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.