Is wine expertise illusory?

There’s been a lot of chat, of late, on whether or not wine expertise is illusory.

The media loves the idea that the wine trade is an elaborate fraud, perpetuated by people who are more-or-less making it up when they taste wine. People outside the wine trade find the idea that experts can’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines quite hilarious.

…and somewhat reassuring: if the experts can’t tell the difference, then neither can we, they think, and this means that there’s no need to be spending lots of money on expensive bottles.

The emporer has no clothes.

The evidence does lend some support to this idea. I don’t want to bore you with too many details, but Robert Hodgson’s statistical analysis of the judging in the California State Wine Show was pretty damning. The judges were performing pretty randomly, it seems.

And then there were Frederic Brochet’s experiments a few years back where he gave wine professionals a white wine and then a few weeks a white wine coloured red. They described the wine completely differently, even though it would have smelled and tasted the same.

People seem highly suggestible when tasting wine. If they are told it is more expensive, not only do they report enjoying it more, their brains seem to show activity suggesting that at a subconscious level they DO enjoy it more.

I dread to mention it, but there was also Richard Wiseman’s study (stunt, rather), where people couldn’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines in the absence of any other information.

More recently, it seems that professionals do badly tasting Champagne blind, being unable to spot the grape varieties.

What does this all mean? I would argue that for those of us involved professionally with wine, we need to show a little humility. If we don’t, there’s a good choice humility will be forced on us when we taste blind.

But, I would argue that the poor performance of a large number of tasters, doesn’t call the whole basis of wine tasting into question. It only takes a few tasters – actually, just one – who can taste accurately blind in any one situation to make it matter.

Say for instance we are talking about the terroir, expressed in the wine, that comes from two neighbouring vineyards. The fact that almost everyone, when tasting blind, couldn’t recognize the vineyard from the wine doesn’t matter. If just one taster can, it is real, and therefore it matters.

Or let’s think about another scenario. A punter buys a bottle of fine Bordeaux from a good vintage. Just before she or he uncorks it, the shop owner lets them taste blind this wine, plus a much less expensive one. They can’t tell the difference, but still they buy the expensive wine. Have they wasted their money?

I’d argue, no. As long as there exist differences between the wines, and experts who can identify these differences, then the wine drinker buys the wine in faith. In time, they may develop their palate such that they can appreciate these differences. For now, what they have purchased is an authentic product.

We can have an interesting discussion about what it is that makes one wine higher quality than another, and who gets to decide what ‘fine’ wine is, but for now it is safe to say that wine expertise is not illusory, even though it is complicated and difficult, and very few if any get it right all the time.

10 comments to Is wine expertise illusory?

  • Chris

    This is very true, and cuts to the heart of terroir issue. If what you are comparing are in effect differences in wine-making skill (investment) and (dare I say it in the case of certain Californian wines in particular) different levels of concentration, other factors such as time of day, the weather, your mood, etc are more likely to come into play. Less so I would think with more terroir-driven wines, although as you rightly hint, they might be unique and interesting although not necessarily ‘good’ (good and worthwhile not, of course, being synonymous!)

  • Max

    I agree. The original article about Robert Hodgson’s analysis even listed a wide range of variable, that affect wine tasting, that were not taken in to account when judging the judges tasting the wine. Factors such as temperature, other odours in the air, what they’d eaten before, even how tired they were at the time, etc…

  • I sent this article below on the subject out to the guys in our stores (Edinburgh independent drinks specialists) and this is what one of the team had to say.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/23/wine-tasting-junk-science-analysis

    “…but who said it was science? We rate and give awards to films, music, architecture – but nobody claims that as junk science. Most great films cost a fair whack of money to make, but not all. Being methodical about tasting wine doesn’t mean that taste and opinion don’t play a huge part, and it certainly isn’t even trying to masquerade as a science.

    It just bugs me when this is used to push the idea that spending money on good wine is pointless!…”

    A fair point which I agree with wholeheartedly. Thanks Richie!

  • Peter Boyd

    Blind tasting is always illuminating, in practice, as it takes the label’s suggestive power out of the equation. However, in many situations it can come across like a bit of a shabby parlour trick.
    What I will say is that, while the general quality of wine has improved incredibly over the last 33 years (since I was first bitten by the wine bug), wine of all types has become increasingly homogenous.
    I tell students all the time how lucky they are as consumers that the bar has been so broadly raised qualitatively, but how our abilities to blind-taste have been compromised by the ever-diminishing differences between the wines produced in unbelievably different soils and growing conditions of far-flung, disparate regions.
    It used to be far easier to tell where wines came from through blind tasting. Lighter, more transparent fruit allowed the distinctions of terroir to reveal themselves far more easily.
    These days, vignerons everywhere insert themselves so bloody-mindedly into the winemaking process that many of us have come to forget what unadulterated wine tastes like. We all know what winemakers taste like: They taste like new oak and levels of fruit concentration so ridiculous that the subtleties of soil and climate variation are no longer discernible factors in the wine’s makeup.
    It is not the oft-capricious art of blind tasting which is at fault. It’s that the competition has been reduced to the Pepsi Challenge.

  • fatFred

    The problem for wine buyers is not the so called experts inability to differentiate between good/bad/cheap/expensive wines, its their links to the industry. Jamie is, i am sure, a goode man but excepting travel and hospitality from the wine producers helps me take his and other wine pundits ratings with a pinch of salt.

  • There is plenty of science that demonstrates that the flavor notes wine experts detect are a product of chemical compounds in wine–green pepper caused by pyrazines, vanilla by oak derived flavor precursors, floral/peach notes by linalool, etc.

    The fact that some flavor notes–those resulting from differences in terroir for instance–are subtle and difficult to detect is not evidence that the basic picture of wine expertise is wrong.

    These so-called “studies” that cast doubt on wine expertise either do not involve highly-trained experts at all or involve some kind of deception that invalidates the study. For instance, when wine experts, who were given a white wine doctored to appear red, were unable to detect white wine characteristics, that study shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how blind tasting works. Blind tasting works via exclusion–experts are taught to exclude certain flavor notes based on color. The flavor signals in wine are not strong enough to overcome that kind of bias introduced by the tasting conditions. That is just bad science, not lack of wine-tasting expertise.

  • I think fatFred has it wrong here. You need experience to judge a wine, you need other qualities to appreciate a wine. A wine tasted on a press trip will not be given the same scrutiny as one judged blind in a competition – the location, the people you are with (hopefully also enjoying and appreciating the situation),the location and the fun just ‘being there’ will have a bearing. Just as having a glass of champagne with friends on a park bench, drinking out of a jam jar, will have much more meaning and enjoyment than the same wine drunk under ‘sterile’ conditions in a formal tasting. It is as much about the people you are with and the enjoyment entwined with the wine that makes it. This I think is what makes wine, ‘wine’.

  • Wineguy999

    Case in point: The American 60 Minutes once featured a story on Charles Shaw wines, or “Two-Buck Chuck”. They held a tasting by four experts of the two dollar Merlot against a far more expensive Napa Valley Merlot. The experts generally couldn’t tell the difference. Problem was, the “experts” presented were chef students in culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America – in other words, 20-year-olds who probably wouldn’t know good wine from bad. Sadly, I’m sure many viewers assumed they knew their bums from Burgundy.

    I know many people who have judged at various levels and aren’t worth their salt when tasting. But I have seen, many times, professionals with a well-trained nose and palate correctly identify in blind tastings – repeatedly.

  • Really interesting post, and some great comments too. As a young winemaker I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great respecters of terroir, such as Jean-Yve Bizot in Vosne-Romanee (mantra: technique, not technology) and Rudi Bauer in Central Otago (mantra: my aim is to pass on the message from the vineyard) to mention but two.

    Both adhere to the old French quote attributed to Comte Lafon: “A great winemaker must have the courage to do nothing.”. In my experience, far too many winemakers either lack the courage or have too much ego and cannot resist tweaking, fiddling and manipulating their wines until the subtle thread connecting the land to the wine is snapped. Commercial pressure from the supermarkets and big wine merchants for sterile “safe” wines undoubtedly plays a big part here too.

    I would also agree with the comment about many wine competitions being far too big with too many wines, so that only the biggest, baddest, boldest wines stick out. I firmly believe great wine cannot be accurately judged in sips, but over many meals and several years. The difference between a silk purse and a sow’s ear is huge in wine; the problem is that far too many sow’s ears get hyped into being silk purses. Not to mention that all great wine really is made in the vineyard; great winemakers are great growers, first and foremost.

    Anyway, my last two, way too long, blog posts have been on the subjects of taste and critics, both film and wine. If anyone is interested in reading them, you can find them at: blackhandwine.wordpress.com

    Thanks again Jamie and keep up all the great work.

  • J. Burrus

    “The fact that almost everyone, when tasting blind, couldn’t recognize the vineyard from the wine doesn’t matter. If just one taster can, it is real, and therefore it matters.”

    Detecting a difference as real can only be ascertained from a statistical sensory evaluation test. One such test is simple, give the taster three glasses of wine, two of which are the same. If the taster can detect the odd wine out in repeated tests then the difference is real. I’d agree with the assumption that just because many tasters wouldn’t be successful with this test doesn’t negate there being a real difference. However, the idea that it matters is certainly up for debate. I’d argue if only connoisseurs and critics can tell a difference, not the wine buying public at large, then the wine isn’t as special as we (connoisseurs and critics) think it is.

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