When It Comes to Wine Tasting, Let’s Leave the Battle of Expert vs. Consumer Behind

Amy Evans, wine professional and author of The Native Grape blog, responds to a recent post in the NPR food blog, The Salt: Most of Us Just Can’t Taste The Nuances In High-Priced Wine.

“Most of us can’t taste the nuances in high priced wines.”    So heralded NPR’s food blog “The Salt” this week in a piece by Allison Aubrey.  May I just say…UGH!!!   This is one of my least favorite of all the arguments against wine out there.  That it’s all bunk.  An entire industry all over the world since the Greeks invented it in antiquity, are just plain full of it.  And more importantly…full of themselves.

And this time, they are coming to the table armed with research.  Proof!!  Aha!!!   Just the title of this article summoned an image burned into my mind of a TV spot several years ago, claiming experts could not tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and a more expensive wine.  People really love to trot out their Two Buck, don’t they?  The “experts” it turned out, were some first year culinary students in starched white Chef coats and tall Chef’s hats, who made a quality declaration the equivalent of “Not Bad..Not bad at all.”

The research offered here is legitimate, but unfortunately it is presented somewhat misleadingly in terms of the so-called Super Tasters.  These are a group of people who actually have more taste buds…like we all do when we are kids.  They taste sweet, salty, bitter and sour more acutely.  Consequently, they are more likely to be picky eaters (think toddlers) that don’t like strong flavors, spicy dishes or dry, tannic wines.  Women frequently have more taste buds than men and are more likely to fall into this group (think girlie drinks.)   The wine experts, however, are rarely going to fall into this group.

There is definitely some biology behind why some people don’t like or can’t drink certain styles of wine…the same way not everyone likes strong, “bitter” coffee or dark chocolate.  But making the argument that wine experts are biologically predisposed supertasters is inaccurate, and totally flips the actual evidence on it’s head. Worse, it adds fuel to arguments like these posted on NPR’s discussion board on the article.

I usually buy at the $15 level… for a 5L box. Sour, but just fine for me. Not to be an inverted snob, but it feels good to be scientifically validated. Cheers!
“I purchase Trader Joe’s two buck chuck….for $2.95! Their Sauvignon blanc,Chablis Blanc or their Christmas Boujole winea are outstanding. You show me a Sommeliers (which really is a flimflam person with a French accent) a waiter, or waitress selling a glass of wine for $10.00 or more or a bottle of wine for more than $10.00 to $1,000.00 and I’ll show you a deal between a genius and a sucker! Besides, after three or four glasses of any wine no ones know whether he or she is drinking wine or beer…… as the crawl on their hands and knees on the floor toward the exit; by this time, these floor crawling wine experts don’t know if the wine has a hint of leather or perhaps tastes like chicken.”
Now after I pick myself up off the floor, mumbling and mulling over the leather/chicken question, I would point out that the festering animosity of Raoul’s response speaks directly to the main problem with these arguments…the us vs. them.  Wine professionals (as opposed to wine enthusiasts/collectors who are in it solely for their own enjoyment) are there to help people to choose wines they will enjoy from amongst the many options.    I know many talented Sommeliers who have studied for years to perfect the art of wine Service, and I am pretty sure they are not “flimflam” people and most of them do not have French accents.  But if as a consumer you are coming to the table with these prejudices and insecurities, it will take a very talented individual indeed to surmount these obstacles and help you to have the best experience possible…be it choosing a wine at a restaurant or selecting an inexpensive bottle for everyday drinking at a wine retailer.
And to supa flous I would say that yes you can distinguish tastes in wine.  You just called your own choice sour.  If you don’t really like it, than why are you drinking it by the 5L?   Most people are already tasting so much more than they realize, and a great deal can be gleaned by just paying a little bit of attention.  After all, we have all been tasting our whole lives.  We know the difference in tastes between the ripe tropical fruit flavors of pineapples and the tart flavors of green apples without being told by anyone.   Now I’m going to blow your mind supa flous…you might be a super taster.  Most bulk produced and bulk packaged wines are slightly sweet and low in tannins and bitter flavors.  As mild a wine as they can muster and still give it some alcoholic kick.  You probably like it mostly because it doesn’t taste like very much at all.

The other evidence, a study “by researchers at Penn State and Brock University in Canada finds that when it comes to appreciating the subtleties of wine, experts can taste things many of us can’t.”  “What we found is that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” says John Hayes of Penn State. “‘We evaluated hundreds of wine drinkers,” says Hayes, having them sample/taste a chemical that measures their reaction to bitter tastes.’ He found that wine experts — people such as wine writers, winemakers and wine retailers — were about 40 percent more sensitive to the bitterness than casual consumers of wine.”

An ability to detect, as opposed to a sensitivity to or dislike of, bitterness does not point to biology.  Bitter is one of only four things, along with sweet, sour and salty, that we all actually taste.  It is the business of the wine professional to hone their palate and develop the ability to distinguish flavors (the sensory combo of taste and smell.)  They have been trained to detect bitterness.  I am not sure a study that determines a professional has 40% more ability in his field than someone not in that profession proves very much.   In a side note, I really, really hope that the folks at NASA are more than 40% more proficient in their field than I am.

Lastly, I do think that an inexperienced taster should not go around willy nilly dropping money on expensive or highly rated bottles of wine.  You are almost guaranteed to be disappointed.  On the highly rated front it should be noted that a high rating does not automatically coincide with a higher price point as the article states.  There are many inexpensive wines with good press.  Our own Dave Mcintyre in The Washington Post has a monthly “Recession Busters” column of affordable favorites and every major wine magazine regularly posts their own version of the Best Buy and Best Value.  The “average” person who is not getting these nuances is also ignoring the larger service wine writers who rate wines also provide which is a tasting note. If anyone ever bothered to read the note that accompanies the score they might find valuable information about what the wine tastes like and when it is ready to drink and so make a more informed decision about whether or not a particular wine will be to their taste.

Again, it’s not us vs. them.  I have seen the “wine speak eye roll” many people make when they read these notes and I will say that these publications were originally intended to serve the wine trade and not the general wine consuming public, so there is a jargon.  But I guarantee you that there is a wine professional nearby happy to translate this for you over a quick discussion about what you like or maybe what you are having for dinner.

In closing, I implore people to stop viewing knowledge/interest as snobbery. For those that choose to invest the time-there is a lot to love (and not to love) about wine at all price points. If it’s not your thing, that’s cool…but why keep trying to pretend there’s nothing to it just because you don’t get it?  I know I only hear 1/100th of what a record producer hears…but sometimes, I still like to listen.  Let’s leave the battle of Expert vs. Consumer behind.

About Amy Evans:
Centreville, Virginia, United States
I have been in the wine business since 2000-when I fell in love with Italian wines as a buyer in Austin, Tx. I currently rep the wines of Dionysos Imports in Northern Virginia, DC and MD-a wholesaler and importer specializing in the wines of Greece, Portugal and France. I hold the Advanced Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET)

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Category: Wine

Posted On: 13 Mar 12