Monday, May 13, 2013

Re: Wine tasting is bullshit

Two of my non-enophile friends forwarded me the blog post "Wine tasting is bullshit. Here's Why," that's making the rounds of social media. Both of them apparently expected me to respond in some way.

Sigh. OK.

Let me explain it in terms anyone can understand.

Wine is food. People have different opinions about food.

Just because somebody is an expert doesn't mean you will like the same food they do. Some people think the Big Mac is the apex of cuisine, and would happily eat one every meal. A restaurant critic could praise pristine sushi or spicy curry, but that wouldn't mean the Big Mac fan would like it.

If you want to say wine tasting is bullshit, it's only true if all criticism is bullshit. Just because a movie critic or music critic likes something doesn't mean you will. Movie critics hate plenty of popular films, just like restaurant critics won't praise Big Macs and wine critics don't drink Charles Shaw.

I can nitpick the exaggerations of Robert T. Gonzalez' post, and they start early. The ridiculous wine review he quotes in the graphic -- "Overall character is that of a sex-loaded scarlet ..." -- is apocryphal.


A wine blog, The Good Grape, posted something in 2010 saying that outlandish review, written by "a deadly serious taster," would be posted online soon. I googled the opening phrase and could not find the review anywhere online. This is not to say there are not terrible wine reviews: I've run some examples on my blog. But that particular review is fiction.

The wine "expert" Gonzalez quotes agreeing with his position, that wine tasting is bullshit, isn't the executive editor of Wine Spectator or some other high-level source. It's a guy who writes a blog called Another Wine Blog. I haven't read it. Maybe it's good. But as I showed above, you can find, or invent, anything you want on the Internet.

That said, I don't want to put too much effort into nitpicking Gonzalez' post, because much of the evidence he cites is true. Wines, like food, taste different at different times to different people. People are affected by knowing the prices of the wine. This shouldn't be news.

Wine is unpredictable. Different brands, different grapes, different vintages. It's a beverage, but it's not Coca-Cola. That's its nature. Some people are inherently uncomfortable with that. Wine makes them uneasy.

When people are uneasy, they seek validation: I'm doing the right thing. In the US, because we're so competitive, we can't be fully comfortable doing the right thing unless others are doing the wrong thing.

This is true of wine consumers at every level. People who spend $800 on Harlan Estate do so because they think that shows what connoisseurs they are, and like Robert Parker they mock the thin, underripe wines people favored by sommeliers. Some people who spend $2.50 on Charles Shaw do so because it's all they can afford, but others think it's the wisest purchase, and anyone spending more is not a smart shopper because there's no real difference in quality. The prices may be very different, but the desire for validation -- by dismissing others' choices as foolish -- is the same.

It's important to realize that for some people -- possibly including Gonzalez -- the differences between wines really are slight, for biological reasons. People do not have the same amount of taste buds. Some people are supertasters; they taste in neons. And at the other side of the bell curve of taste are non-tasters; they taste in shades of gray. I had a friend in Japan who bought 5 box lunches on Monday, stored them in the refrigerator, and ate one each workday. Most people would prefer a fresh lunch, but he couldn't taste the difference, so he shopped for convenience. He was a non-taster; his lunch strategy made sense for him.

If you are a non-taster, you should buy the cheapest wine, if you buy wine at all. Why spend more if you can't taste the difference? Perhaps 5% of the population are non-tasters, and they are the true target audience for Gonzalez' post.

For everyone else, all I can say is, sure, wine tasting is unpredictable. But that doesn't mean it's bullshit.

I just spent 3 days in Bratislava judging wines at the Concours Mondial, the world's largest wine competition. On my jury of 5 people from 5 countries we rarely agreed about a great wine. But we agreed on many bad wines. The wines we rated lowest would not be tolerated by anyone other than extreme non-tasters. You'd be happy if one of us was a gatekeeper who kept that wine off your dinner table.

But like I said, we disagreed about many good wines. My favorite wine of the competition I gave 97 points; another taster rated it in the mid-80s. Who would you believe? I don't know. You can throw up your hands and say "therefore wine tasting is bullshit," or you can accept uncertainty. You can accept that because wine is food, you may like doughnuts for breakfast while your neighbor likes mushroom omelets. That doesn't make breakfast-tasting bullshit.

Gonzalez' conclusion is "Screw the experts. Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford. Or just have a beer – it's unequivocally better, anyway."

I can't argue with the first part. Yes, screw the experts; let me give you my hotel room number in Slovakia. But seriously, I don't like the same wines Robert Parker likes. Not that I want to screw him; he's not my type. But I can disregard him.

Drink what tastes good -- Brilliant advice! Spot on. Couldn't say it better.

Drink whatever you can afford -- Also very sensible. Combine the two and you've got a strategy

The problem is, within your price range, how do you find what's good, without relying on gatekeepers or experts? I taste maybe 5000 wines a year and when I go to a good restaurant, I let the sommelier choose the wine.

If you don't ask anyone's opinion whatsoever, you're at the mercy of marketers who are moving product based on the package, not the product. Nobody who sells wine stacked in cases to the ceiling of your supermarket cares what they taste like -- not the store, not the distributor, and often not even the producer, because they don't even put the winery's real name on it. All they care about is sales volume and profit margin. It's the Big Mac of wine.

If you're a non-taster, that's fine: stock up on the Big Mac on sale. But if not, you can either taste a bunch of wines to find the ones you like, or rely on an outside opinion like a critic, your friends on Facebook, your local wine shop or a sommelier. You can say "wine tasting is bullshit," but if you can tell the difference between a Whopper and a Big Mac, then you're bullshitting yourself.

There are people like Gonzalez who really can't deal with unpredictability, and would then say "have a beer," because Bud Light is always Bud Light.

I'm sorry to disappoint my non-wine-loving friends, who apparently wanted me to write some impassioned rebuttal defending wine tasting. What do you want me to say: wine is delicious and special and its very variability enhances my life nearly every night? Well, yeah, that's true for me. But if you'd rather have a Bud Light, how can I argue with you?

Fine! You're validated. Nobody has it any better than you. But please don't pass the Bud Light. Keep it in the hands where it's most appreciated.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

22 comments:

Larry Brooks said...

Years ago I was attending a lecture by a famous Sci Fi writer. Some knucklehead in the crowd got up during the Q&A and said, "85% of Sci Fi is bullshit!" The writer quickly retorted, "85% of everything is bullshit" I think we see something similar here.

Joanna Breslin said...

Then there's this part:"Or just have a beer – it's unequivocally better".
Let's just open a can of worms...

rapopoda said...

Not sure that "supertaster/non-taster" has that much to do with perceiving flavor. Isn't virtually all flavor the result of our brain's interpretation of information it receives via retro-nasal olfaction???

Tim Hanni said...

Blake - when are you coming for lunch? I would seriously like to show you the research that helps to better understand the perceptive acuity factors far beyond the PROP "super"-taster paradigm. There is so much misunderstanding in this area and you get a free lunch!!

Jonas Landau, everydaywineguy said...

I would have to say that I have no use for the 100 point scale. Do we have to quantify everything? As you pointed out Blake, wine is food, it's a living thing - affected by location and circumstance. But to say that tasting is BS is way over the top. What about public tastings, where the non-pros get to taste all kinds of stuff and decide what they like and what they may want to buy? That ain't no BS. And the comment "Exhibit C: We taste with our eyes, not our mouths" is itself a bunch of BS - It all works together and the smell part of taste may actually be the most important.

The Sommeliere said...
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The Sommeliere said...
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chilecopadevino.com said...

I always say:

If you is serious about learning anything about wine you would read a few critics, then look up and try the some of the wine they recommend, lastly find a critic your palate and pocket book agrees with and follow them for wine suggestions, you will sometimes agree and less often disagree, when you disagree most of the time, find another critic or you maybe on the road to your own explorations.

Erik Wait said...

The environment of a tasting room at a winery in which you are told what you are tasting, how much its costs etc. can effect your perception of a wine. It is radically different than a neutral environment (a simple table in an office or home with a glass and white table cloth) where you taste blind. That is why I do not give scores in my wine reviews but just general impressions. But I have also taken the time to study enology in college, work in 3 wineries and go through the WSET Advanced classes so my background for offering an evalatuion may have more credibility than the average joe. But even my mood or the weather can influence my perception as well and I acknowledge that in my reviews. Tasting a Grenache Rosé in Lodi is a lot more appealing when it is 90+ degrees outside in the middle of July than when it is 55 degrees in February. Knowing that an evaluation at a winery can be very subjective is also why I place greater emphasis in my reviews in providing photos. My goal is to share my experience, not tell people what they should or should not buy.

Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka said...

Thanks, Blake. Nice write-up.

David Pierson said...

Nice points Blake, but I think the guy made some good points too.. like changing the color of the wine and these experts were calling it a red.. reminded me of the Lettie Teague piece a few years ago where she put a Rothschild label on a nice Washington red and the experts were sure it was a Rothschild.. all these ludicrous scores and descriptions.. give me the Hosemaster..

Bryan Cooper said...

Hi Blake - nice blog - generally don't read wine blogs but like the attitude.
Good article - but I generally feel that points aren't helpful (do you ask how many points a steak got at a restaurant before ordering one?). Also, I generally avoid wine judging results as there are WAY too many wines tasted by the judges to have even a semblance of sensory evaluation - the alcohol absorbed by one's tongue does impact everyone eventually.
I don't claim the best palette, but I do think I am decent at finding flaws. I buy for our wine club - and we pour our wines to our club members to get face to face feedback. If a wine is popular with our club members, its probably pretty dang good! Generally we tell folks to ask winery tasting room staff which wine is the best seller - and its usually IS the best tasting. But best to ask after making one's own opinion.

Sid said...

Great post! You've woven together a couple of different threads here in a coherent fashion that's pretty compelling.

This article should be an autoresponder whenever someone says "wine tasting is bullshit"...

Patrick Frank said...

Blake, that was a good & thoughtful response to an article that had a fair amount of bullshit in it.

Joe Power said...

As "the guy" or "the expert" who apparently started all of this *ahem* bullshit, I think some clarification is in order. The first blogger who quoted me either didn't understand what I had written, or decided to cherry pick some of my BS to validate his own BS. Not that I care much either way. At least he took the time to try and read it before dragging me into his post, and had the courtesy to attribute and link the quote so that folks could see what was actually written.

As for having never been to Another Wine Blog, the discussion you had with my wife and co-publisher regarding her post about a litigious winemaker just goes to show that reviews aren't the only bullshit being thrown around at times.

Keep up the excellent work, Blake. High quality writing like this might make you a two-time Warkie winner, a real member of the friends and family plan, you might say.

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: I'm sorry, but I don't remember the conversation you mention. I do speak to a lot of people and I don't want to offend you, so can you refresh my memory?

I'm also sorry if I have misrepresented what you wrote. Again, as I stated, I didn't read what you wrote, so if Mr. Gonzalez misquoted you, can you please make it easy for me and explain why?

Thanks.

Carroll said...

Wine tasting is bullshit to everyone except wine tasters and those who take them serious.

rplieu said...

I haven't read the "wine tasting is BS" article but your views are spot on.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks! Don't read it if you haven't already. Dare I say it -- it's BS.

Gary & Alison Dyer said...

Thanks for the post. I agree and apprecaite the "sign" at the beginning. My son and I taste wine together. My favorite is different favorite than his. My sister chooses a different red blend than we both like. My brother drinks beer and sneers at us (laughing all the while). But we eat dinner together and do not need a diplomat to interpret our differences.

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

BLAKE,

COMPLEMENTING THE WIKIPEDIA ENTRY ON "SUPERTASTERS," YOUR READERS SHOULD CHECK OUT MIKE STEINBERGER'S 3-PART SLATE ARTICLE.

~~ BOB


From Slate
(Posted June 20, 2007):

“Do You Taste What I Taste?
The physiology of the wine critic.”

[Part 1 of 3]

[Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/do_you_taste_what_i_taste.html]

By Mike Steinberger

From Slate
(Posted June 21, 2007):

““Am I a Supertaster?
The physiology of the wine critic.”

[Part 2 of 2]

[Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/am_i_a_supertaster.html]

By Mike Steinberger

From Slate
(Posted June 22, 2007):

“Do You Want To Be a Supertaster?
The physiology of the wine critic.”

[Part 3 of 3]

[Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/do_you_want_to_be_a_supertaster.html]

By Mike Steinberger

Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) said...

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WINE PRICING AND PERCEIVED QUALITY:

Excerpts from New York Times "Dining Out" Section
(May 7, 2008, Page D1ff):

"Wine's Pleasures: Are They All In Your Head?"

[Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/07/dining/07pour.html?pagewanted=print]

By Eric Asimov
"The Pour" Column

. . .

[Food writer Robin Goldstein devised a study] . . . to try to isolate consumers from outside influence so they could simply judge wine by what's in the glass. He had 500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle. The results are described in a new book, "The Wine Trials," to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media.

. . .

The researchers scanned the brains of 21 volunteer wine novices as they administered tiny tastes of wine, measuring sensations in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain where flavor responses apparently register. The subjects were told only the price of the wines. Without their knowledge, they tasted one wine twice, and were given two different prices for that wine. Invariably they preferred the one they thought was more expensive.

. . . one newspaper account crowed. "A meticulous new study found that the more people think a wine cost, the more they like it. And the less they think it cost, the less they like it."

Big surprise. . . . The fact is, the correlation between price and quality is so powerful that it affects not just our perception of wine but of all consumer goods.

. . .

AND SEE THIS RELATED ARTICLE . . .

Excerpts from Yahoo News
(January 14, 2008):

"Raising Prices Enhances Wine Sales"

[Link: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080114/ap_on_bi_ge/costs_more_tastes_better]

By Randolph E. Schmid
Associated Press Science Writer

. . .

Antonio Rangel and colleagues at California Institute of Technology thought the perception that higher price means higher quality could influence people, so they decided to test the idea.

They asked 20 people to sample wine while undergoing functional MRIs of their brain activity. The subjects were told they were tasting five different Cabernet Sauvignons sold at different prices.

However, there were actually only three wines sampled, two being offered twice, marked with different prices.

. . .

The testers' brains showed more pleasure at the higher price than the lower one, even for the same wine, Rangel reports in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

. . .

"We were shocked," Rangel said in a telephone interview. "I think it was because the flavor was stronger and our subjects were not very experienced."

He added that wine professionals would probably be able to differentiate the better wine -- "one would hope."

. . .

AND SEE THIS RELATED ARTICLE . . .

Excerpts from CNET News
(January 14, 2008)

"Study: $90 Wine Tastes Better Than The Same Wine At $10"

[Link: http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html]

Posted by Stephen Shankland

. . .

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford's business school have directly seen that the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price. And that's true even when, unbeknownst to the test subjects, it's exactly the same Cabernet Sauvignon with a dramatically different price tag.

. . .

The study, by Hilke Plassmann, John O'Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel, was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

. . .

The research, along with other studies the authors allude to, are putting a serious dent in economists' notions that experienced pleasantness of a product is based on its intrinsic qualities.

. . .

ADDENDUM: Go to http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html to see the accompanying exhibits.