A Wine is Large; It Contains Multitudes

many flavorsWine Searcher routinely publishes interesting, controversial articles. The recent article by Kathleen Willcox entitled “Science Makes a Mockery of Tasting Notes”  is no exception. I suppose some might view it as a conventional take on everybody’s favorite whipping boy—the tasting note. But I found the piece to be a  wild ride through a smattering of interesting science, and a series of non-sequiturs that should give any wine educator a stroke.

The article begins with a summary of some well-known research showing that the flavor associations we make when writing tasting notes are not widely shared. The science in fact indicates that wine drinkers may actually have quite different experiences of the same wine. There are biological thresholds that regulate how we experience flavor compounds that differ from person to person. It’s nice to have science confirm this point, but even a cursory glance at tasting notes would tell you this is true. Choose four tasting notes of the same wine from four experts and it is obvious they have distinctly different experiences.

A second source of differences rightly mentioned by Willcox is cultural. People with different cultural backgrounds will not share the same taste references since they grew up with different foods. Thus, a tasting note will not be intelligible to someone whose cultural background differs from the author’s, and wine retailers, sommeliers, and wine educators should strive to use cultural references their customers and audience will understand. This is obviously good advice.

The problem with the piece is the headline–I know writer’s usually don’t write there own headlines–and the general tone of the piece which suggests that because tasting notes disagree we should abandon them. This conclusion simply doesn’t follow. The science is an argument for more tasting notes not fewer. Since no single tasting note can capture what a wine is about you will have to consult many tasting notes because they offer different points of view on the wine. The more points of view that can be taken the richer the wine.

Consider an analogy. We routinely accept the fact that no single book review, film or music review can capture the appeal of a complex work. In book, music, and film reviews, we welcome different points of view with lots of critical controversy. It’s strange that that we think works of literature, paintings, or films that lend themselves to multiple interpretations are great works. But it is some kind of tragedy when a wine lends itself to multiple interpretations.

The wine community’s consternation with conflicting tasting notes is driven by the mistaken assumption that there is one way a wine must taste. We need to lose this idea and accept the fact that competent tasters can legitimately view the same wine differently.

There is more interesting science in the article, although it isn’t clear what conclusion to draw from it. Research by Cornell’s Virginia Utermohlen Lovelace suggests there are 4 types of tasters: sweet, hypersensitive [supertasters], sensitive, and tolerant. And there are significant variations within each type with regard to sensitivity to certain compounds that influence preferences. Hypersensitive tasters may not like the tannins in a Cabernet but might enjoy the complexity of Pinot Noir because they notice flavors others don’t. Sensitive tasters may miss some of what hyper-sensitive tasters experience but can appreciate the Pinots while also liking the Cabernets that hypersensitive tasters may not like. Tolerant tasters may miss the complexity of Pinot Noir but like really bold wines and don’t like whites.

This is all interesting but largely beside the point until we know more about how plastic these sensitivities are. Can they be changed through education and if so how much? The article seems to assume these are rigid, biologically fixed categories but I don’t think we know that yet.

One bit of counter-evidence that articles like this fail to mention is that some people do pass rigorous tasting exams. If taste sensitivities can’t be changed through education what accounts for their ability to pass the exam? It may be the case that a series of exams over time is weeding out the tolerant tasters but it’s plausible to think the tolerant tasters are becoming more sensitive through a learning process. In fact one data point suggests that learning is important. People become more tolerant as they grow older, according to the research, but this appears to not be the case for professional tasters who don’t lose perceptual acuity so readily.

The rest of the article includes quotes from various people in the industry that make the educator in me cringe.

“Describing what’s in the glass is boring. It can also be dangerous, because if I tell a guest what I taste and their taste buds tell them something different, it could potentially offend them, or make them feel bad. It certainly won’t make them feel excited.”

And should I should avoid discussing the content of  a book I recently read because if my interlocutor interprets it differently it could make them feel bad?

No doubt there is a time and place for education and contexts where education is not the main goal. But if we routinely refuse to point out the finer points of a wine that someone might be missing, education is impossible.

And then we get this lovely canard:

“In the end, wine is about personal preference. Something that cannot – and should not – be ground into someone for their own good.”

Wine is indeed about personal preference. But if you’ve done much wine education, either as the educator or the educated, you know that personal preferences are about as stable as mountain weather. You can be led to discover new flavors and aromas by listening to others.  If you treat everyone as an uneducable ignoramus, they will remain that way.

Wine experts must lose the idea that there is one way a wine must taste. Wine lovers, novice or more experienced, must embrace the idea that there is more to a wine than your personal preference or perception reveals, as the science discussed above demonstrates.

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