Is Wine Tasting Nonsense?

by Dwight Furrow

Winetaster2Wine tasting has become one of the favorite playthings of the media with articles appearing periodically detailing a new study that allegedly shows wine tasters to be incompetent charlatans, arrogantly foisting their fantasies on an unsuspecting public. But these articles seldom reflect critically on their conclusions or address the question of what genuine expertise in wine tasting looks like. In fact, articles in this genre routinely misinterpret the results of these studies and seem more interested in reinforcing (partly undeserved) stereotypes of snobbish sommeliers.

The study that seems to get the most attention is from 2001. Frédéric Brochet asked 54 wine experts to assess two glasses of wine, one red, the other white. But in fact the two wines were identical white wines, the “red” wine having been dyed with food coloring. All the experts used descriptors typical of red wines and failed to notice the wine was in fact white. But this study does not show that wine tasters are incompetent. The study relied only on smell, not taste which would more readily yield clues to the wine's nature. More importantly, wine tasters are taught to use visual clues when trying to identify a wine using the deductive method. Given that the wine appeared red, trained wine tasters would have logically ruled out white descriptors. The study proves nothing about the expertise of wine tasters; only a lack of expertise in designing the study.

In a follow-up study, Brochet served wine experts two bottles, one with the label of a Grand Cru, the other labeled as an ordinary table wine. The wine in both bottles was identical and ordinary. The expensive wine was highly praised; the less expensive one roundly criticized. The conclusion this article attempts to draw is that all wine tastes the same and there is no distinction between cheap and expensive wine. But there is an alternative hypothesis that is much more plausible. We aren't told who these experts were, but the results are not surprising. There is ample scientific evidence that judgments about wine, including those of experts, are influenced by reputation, price, and expectations. That is why wine tasters often taste blind so their judgments are not distorted by these factors. All this study shows is that our judgments are influenced by background beliefs—this is not news and the tendency of wine tasters to be influenced by price and reputation has been incorporated into wine tasting practice for decades.

Other studies cast doubt on the rewards given to wines at festivals and county fairs where wine experts must assign numerical ratings to dozens of wines tasted blind in a single day. In one series of experiments, judges are, unbeknownst to them, given the same wine at different times throughout the day; the results show that the judges are wildly inconsistent in their evaluation. These wine competitions are problematic to begin with because palate fatigue sets in rather quickly. These competitions are opportunities for wineries to get publicity and marketing materials. Few wine experts take them seriously as attempts to objectively determine wine quality. But setting that worry aside, again the results are not surprising. Context is everything. What you taste will be influenced by the other wines being tasted at the same time. The assignment of numerical scores suggests a cardinal ranking but wine tasting in flights is inevitably comparative. The same wine will taste differently when tasted against different competitors. This is not because of a lack of expertise; it's just a fact about how taste works. If you want objective results, then wine tasters must rest and recalibrate their palate to avoid results skewed by context. The most that can be drawn from these studies is that reasonably objective sensory evaluation requires carefully controlled conditions—David Hume discovered that in 1757.

But this article from the Guardian last summer entitled “Wine Tasting is Junk Science” gets the prize for irrelevant headline of the year. I don't know anyone who thinks wine tasting is a science or that even expert wine tasters can achieve the level of accuracy required for scientific testing. Sharp disagreements among wine experts about the qualities and virtues of a particular wine are common. One critic thinks a wine is flabby and disjoint; the other thinks it is superb, and there is no way to settle the dispute. The fact that wine experts are inconsistent in their evaluations is no surprise to anyone who pursues wine tasting seriously. Certainly every expert I know admits the difficulties of wine tasting and readily grants that we often get it wrong. The comparison with science is a flopping red herring. The real question is whether the persistence of such disagreement among experts should undermine confidence in their expertise, which in any case would not be the expertise of a scientist.

One thing we know is that some of what we experience in a wine is a response to objective properties of the wine. We taste apple in wine because of the presence of malic acid (among other compounds); vanilla because of the presence of ethyl vanillate, etc. The perceived weight on the palate is a function of extract, residual sugar and/ or alcohol. When we taste we can succeed or fail to discern those objective properties because the signal they send is faint and easily masked. Novice wine tasters have trouble discerning flavor components in wine just as you might fail to taste the hint of rosemary in a sauce until someone points it out to you. But the relationship between perceived flavors and chemical compounds in the wine is well-established by science.

However, there is significant biological variation in human populations regarding the threshold for detecting compounds in wine. Some people will be more sensitive to certain compounds than others, and it is not yet clear to what degree these thresholds can be shaped by training. But variations exist in all our sensory mechanisms, color-blindness being the most obvious. There is no reason to think taste thresholds do not stabilize around a norm that allows most of our sensory judgments to be inter-subjectively valid despite variation on the margins. Thus, the existence of biological differences in taste mechanisms by themselves do not show that wine expertise is nonsense, anymore than the existence of colorblindness calls into question our ability to accurately refer to colors.

It is of course true that ordinary wine drinkers (as well as experts in some contexts) can be misled and seem to taste something that isn't there. This is common when tasting in a group where comments by others may influence someone to misidentify the features of a wine. Furthermore, as noted, we can be influenced by price, reputation, expectations, personal relationships, and emotional commitments in ways that mislead us. But this is not evidence that wine tasting is nonsense—in fact quite the opposite. If there is such a thing as real expertise in identifying the properties of a wine, then it must be possible to get it wrong. If tastes, in general, were entirely subjective there would be no right answer to the question of whether, for instance, chocolate ice cream tastes of chocolate. No one really thinks that. The fact that expert wine tasters get it wrong so often is evidence that wine tasting is harder than identifying the presence of chocolate in ice cream—not that it is utterly capricious. So tastes are not so entirely subjective that our experiences of them have no relationship to an object.

But the question is whether experts are capable of limiting the influence of those factors that bias their judgments. And the answer is yes, at least up to a point. This is the purpose of blind tasting. Although blind tasting has many drawbacks, it does serve to insulate the taster from knowledge of the producer and price (single-blind tasting) and from the region and varietal (double-blind tasting). Furthermore, tasters can strive to eliminate environmental factors that have been shown to influence judgments about wine such as conversations, the style of music being played, and changes in the weather, etc. These are all factors that wine tasters can control by adjusting the environment in which they taste. Wine tasters, if they are to maintain credibility, must taste under the appropriate conditions. But that is no different from any other normative judgment we make. Our ability to make ethical judgments, for instance, is similarly influenced by environmental factors. We know (or should know) better than to make ethical judgments when we are excessively angry, fearful, under the influence of powerful desires, etc. Yet, it does not follow from the fact that ethical judgments can be influenced by irrelevant factors that all ethical judgments are subjective.

Nevertheless, each of us has a unique tasting history and a set of expectations based on that history from which there is no escape. This accounts, more than anything else, for disagreements among experts. We can't step outside our past and taste something without that past influencing us. So the taste of wine (or anything else) is partly dependent on objective features of the world and partly dependent on how our view of those features has been shaped by past experience. The crucial question then is how much of a distorting lens is that past experience. Does it lead us to lose touch with the world or not? This is where systematic learning, the constant calibration of one's taste to well-established standards, and a disciplined focus on getting things right comes into play. Experience sharpens our ability to perceive by improving our ability to isolate and identify those weak signals that less experienced tasters miss. Furthermore, prejudices can be overcome and influences can be prevented from distorting our perceptions if we become aware of them and have the will to limit their influence. The more knowledge you have about wine regions, vinification processes, etc. the more you can use that knowledge to shape your tasting experience to conform to objective properties of the wine. The fact that some people after years of study are able to pass the very rigorous “Masters of Wine” program (there are currently only 312 worldwide) is evidence that tasting expertise is real—they are not consulting oracles or hallucinating their answers.

So wine tasting expertise is neither arbitrary nor useless. It is a matter of having the experience and reflective awareness to reduce the role of factors that might distort our impression of a wine. Expertise can't eliminate all subjectivity but it can reduce some personal biases such that with extensive background knowledge they give the taster a clearer impression of the wine than they would have without the expertise.

What is puzzling about this whole debate about the objectivity of wine critics, however, is why people want objective descriptions of wine. We don't expect scientific objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. The disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren't we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different? The judgment of any critic is simply a snapshot at a particular time and place of an object whose meaning can vary with context. Wine criticism cannot escape this limitation.

I suspect what we are witnessing with all this skepticism about wine tasting is the corrosive influence of the point system in evaluating wine. It is a handy device for consumers but it leaves the impression that wine evaluation is subject to mathematical precision. But nothing could be further from the truth. A wine that receives 95 points is judged on a particular day in a particular context. There is no reason to think a critic (or a different critic) would assign exactly the same score in a different context, in comparison with a different flight of wines, under different social and environmental conditions.

What we want from critics whether of music, art, or wine is a judgment made in light of their vast experience that can show us something about the object that we might have missed without their commentary. That can be accomplished independently of whether the critic is perfectly consistent or objective. We want the critic to have a certain kind of bias, born of her unique experience, because it is that bias that enables her to taste, see, or hear what she does.

This question of what we want from a wine critic inevitably implicates the issue of tasting notes, which have become controversial among wine writers recently. The most common complaints are that lists of flavor notes are uninformative, excessively obscure, or over-the-top, floridly-written balderdash. There is indeed an inherent problem with wine tasting notes. Wine, like music, is hard to describe. The language we have developed for talking about emotions, dangerous animals, or quantum fields doesn't lend itself to sensory descriptions, especially those of taste and smell. And the ability to discern flavors is not the same as the ability to name them or describe them. Yet wine reviews must inform both sophisticated and unsophisticated palates, while being short and to the point. Moreover, professional wine critics must pump out reviews like bottles of Barefoot since they often taste dozens of wines per day, and their publications must provide comprehensive coverage of the best wines among the thousands produced each year. Thus, wine tasting notes are a genre of writing caught between the need to give consumers advice and the desire to give the beauty of wine its due.

Most of the complaints about tasting notes are directed at the endless lists of fruits that critics sense in a wine. Granted, they can be quite tedious if they are too obscure but they can serve a purpose. One thing a good tasting note must do is locate a wine within the framework of various wine styles or wine regions. Basic fruit descriptors help with that. A Pinot Noir tasting of black cherry is in a different style than one tasting of strawberry; if spice is dominant that indicates something else about style. But identifying the style is not sufficient for a good tasting note. The writer must say something about what makes the wine distinctive (if it is distinctive). For this purpose, I agree, going on about more fruits, separated by commas, without explaining how those flavors contribute to a distinctive flavor profile is useless and excessive, especially if the flavor descriptors are so obscure no one has a clue what they mean. What precisely is lemon-balm, how is it distinct from lemon verbena, and how do they both differ from, well, lemon?

Fruit descriptors aside, tasting notes are designed to serve a variety of purposes. If the purpose is to sell wine or to give consumers efficient, handy advice about what to buy, then short descriptions of style along with a score are adequate. This is the kind of note to expect from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and the Wine Advocate.

But if a note is designed to capture the poetry of wine, to articulate something that can't easily be put into words (or numbers) in order to enable the reader to more fully engage with the wine—that is, if you take wine criticism to be an endeavor akin to music or art criticism—then short notes and numerical scores will not suffice. This is where most tasting notes fail. They focus too much on analytical description but ignore the way wine plays on the imagination. Wines have personality and character, they evoke memories and emotion, are redolent of place and culture. More importantly, wines are intriguing, mysterious, and often seem beyond our comprehension and powers of description. People who love wine love it for these reasons; not for the presence of apricot or blueberry. But to recognize these features you have to drink imaginatively, and to capture it in a tasting note you have to write imaginatively.

An analogy with music might clarify what I mean. Consider the symphonic sketches entitled La Mer (The Sea) by Debussy. Without the title we might think this work consists of some lovely sounds and sound structures with no inherent meaning. But the title helps us assign meaning to it—the swelling and swaying musical passages suggest the movement of waves, the glittering splashes of tone colors represent the play of light on the sea's surface, the unexpected shifts of direction call to mind the stormy unpredictability of oceanic forces, etc.

Musical passages are not at all like oceans but we can nevertheless use our imaginations to assign such oceanic meanings to the sounds. Furthermore, if we ignore these meanings and attend to only the scales, modes, timbres, and rhythms at work in the music—in other words if we were to listen only analytically—we would miss a crucial element of what the music has to offer.

The sensory characteristics of wine can provide us with similar imaginative experiences if we are receptive to them, and the presence of alcohol as a stimulant to the imagination helps the process along. Philosopher John Dilworth has called such an approach to tasting “imaginative improvisatory theatre” and compares it to the kind of improvisations jazz musicians undertake in deviating from a standard score. You can find any number of examples of tasting notes that take this approach at Edible Arts. (For instance here and here.)

Throughout its history, wine has been metaphorically described by using words drawn from the semantic domains of personality and character traits, body types, clothing, the development of organisms, architecture, etc. Wines can be bold, muscular, silky, sturdy, exuberant, senile, or brooding. Imaginative tasting is simply an extension of this traditional practice of metaphorical description. The sounds and timbres of music bear no greater similarity to the sea than the flavors and textures of wine to a personality or the structure of a building. If such metaphorical extensions are permitted in music appreciation and criticism, why not in wine?

In fact, this richness of imaginative meaning makes wine a distinctive kind of sensory experience. Although coffee, chocolate and beer aficionados have taken to describing their experiences using flavor descriptors after the fashion of wine tasting notes, these consumables lack wine's capacity for imaginative, metaphorical projection. The sensory properties of individual wines enable our enjoyment of them; but it is the imaginative experience that grips the taster and provokes an emotional response. Of course, some wines lack the complexity and expressiveness to launch imaginative improvisations. They are dull and vacant, perhaps with plenty of flavor but no soul.

Will descriptions of these imaginative experiences be subjective? Well of course. But so are the images of the sea evoked by La Mer. When I imagine the sea as a response to the Debussy's music, it is my own experience that gives rise to the images, but there is enough inter-subjective agreement regarding sea experiences to make descriptions of them accessible to others. The experience of wine is no different; individual differences but with a common core that makes communication about them meaningful.

What does matter for tasting notes is that the “imaginative improvisation” is rooted in the sensory qualities of the wine, because it is these qualities that are accessible to others. Private, idiosyncratic imaginings with no foundation in publicly available properties of the wine have no place in a tasting note, however interesting they might be to the taster.

Thus, wine tasting is not nonsense but is continuous with other forms of criticism that enjoy cultural acceptance. Yet many people seem to be psychologically invested in the “wine tasting is bunk” meme which seems to have more lives than an unforgiven sin. It conforms to the anti-elitist posture that many people find so attractive, and of course the press will always jump at a chance to confirm people's prejudices—nothing is more effective at attracting eyeballs.

So the next time you see one of these articles—and you will see them—ask yourself how much expertise this writer has. Perhaps the writer is among the taste-impaired. You wouldn't ask her to fix your car would you?

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.