Sinus Envy: Wine Tasters, Wine Taste

A recent study by Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center concluded that professional wine critics, tasters, and dedicated collectors, what one journalist dubbed “specialist oenophiles,” have taste buds and sensory apparatuses that differ significantly from those of the general population.

In an interview with the British paper The Telegraph, Professor John Hayes, director of the center, said, “What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different. And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”

These comments raised more than a few hackles in wine industry circles, with critics themselves, not surprisingly, responding most vociferously. But does Prof. Hayes have a valid point? If normal folks, the casual or occasional wine drinker, cannot relate to the observations and assessments of the professional, then do professional tasting notes, which fill the pages of magazines, newspapers, and websites around the globe, have any real value? For whom are these reviewers writing other than themselves?

I’ll admit that I’ve thought about this for a long time, maybe too long, often with the worry that writers who put too fine a point on their wine reviews do more harm than good. If Penn State researchers are correct, that most folks have no idea what critics are talking about, then isn’t it possible that such reviews serve only to obscure wine behind a fog of esoteric rhetoric, intimidating the neophyte or budding wine lover even further? Do wine notes filled with elaborate descriptors have a chilling effect on the wine curious, making them feel inadequate and less confident in their own tasting abilities?

For the past several years I’ve been asking friends and fellow winos what they thought of Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine editor. Well, not Jon himself, of course, but his weekly reporting and reviews. Personally, I enjoy reading Bonné’s work. I think his articles are smart and informative, well written and filled with engaging insight. I look forward to his main piece every Sunday. But, for a long time I had a problem with his tasting notes, which often struck me as too precise, even a bit precious at times. Was it really necessary to distinguish and point out, in a line-up of wines, the differences between Bosc, Bartlett, and Anjou pear flavors? To suggest obscure spices that most folks have never heard of? What was the point? Was Bonné simply showing off, rubbing his expertise and transcendent palate in the face of his reader, or was something else more practical going on?

Over time, as I asked more people about these descriptors and their value, many responded by saying that the small differences in flavor that he pointed out mattered to them, that it did make a difference. Okay, maybe I was envious; maybe I was frustrated because both his palate and his palette were smarter and more colorful than my own. But, just as often, knowledgeable wine drinkers, people who pay attention to what they drink and often keep their own notes, told me that precise descriptors have little value for them, as taste was such a subjective phenomenon. You taste strawberry, I taste raspberry – we’re both right. Both assessments are valid. No, for them what matters most is the structure of the wine, whether it’s balanced. They believe that attention should be paid to the interplay between tannins, acids, fruit, and alcohol. Any suggestions of boysenberry and Algerian coffee as compared to loganberry and Kona take on a secondary relevance or importance, at best, and really are nothing more than an amusing sideshow.

So, do the florid rhapsodies of the “specialist oenophile” have any real value? Absolutely, especially for many avid wine consumers, who want to know as closely as possible what sort of fun and games are in store, or not, with a particular label or bottle. Ask the same question again, and the response has to be a resounding NO. Given the unique natures of our individual palates, what could be less essential to understanding a wine than what flavors you, Mr. Self-Appointed Wine Expert, think you taste.

Where these divergent beliefs come together is here: what effect do these assessments have on wine lovers of every stripe? Do they contribute to a greater understanding of wine in general? Good wine writing educates and illuminates, it does not intimidate. If readers find notes and reviews to be exclusive, condescending, or beyond their ken, then something has been lost, harm has been done.  The critic, herself a wine lover, has unwittingly, perhaps, turned away a would-be companion for the wonderful journey that is wine. There’s nothing enviable about that.

6 thoughts on “Sinus Envy: Wine Tasters, Wine Taste

  1. Brendan P. Riley

    Based on the vertical photo tree, lesser vintages might now also be described in the following ways, as smacking of “Lucky Lager (pink); fresh book chlorine; camelia (faux rosé); ink blotter; or sudden asphalt”. Use judiciously.

  2. Brendan P. Riley

    I really like how one line of your wine journal reads, across the pages: “savory, chocolate, red meat Marlborough”, because y’know, that’s exactly what you think those things are gonna taste like before you light up and then can’t taste anything else for the next twelve hours. Also, reminds me of my favorite creative writing exercise of all, borrowed from Michael McClure, attached here, and it might produce inspiration for evolved wine exploration if you made a personal universe deck for wine vocabulary:

  3. Tom Riley

    The irony, Caryl, is that I think most wine writers think they are doing just that: increasing access and enjoyment. Sadly, it doesn’t always come out that way. For the same reason that not all PhDs are good teachers. Knowledge is not the same as the ability to reach an audience or communicate effectively. Maybe if all of us keep hammering away at the need for less intimidation and more effective education, things will continue to improve. Thanks for reading!

  4. Caryl Lewis Schmitz

    i just read that study yesterday in my PSU Alum newsletter. I have been mulling it over since and so i was glad you blogged on this today! In the end i do think folks like to have the expert’s info as it is fun to have something to search for as you try a new wine. But most important, as you said, is making wine accessible and joyful, not one more stressful part of our day.

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