Summer of trashing wine

Sorry for the radio (er, blog) silence of late. It’s been a busy few weeks for me with non-blog things–but I am now back in the proverbial saddle.

What with the heat, humidity and storms here in the northeast, and fireworks on the horizon, pardon me for thinking that we were in summer. Instead, it seems to be open season once again for trashing wine critics. A resurgence in interest in Bob Hodgson’s studies seems to have sparked the boom in articles deriding wine tasting and criticism. But these articles have also reached into the annals of the subfield to pull out other studies pointing to the fact that wine consumers are perhaps more influenced by price or labels than what’s in the glass in front of them.

Don’t throw the l’enfant jesus out with the bathwater. While it might be hilarious to see a wine snob get his comeuppance, people in America (and around the world) are increasingly into wine and crave more knowledge about wine. In fact, I taught an intensive wine class at the New School last week and about half the participants admitted they wanted to be “that guy” at parties, who can talk about wine with confidence and order from a wine list with aplomb. Blind tasting is a bit of a parlor game and there are a million facts to learn that someone could be tripped up on. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that wine goes with food, fuels socializing, and is easy to uncork and enjoy.

So even if there is a lack of rigor in a lot of blind tasting and more than a whiff of pseudoscience, learning more about wine is still something meaty that people want and value. Or am I wrong–what do you think?

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15 Responses to “Summer of trashing wine”

  1. Don’t fret; it’s just anti-intellectualism rearing its head.

  2. Doing blind tastings at home is the best education I’ve had. I find that I am very easily influenced by the judgments of wine critics, and when I taste before I read them it forces me to think for myself and be honest. I seldom am able to identify the wine but I’m trying to convince myself that that’s OK.

  3. I feel like bashing wine critics is kind of like basing Lebron James. A few years ago, it was popular to complain about everything he’s not. But now, if you appreciate the craft, you have to appreciate the master. Sorry about your Bulls Tyler. Go heat!

  4. I’d take it a step further than anti-intellectualism and posit that it is a sense of anti-exceptionalism that seems to be pervading our society. I hope that people wake up. Nice observation and thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  5. RE Blind tastings at home. Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste is great for that purpose, IMHO.

  6. Take the comments below with a grain (or more) of salt. I am pretty far over on the skeptic side of things.

    Modernist Cuisine suggests that for true blind tasting one needs black wine glasses, and a dye in the wine as well as person serving also not knowing which is which. But given the extreme notes that some wine tasters claim perhaps a little of the tasting should be done that way.

    I have wondered if a good value wine of similar blend ought to be in any expensive wine lineup.

    Alcohol is a fairly powerful chemical. Can wine tasters really test a flight of 100 wines and taste the last one as well as the first?

    Perhaps Parker really can taste every distance and remember all of the wines he has ever tasted. But has anyone come up with a rating so a typical wine drinker could assess his/her tasting ability? My wife and I seems to be able to tell the difference between 81 and 89 pt wines. So we buy value wines that seem to be in the 85-90 range.

  7. @RobLL, I don’t know if you read Steve Hiemhoff’s blog, but he freely admits that his wine scores are not scientific, and a 99-point wine could be a 94-point wine on a different day

  8. @Thomas, yes, could be. But Much of wine criticism is worthy of, well, criticism.

    @Robin – that strikes me as the best use of blind tasting. I love doing that.

    @ Gabe – the Bulls will be NBA champs in 2015!

    @ Emily – true, a down-with-expertise, up-with-vox-populi mindset is well-entrenched now in many quarters.

    Rob – In fact, Robert Parker isn’t all that good at blind tasting (at least in the instance I saw him do it. The WA doesn’t taste blind–FYI):

    Gabe – I hadn’t heard Heimoff say that. But it’s pretty pathetic. The score gives a (false) sense of precision and objectivity; to use it, imho, there should be controls (e.g. unknowingly tasting the same wine twice to make sure it scores the same) and the results should be largely replicable. If that’s not the case, then just give up on scores!

  9. Gabe – enjoyed the Hiemoff blog and a link there to a Guardian article. The Guardian article probably has the most science in it. Sugar, acid, and bitterness need to be in some sort of balance, and tastes likely vary here. Beyond that there is aroma differences which are notoriously difficult to pin down.

    There may be super-tasters who distinguish (in previous thread somehow that came out as distance – sorry) tastes which are just beyond me, and maybe 90% plus of other people. Are reviewers writing for each other, super tasters, or for frequent wine drinkers.

    Few reviewers cover the basics. How much residual sugars, and how much fruitiness? How acidic is it, and how bitter? More important how do these play out in all over effect? I had erroneously described these last year in another blog as sweetness, tannins, acids, and fruitiness. How much flavor is there that stands above those basic tastes?

    Another question, when I drink wine seldom is it the only center – food, companion(s),or a book likely more important.

    I don’t think I am cynical having come to the conclusion that little of what critics have to say is all that useful. If I had a circle of wine tasting friends I likely would buy more expensive wine and enjoy the fellowship.

  10. well i can’t speak for critics, but i do appreciate steve’s honesty.

    as for the bulls, we’ll see what d-rose looks like. i’ll try to keep my dog’s twitter account in check 😉

  11. As for bashing critics, they lend so much fodder, I’m sorry but as an actual scientist it’s just too easy when you function in completely biased, non-blinded ways and use numerical scores and sciency language, like single and double-blind, inappropriately. Really what do they expect?

    Unfortunately, most of the literature on wine tasting is beyond terrible from a scientific perspective. So the real junk science is the “science” of wine tasting literature. Hodgson’s articles are certainly among the better examples of decent research.

    But for most of the rest you look at the methods of most of those article. You’ll quickly notice basic flaws that even the most basic undergrad should be able to pick apart, like “wine experts” = undergraduates in oenology or people who drink wine 3 times a week. Conclusions overstep basic limitations of methodology regularly. Unfortunately journalists pick up the supposed conclusions and run with them.

    It’s too hard. Taste is too subjective to make random numbers mean anything when you taste the way wine critics have to taste. Basically why are we assuming a subjective numerical score would ever meet scientific criteria for tasting? It could never EVER be true. Even if you removed bottle variation, variable oxygenation, etc, you’d still be stuck with palates that are totally different in terms of taste bud density as well as receptor type for each of the tastes and smells in a wine. Then there is the subjective nature to each person on top of all this.

    I’d be much more interested in a physiologic study about things like intra-observer variability with sequential tasting, which is somewhat similar to one of the Hodgson papers. Studies designed to inform reviewers that their palate is out of whack for so long after this much ETOH and acid etc and how they could improve the reproducibility of their tasting. But this won’t happen. It doesn’t get headlines.

    Heimoff at least alludes to some of this and suggests you need to find a critic with similar “tastes”. He still loves scores because it communicates clearly Good, Great, etc and the drinker at home can figure where their appreciation fits in. To be honest I still haven’t found a good match and find wine scores to be terrible predictors. Often wines at certain prices and certain scores by a given critic have similar flaws. It tells me more about the critic than it does about a given wine. A sad state of affairs.

  12. In my opinion, Zack gets it largely correct.

    There are indeed objective criteria to wine judging, few as they may be, and that part is rather scientific, once someone is trained in identifying the objective nature of wine. What used to get me is when a judge or judges on my panel was/were never trained to identify wine flaws or, worse, were trained but since they took a preference to some flaws they changed an objective measure into a subjective one.

    As for critics, who work completely differently from competition judges, all I can say is that I never understood why I should care what someone else likes and I equally never understood why anyone should care what I like. Even if we share likes, I still don’t understand why we need to care.

    Part of the joy of wine, for me, is to make my own discoveries, without bullshit quantifiers to guide me. I have only one palate; it’s mine; it’s my only reasonable guide.

  13. Just as an example of what I mean above: I remember one particular wine competition where judges were asked to evaluate the wine on our own and then, we would discuss the wines among all ten judges in the competition. There weren’t many wines and so that seemed a reasonable way to do it.

    A few times we had major clashes over the medals awarded to wines. One of those times involved a wine that was seriously reduced and should never have been commercially released, but only two of the judges (me and another judge) gave that wine a faulty note.

    When I found myself explaining to the 8 other judges what reduction in wine is, I knew my time as a wine judge was coming to a self-imposed close. It came to a real close not long thereafter, but for another reason that had to do with a clash between the marketing nature of competition medals with what I saw them as: winemaking achievement awards.

  14. Just a correction. Fruitiness, if I correctly understand it, is part of the aroma of a wine. But one which oddly can persuade the person that a wine is sweet. And Modernist Cuisine suggests generally two wines at a time, one duplicated.

  15. Thomas, I think Rusty, the Prince of Pinot, perhaps said it best, “scoring a wine only matters to the person doing the scoring.”


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