Wine Criticism and Alcohol Consumption

wine criticism 2Here is an argument I’ve heard several people make for the unreliability of wine criticism.

(1) Wine criticism requires excellent judgment

(2) The consumption of alcohol impairs judgment.

Therefore, wine critics have impaired judgment and their evaluations cannot be accurate.

Of course, the immediate response to this argument is that wine critics typically spit when they are evaluating wines.  But when you look at the numbers that doesn’t quite let wine critics off the hook. Some alcohol is absorbed through the mouth when critics are tasting, swishing and spitting. Does that matter?

There is not a lot of science on this but the one report I found that clearly addresses this issue was from The Wine Spectator reporting on a study done in Wine Studies, 2012. The study measured blood alcohol content from drinking vs. spitting.

Ten participants were given 15 milliliters (approximately a half-ounce) each of five white wines and five red wines to swish and spit, rinsing with water in between, over the course of one hour; their BAC was measured 15 minutes after the last wine. A week later, the experiment was repeated, but the subjects drank 15 milliliters of each wine. No food was consumed, and the wines ranged from 11.5 percent to 13.5 percent alcohol.

Even though the individuals drank only 150 milliliters (about 5 ounces, or 1 glass of wine), five of them measured a BAC above the Netherlands’ legal limit of 0.05 percent (versus 0.08 in the United States). In contrast, when volunteers spit the samples, they all had low (but detectable) BACs under the legal driving limit, averaging 0.0026 percent.

.0026 percent BAC doesn’t seem like much alcohol consumption but that depends on how many wines you’re  tasting and spitting and how many times you taste each wine. Critics report tasting varying amounts of wine depending on the tasting event. At the Decanter awards, critics  taste 85 wines. Many competitions may be twice that. Fred Swan says he tastes around 40 wines for a regional tasting at a winery, more if they’re in a hurry. Various critics report 20-30 wines in a day when tasting for a publication. Eric Asimov reports that some critics will taste 100 wines at a sitting.

It is difficult to compare the study with actual tasting panel behavior. The subjects in the study tasted only 1/2 ounce of each wine, a very small amount. Most critics would likely taste and spit about an ounce of wine per sample since most would sample a wine more than once.

So in the study, 5 oz. of spit wine produced a BAC of .0026. In a tasting where 40 wines are tasted, using the 1 oz. figure for each wine, 40 ounces would be tasted and spit. That is eight times the consumption in the study. That is an average BAC of .0208, well under even Europe’s legal limit. But for the Decanter awards, 85 wines  would be 17 times the amount in the study. That is a BAC of .0442, very close to the legal limit in Western Europe. And in those tastings that require 150 wines be tasted—that would be over the limit even in the U.S.

Of course there is one important caveat. Wine tastings can take place over several hours, especially the large ones, with a break for food. I doubt earnest spitters would  be a danger on the roads.

But nevertheless in large tastings there is probably some degree of impaired judgment, not to mention the real problem of palate fatigue when tasting that many wines.

Does this undermine wine criticism? I think the palate fatigue is the real threat. The alcohol consumption less so. Wine critics in many contexts are engaged in aesthetic evaluation which involves being sensitive to the expression of the object they’re evaluating. I think very mild inebriation likely makes you more sensitive to the sensory properties of the wine. We want to be in a frame of mind where we have a kind of sympathy for the object in order to grasp as many properties as possible. A bit of alcohol enhances that sympathy.

How much alcohol do I consume when writing a review? I don’t spit. Wine is for drinking and you get a better sense of a wine by swallowing. But I review only 1 wine at a time over 2 days to see how oxygen affects it. The basic evaluation is made with one  3 oz. tasting pour, with a follow up later in the evening to do the music pairing.

4 comments

  1. I have written about this subject often in The PinotFile as I am a physician and have a medical background,
    Here are a few comments from previous writings:

    A few years ago, Steve Heimoff interviewed Antonio Galloni (a wine critic for the Wine Advocate) and posted the results on his blog (www.steveheimoff.com). Galloni said that at home he begins tasting at 8:30-9:00 a.m. and continues to 6:00-7:00 p.m., with “lots of breaks.” He remarked, “When the wines are great, I don’t ever feel tired.” The number of wines tasted was not mentioned, but one must infer there were many tasted each day. Galloni did mention that when he is traveling to a wine region, he probably tastes 100 to 150 wines a day. He commented, “I think tasting wine is a lot like sports. You build up endurance. I don’t ever feel inebriated.” He denied losing any objectivity over these long periods of tasting.

    My experience has been that some alcohol absorption is inevitable in wine tasting, despite the best efforts to spit out all the wine. The seasoned drinker is more resistant to the effects of alcohol, but judgement will inevitably be impaired if a number of wines are evaluated quickly and an increasing amount of alcohol is gradually absorbed. There are no scientific studies to prove this alcohol-induced loss of credibility, but I believe it occurs.

    Jancis Robinson, in How to Taste Wine 2008, says, “Even if you carefully spit out every single mouthful, you will probably not escape the effects of alcohol….alcoholic fumes will travel around your mouth, up your nose and retro-nasal passages, and you may feel slightly light-headed. In any case, you will find it extremely difficult not to swallow a single drop of wine.” Robinson estimates that for every 30 wines she tastes and spits, she ingests one glass.

    I tested my own blood alcohol level on several occasions after tasting with spitting a series of 8 to 12 wines with multiple passes through each wine (my usual tasting regimen). My blood alcohol level was less than 0.08% on every occasion. However, I believe those critics who taste large numbers of wine at one sitting, even with judicious spitting, will exceed that blood alcohol level. Spitting does not insulate one from alcohol absorption for it is proven that there is some absorption of alcohol through the mucous membranes of the mouth (alcohol is soluble in both water and saliva and moves easily and quickly within 10 to 20 seconds across membranes), and some alcohol is absorbed as vapor through the lungs. Fortunately, alcohol dries the mucous membranes of the mouth, causing the secretion of mucous that protects against absorption.

    Clearly, the ABV of the wines being tasted play a major role in the amount of alcohol absorbed.

    1. Thanks so much for your response. Very informative. I agree about tasting large numbers of wines. Just impossible to give an accurate assessment. Galloni’s comment about building up endurance strikes me as nonsense. Alcohol absorption isn’t a muscle.

  2. Interesting article! I agree that palate fatigue is probably the biggest threat in objectively appreciating a wine. I am very sceptical about long tasting sessions with dozens of wine. Especially with young and powerful wines, like at the Bordeaux en primeur tastings. How can you distinguish tannins between the 49th and 50th wine?? A topic, by the way, that is rarely discussed. And I don’t buy the argument of “building up endurance “.

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