Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Can You Trust a Wine Critic? Science Says No

Millions of people — and sales of millions of cases of wine — are significantly influenced by the point scores assigned by wine critics. However, research suggests that consumers shouldn’t be swayed by the critics, because they’re not tasting the same thing.

Oh, the wine is the same — or at least, we hope that what is sent to a wine critic is the same as what is sold in a store (but that’s a subject for another day). What’s different, according to scientists, are the palates.

From Penn State Live:

“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?”

In a taste test, wine experts showed more sensitivity to tastes than average wine consumers.

Hayes said that the participants sampled an odorless chemical — propylthiouracil — that is used to measure a person’s reaction to bitter tastes. People with acute tasting ability will find the chemical — also referred to as PROP, or prope — extremely bitter, while people with normal tasting abilities say it has a slightly bitter taste, or is tasteless.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the current issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, said that wine experts were significantly more likely to find the chemical more bitter than non-experts.

“Just like people can be color blind, they can also be taste blind,” said Hayes.

Hayes, who worked with Gary Pickering, professor of biological sciences and psychology/wine science, Brock University, Ontario, Canada, said that the acute taste of wine experts may mean that expert recommendations in wine magazines and journals may be too subtle for average wine drinkers to sense.

(This news was published in March, but I didn’t see it until today; my apologies if this is old hat to you.)

We didn’t need scientific research to tell us that what a wine critic deems marvelous may not necessarily reflect what we want to drink — whether or not one likes a wine is a subjective decision, regardless of how objective some people try to make it with numerical scoring systems. But these findings do question the idea that some wines are “better” than others — and suggest that the current system of evaluating wines should be turned on its head.

All critics — regardless of subject — make their judgments based on personal taste. But in almost all cases, the critics are working with the same tool set as a non-critic (i.e., the typical consumer). For example, most people (other than the deaf and blind) have similar ability to see and hear as a movie or music critic. It’s also presumed that though many people may not necessarily be as skilled at driving as car critics, most do not have any physical limitations preventing them from the experience of driving.

With wine — and I presume, food — however, the research suggests that critics are biologically different from “non-experts.” So in essence, the critics — or “experts” — are useful only to other experts.

My first response to this revelation is: a-ha! Now we know why Moscato, RS-enhanced California blends, and other sweet wines are selling like crazy — because most people simply don’t have the physical ability to appreciate a wine with a bitter profile. My second response is: how can we rectify the current system of wine evaluation and competition judging, accordingly?

Maybe all people who regularly enjoy a glass of wine should take a “PROP test” to see whether they can discern bitter tastes. Further, perhaps all wine critics (and competition judges) should take the same test — and identify themselves as either “acute” or “non-acute” tasters (or “bitter” / “non-bitter”). Then, those with less-acute tasting ability can follow the tasting notes and scoring of critics with similarly “common” palates, and those with more acute tasting ability can continue following the advice of the “experts.”

I’m not sure of the likelihood of such a suggestion becoming reality. What seems more realistic, though, is further research to discover what percentage of the general population has this seemingly god-given, acute tasting ability. Is it 5%? 20%? 60%? More? Less? Methinks that would be a useful and powerful statistic for wine producers and marketers.

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