One of the often repeated objections to the validity of wine criticism is that the influence of alcohol destroys the capacity for good judgment. Unlike music or film criticism, wine criticism is necessarily performed while inebriated and is thus inherently unreliable.
The standard response is to point out that wine tasters and critics typically spit when confronted with a large number of wines thus limiting their exposure to alcohol. But alcohol is absorbed through the tissues in the mouth. Just a few sips of wine will give you a mild buzz even when spitting.
Is this really an issue? I doubt it. In fact mild inebriation might improve wine criticism.
There is some evidence that mild inebriation enhances sensory experience. Test subjects in a variety of experiments show an enhanced ability to detect aromas when under a mild alcoholic influence:
Endevelt’s team then tested the senses of people in pubs around the cities of Rehovot and Herzliya. Forty-five volunteers were asked to perform a scratch-and-sniff test, in which they had to identify which one of three odour compounds was different from the other two.
Across all three experiments, the team found a correlation between a person’s blood-alcohol level and score on tests of odour detection and discrimination. But while low levels of alcohol improved performance, too much – about two units within an hour for women and three for men – led to a significant reduction in sense of smell.
In addition there is some evidence that alcohol enables certain kinds of learning and memory because the release of dopamine strengthens synapses and the reward systems in the brain.
But perhaps more importantly the mildly intoxicating effect of wine consumed in moderation helps us engage with reality. Wine has long been recognized as a social lubricant enhancing sociability, conversation, and graciousness in part because of the alcohol. In other words wine makes us more receptive to a sense of community and the emotional register of people around us.
It is not implausible to think this heightened sensibility achieved through mild intoxication might also make us more sensitive to a broad array of properties in wine, more aware of subtle shifts in the flavors, contours and textures of the wine, and more aware of how the complex dimensions of a wine come together to form a unity with distinctively aesthetic properties such as elegance, finesse, and harmony.
The capacity for receptivity is fundamental to all aesthetic experience. If receptivity to aromas and sociability is enhanced by small quantities of alcohol, why not the full array of properties and their relationships available in wine?
Wine critics, drink up!