Do You Believe the Wine Critic or Your Lyin’ Nose?

sniffing wineAre wine critics reliable? Isn’t taste subjective? Can there really be wine expertise in the same sense that doctors have expertise at diagnosing diseases and auto mechanics are good at fixing cars? Shouldn’t you just drink what you like?

Wine criticism comes in for a lot of, well, criticism, in light of the steady stream  of “studies” reported in the press about the unreliability of wine experts. Here is one example.

We are comfortable with music criticism, film criticism, and consumer-reports-style assessments of everything from mattresses to universities. But wine criticism, to some, seems unworthy of inclusion in this culturally salient practice of judging quality.

There are in fact good reasons for singling out wine and perhaps food evaluation as particularly suspect. Our abilities to taste and smell seem less finely tuned to detect subtle differences than our other senses, especially when the tastes and smells are blended together. This is in part because tastes and smells disappear quickly unlike the relatively fixed objects in visual space.

Furthermore, there is much good evidence that our taste and smell perceptions are more easily influenced by price and reputation, environmental factors like the kind of music playing in the background, and the suggestions of other people around us. A companion loudly proclaiming to detect a “hint of cinnamon on the nose” will often mean, to an impressionable novice, that anything other than cinnamon will be undetectable. By contrast, our visual and auditory experiences seem much less susceptible to influence. Loud proclamations that the blue chair across the room is really red are unlikely to influence anyone.

We also struggle to precisely remember tastes and smells. Try to remember exactly what that bottle of Brunello tasted like last night compared to your memory of a melody or the visual image of your pet poodle. The melody and the poodle will have a clarity that our taste and smell memories can never achieve. Even when an aroma does trigger a memory, finding the words to describe it is challenging at best. Although we can sometimes name an object that reminds us of an aroma—lemon, oak, blueberries, etc.—finding a precise description is another matter, especially when the aroma or flavor is unfamiliar or complex. These problems are compounded when wine critics use elaborate metaphors—majestic, brooding, charming, or sexy—to describe wines.

In a word, our taste and aroma mechanisms are untrustworthy. When people disagree about them, it seems reasonable to just chalk it up to there being, in fact, no right or wrong answer to questions about a wine’s character and quality. But if there is no right or wrong answer, the whole idea of expertise goes out the window. The reason why we trust a doctor or a mechanic to give us information is that they (or at least some of them) are in a position to report the truth. If there is no truth, there is no genuine expertise.

So is wine evaluation a mountain too high? Are critics, by trying to describe and evaluate wine, engaged in a noble but fruitless task?

In fact, despite disagreements about wine quality, wine tasting is not as subjective as the skeptics would have us believe. Experienced wine lovers will agree, regardless of their preferences, that there is tremendous regional and varietal diversity among wines, and that weather, climate, and geography influence the final product. They will also agree that some wines are extraordinary and some are not, and in between there are many degrees of difference. They will agree that some winemakers, having studied the science of winemaking and having constantly tasted grapes and wine through each stage of the winemaking process, strive for a kind of excellence that conforms to genuine standards. Most winemakers for whom quality is their over-riding goal, believe that there is a right way, a wrong way, and their way; and they believe that these judgments presuppose standards that cannot be compromised in their pursuit of quality.

The skeptic about wine criticism must believe either that none of these differences exist in reality or that the human mind is incapable of tracking them. They must believe that the differences caused by weather, climate, and geography are undetectable to human observers, that there are no differences between Petrus and plonk, and that the intense striving for perfection that some winemakers exhibit is so much “sound and fury signifying nothing”.

None of these assumptions are remotely plausible. In fact, they would seem to require a conspiracy theory that would make the Q-Anon crowd look reasonable.

Wine criticism is nothing more or less than an attempt to track and report on the qualitative differences between wines. It is extraordinarily difficult for the reasons listed above. For me, that difficulty is precisely what makes it interesting. Wine experts can be fooled, they can be influenced by the sorts of things that influence all human beings, and individual preferences undoubtedly exist, although training and experience can overcome preferences up to a point. But none of this entails there are no truths to be uncovered about the characteristics of wine.

If skeptics are simply pointing out the inherent difficulties in wine tasting, I have no argument with them. If they think the practice is fraudulent, they incur a heavy burden to show there is no real expertise, a burden which cannot be discharged by pointing out particular cases of critical failure.

If your nose is telling you there are no differences between wines, remember, the nose is an untrustworthy guide especially if it lacks training.


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