The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This raises an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?
There are no two ways about it: the bullshit is strong with wine. Wine tasting. Wine rating. Wine reviews. Wine descriptions. They're all related. And they're all egregious offenders, from a bullshit standpoint.
Statistician and wine-lover Robert Hodgson recently analyzed a series of wine competitions in California, after "wondering how wines, such as his own, [could] win a gold medal at one competition, and 'end up in the pooper' at others." In one study, Hodgson presented blindfolded wine experts with the same wine three times in succession. Incredibly, the judges' ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. Via the Wall Street Journal:
A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.
Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.
It bears repeating that the judges Hodgson surveyed were no ordinary taste-testers. These were judges at California State Fair wine competition – the oldest and most prestigious in North America. If you think you can consistently rate the "quality" of wine, it means two things:
1: No. You can't.
2. Wine-tasting is bullshit.
This one's one of my favorites. In 2001, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 54 wine experts to give their opinions on what were ostensibly two glasses of different wine: one red, and one white. In actuality, the two wines were identical, with one exception: the "red" wine had been dyed with food coloring.
The experts described the "red" wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds. They called it "jammy," for example, and noted the flavors imparted by its "crushed red fruit." Not one of the 54 experts surveyed noticed that it was, in fact a white wine.
Actually, scratch that. We taste with our eyes, ears, noses, and even our sense of touch. We taste with our emotions, and our state of mind. This has been demonstrated time after time after time.
Research out of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab has shown that people will rate food as more enjoyable if it's consumed in the relaxed atmosphere of a fine dining environment, as opposed to a noisy fast food restaurant.
A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can't distinguish between paté and dog food.
A recent New Yorker piece describes a followup to Brochet's 2001 study, wherein he served wine experts a run-of-the-mill Bordeaux in two different bottles:
One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”
Here's Joe Power, editor of the popular Another Wine Blog, in a post titled "Wine Reviews are Bullshit!":
Today, with apologies to messieurs Penn and Teller, I am going to stand up and shout, “Wine reviews are bullshit!”
If you are wondering if this is going to be some justification of why our reviews at AWB are just spiffy and everyone else is full of shit, you can stop wondering; ours are bullshit too. It is just the nature of the beast.
There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own.
When asked point blank what he thought of the aforementioned results from Robert Hodgson's study (see Exhibit A) wine-maker Bob Cabral said he was "not surprised":
In Mr. Cabral's view, wine ratings are influenced by uncontrolled factors such as the time of day, the number of hours since the taster last ate and the other wines in the lineup. He also says critics taste too many wines in too short a time. As a result, he says, "I would expect a taster's rating of the same wine to vary by at least three, four, five points from tasting to tasting."
In 1996, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that wine experts cannot reliably identify more than three or four of a wine's flavor components. Most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more. The wine review excerpted in the top image for this post, for example (which is a real review, by the way – somebody actually wrote those words about a bottle of wine, in earnest) lists the following components in the wine's "principle flavor" profile: "red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins [Ed. note: jesus wine-swilling christ – mango with skins?], red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, whole black peppercorn," and more than a dozen other flavors that I refuse to continue listing lest my head implode.
Fun fact: MIT behavioral economist Coco Krume recently conducted a meta-analysis of the classifiers used in wine reviews, and found that reviewers tend to use "cheap" and "expensive" words differently. Cheap descriptors are used much more frequently, expensive ones more sparingly. Krume even demonstrated that it's possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words used in its review. "From a quantitative standpoint," Krume writes, "there are three types of words more likely to be used for expensive wines":
- Darker words, such as intense, supple, velvety, and smoky
- Single flavors such as tobacco or chocolate versus fruity, good, clean, tasty, juicy for cheap wines
- Exclusive-sounding words in place of simple descriptors. For example, old, elegant, and cuvee rather than pleasing, refreshing, value,and enjoy
- Additionally, cheap wine is preferentially paired with chicken and pizza, while pricey wine goes with shellfish and pork
Using her scientific metric, Krume goes on to create the most expensive-sounding wine review ever penned: "A velvety chocolate texture and enticingly layered, yet creamy, nose, this wine abounds with focused cassis and a silky ruby finish. Lush, elegant, and nuanced. Pair with pork and shellfish." If that sentence made you yearn for a glass of classy red, congratulations, there's a very real chance you're a pompous asshole.
You want an exception to the wine-tasting is bullshit mantra? Here it is.
In 2008, a survey comprising more than 6,000 blind tastings found a positive correlation between price and enjoyment – for individuals with wine training. In other words: if you're a wine expert, there's a chance you'll enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper ones. HOWEVER, it bears emphatic mentioning that whether this suggests more expensive wines are objectively better (which it doesn't) is irrelevant, because among amateur wine drinkers (which, let's face it, you are), the survey found the opposite, i.e. a negative correlation between price and happiness, “suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” This lead the researchers to conclude that "both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers."
The upshot: screw the experts. Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford. Or just have a beer – it's unequivocally better, anyway.