How Should We Define Tasting Expertise?

wine evaluation 4Do wine and food critics have a special expertise that gives authority to their pronouncements, or is it all just subjective preference dressed up with clever wordplay? Here is one way to understand the kind of expertise tasters might have: They are more skilled than ordinary people at detecting objective properties of wine or food.

Consider, for instance, the identification of phenols in wine.

Phenols are chemical compounds in red wine, extracted primarily from grape skins, that help give wine its structure and flavor. (Tannins are one type of phenol.) For some people, phenols have a bitter flavor, but others report no flavor at all. Scientists have identified the taste receptors on the tongue that enable us to taste bitterness; some people are more sensitive to bitter flavors than others because they have more densely populated bitter receptors on their tongue, and thus can more readily taste the phenols in the wine. In fact, some people are “supertasters” with excessive sensitivity to bitterness.

Thus, disagreements about whether a wine exhibits phenolic bitterness can be explained by physiological differences in the tasters.  Expert tasters of phenols are those people well-equipped to taste phenols. There is a measurable objective property of the wine, and an explanation of variation in the ability to taste that property. No interpretation on the part of the taster is required—you are either equipped to taste phenols or not.

If we can extend this analysis to other properties of wine or food, we then would have a general, measurable account of tasting expertise.

However, off hand, I can think of four reasons why this is not a promising approach to understanding tasting expertise.

1. The experience of tasting often does not track the objective properties of wine or food. For instance, the level of phenols in a wine, as measured in a laboratory, tells us little about how the wine will taste. Winemakers earn their keep by finding ways of keeping flavors in balance by masking flavors they do not want. For instance, a wine high in phenolic compounds may not taste bitter because there is sufficient fruit to mask the bitterness.

2.  Whose disposition to taste phenols counts as expertise? There will be a lot of variation in our response to phenolic bitterness—not only non-tasters, tasters, and super-tasters, but variation within those broad groupings. Which one is correct? Given the importance of phenols in the overall flavor of red wine, we might argue that non-tasters cannot qualify. But which level of sensitivity is the right level? A statistical average? Canonization by Robert Parker? Who is to say?

3. Most flavors are not as straightforwardly detectable as bitterness. There may be a measurable relationship between substances in food and wine and our ability to taste sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness, and umami, since these correspond to types of taste buds in the mouth. But the overall flavor of something is as dependent on smell as it is on taste; and it is not at all obvious that smell works in the same way. Is the difference between someone who smells blackcurrants, smoke, and toasty oak in a wine, and someone who smells black cherry, fig, and dried flowers in that same wine really a physiological difference in detection thresholds? Maybe, but the science just isn’t there yet and there is no reason to think disagreements about the flavors of food and wine can all be explained by physiological differences.

4. And finally some aesthetic features of wine and food, perhaps the most important ones, don’t seem to be straightforwardly underwritten by chemical constituents. Flavor balance, elegance, evolution, coherence, unity, power, sharpness of contrast, etc. do not refer to chemical properties. It is not obvious that they are perceptual at all. Yet, critical judgments often depend on such concepts.

A definition of tasting skill that relies entirely on detecting objective properties, such as the presence of chemical compounds, is too limited to capture the range of skills required for genuine tasting expertise.

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