takes very little effort to quickly differentiate between people in the trade who can really taste and those who cannot. Often this quite obvious discrepancy in innate ability can be seen across a wide range of depths of experience, so that one can see very seasoned tasters that really do not taste with a great degree of accuracy to the wine in the glass. I can recall a luncheon at a famous Medoc estate a few years ago where a clearly flawed (soft and overly evolved bottle) of a wine from a great vintage of the 1980s was served with the meal. One or two of the journalists in attendance waxed extremely elegantly about the excellence of the wine and how it so beauitfully exemplified the style and quality of the vintage (the wine was obviously not served blind). The only problem was that the wine was quite obviously flawed, with a dilute, roasted and rather soft and short palate profile (probably from a poor cork) and was certainly not representative of the wine or vintage. To my mind, this was quite simply a classic example of one’s different innate abilities to taste.

    Any way, this post is long enough and I am off to change cepages after four long days tasting the 2011ers in Germany (some stunning wines btw) and off to prepare for 12 days in Bordeaux for the En Primeur events. First step in the transition from Riesling to claret will be a vertical Ducru-Beaucaillou tasting this evening- all for the sake of research and continued palate training 😉

    All the Best,


  6. How hard is it to figure out that a $50 plus bottle is good (i.e., well made) wine. Having shopped for wine today at a major Chicago chain and seeing all the shelf talkers from eRobertParket, ok, I get it. I spend enough money, I get a well made bottle suited to a super taster’s taste. Good for me. How bout a $20-$30 bottle. Better yet, what about a $15 bottle. Shelf talkers tend to correlate with price. Good luck to you if you can’t afford RP’s beloved CNdP or Super Tuscans. I went with the Kermit Lynch.

  7. If the comments about the Wine Trails books are the ones by Steve Roberts, I would disagree. I have used the Washington book on two trips there and have used it to find very off-the-radar wineries.

  8. In a sense they’re both right.

    The experts and the non’s I mean. It is absolutely true that one person at any one time can love a wine (Art, Music, Place…)and someone else may hate it.

    But as Brandon Marsalis said, “You don’t know what you like, you like what you know…” And that is why we have “Experts”. People who have tried a large number a wines, can articulate that experience and who we relate to with our own taste.

    And there is not an absolute correlation between a place, a winemaker, a grape, a price or a time that will guarantee we will like that wine.

    The beauty is… that what makes wine so interesting, for the novice and the expert!

  9. “Branford”… Let’s give credit where credit is due

  10. Tim – nice article and discussion. (FYI, I found the comment flow slightly hard to follow; any chance you could revert to chronological order so that the oldest comment appears first? Then a reader only has to scroll down, not down and up…)

    Hi Dermot – always good to have you stop by. I agree that a tasting note often is (and maybe should be) resolutely personal. But, sadly, that’s not always the case. I also agree that they note should at the very least convey the taster’s enthusiasm or disdain for the wine in the glass; too many tasting notes today seem overly precious, with six or more extremely precise (and presumably ephemeral) aroma descriptors. Sometimes these will be easy to lampoon and really not helpful to readers, e.g. “caramel-coated leaves.”

    I also like your aide-memoire suggestion. I often find reference to other wines and wine types more helpful than fruits and asphalt.

    Robin C – perhaps so!?

    Lee- yes, careful!

  11. John – Thanks for taking time out of your busy and diverse itinerary to join the discussion. Glad the 2011er Rieslings appear promising!

    I agree that vertical tasting experience is really important too, particularly when wines seem too tight or too flabby at or before bottling. It’s quite a skill to foresee; sadly, with absurdly precise drinking windows (e.g. “drink from 2032 – 2047+”) that have crept into tasting notes of late, it does seem ripe for ridicule and driving a wedge between “experts” and the, well non-“experts.”

    It would be interesting to hear if people think we have a rich vocabulary for describing and evaluating sounds (e.g. music) and visual arts that seems more readily understandable than the vocabulary we have for aromas and flavors. And whether the vocabulary that we do have is off-putting in and of itself (such as vintage comparisons that the reader has litte experience with) or if it is the way the words are used.

    Btw, on your notes, I’m glad you often specify “woodsmoke” rather than, say, “the smoke of burning tires at a French farmers’ protest”! 😉

  12. Greg, there’s really not a one-to-one correlation in my view, between price and quality.

    Christina – Sorry, the Wine TRIALS!

    Kenton – Yes, I think that’s a terrific point; experts can mention wines you haven’t tried, or pieces of music you haven’t heard but in a way that *makes you want to taste/listen to them!* To pique the curiosity is a good thing…

  13. Agreed, Dr. V that the relationship between quality (or enjoyment) is not correlated with price. I grant that there are better (more satisfying) wines than others. I guess you have to find a super taster that agrees with your palate. Just not necessarily at lower price points. Be prepared to spend $$$ if you want to drink with a super taster.

  14. […] came across an article by Tyler Colman, author of Dr. Vino’s Wine Blog.  In his article, he references an article done by Matt […]


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