You Knew It All Along

By Posted on Dec 19 2010 | By

Even the Wine Experts Can’t Get It Right

In April 2009, Wine Spectator magazine rhapsodized about a $130 bottle of 2006 Clos Otta Shiraz from Barossa Valley, calling it, “Plush, round and opulent, offering a gorgeous, showy mouthful of sweet blackberry, black currant and café au lait aromas and flavors….”

And the rating? An impressive 94 points. Should we believe it? Maybe.

But then again, maybe not.

When wine lovers stroll into their favorite wine shop, it’s tempting to search the racks and bins for bottles touted by major wine magazines as vinous versions of great works of art. Today, “mega validator” publications have immense influence over wine worldwide because the public has come to believe they are the final arbiters of what’s tasty and what’s not.

But as wine consumption soars in this country, a rising number of enophiles are questioning the pros’ opinions. And with cause.

A Subjective Skill
A fascinating article in the November 20, 2009 issue of The New York Times lays bare the subjectivity of wine tasting. The article goes into considerable detail about a series of controlled scientific studies on tasting conducted by Robert Hodgson, a retired professor of statistics at Humboldt State University in northern California. And the professor’s conclusions? Don’t always trust the experts.

Over the course of four years of evaluating wine judges’ decisions, Hodgson found their ratings varied by as much as 4 points—plus or minus—on the same wines tasted three different times from the same bottle. Yep. A wine tasted blind the first time and justifying a 90-point rating might well be given an 86 or 94 rating on the second or third evaluation. Same wine. Same judge. Same imprecision.


Heavy Load

An even more revealing study by the good professor disclosed the high probability of a wine winning a gold medal in one competition and garnering zip in the next contest it was entered in. The medals appeared to be awarded by random with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.

Are we surprised? Numerous studies over the years have revealed the subjectivity of wine tasting. One of the more startlingly evaluations was conducted by wine researcher Frederic Brochet using two identical white wines. Cunningly, however, he colored one a deep garnet hue resembling a cabernet sauvignon using flavorless food dye. Tasting the “red” wine, the panel noted attributes of red currant, cherry, raspberry and spice on the very same white wine they had just declared as exhibiting lemon, apricot and honey notes. Perhaps we should simply taste wine with our eyes, hey?

Another example from one of Brochet’s unique tastings involved 57 French wine gurus asked to evaluate two red wines. The crafty evaluator, however, poured the same average rated Bordeaux into two different bottles. The first was an expensive Grand Cru bottle and the second one had previously been the lair of a cheap table wine. The one mostly highly rated by the experts? Of course, the pedestrian red poured from the more expensive bottle. And remember, these were experts. The palate is a terrible thing to trick.

A common secret is that some bars substitute mid-range liquors for the leading brands when they pour mixed drinks. Almost nobody is the wiser because most cocktail sipping patrons simply cannot tell the difference. As long at the brand name is called out upon ordering, the satisfaction is achieved, even if the drink delivered to the table is not what was requested. It’s a bit embarrassing, but we all are susceptible to such chicanery.

The Wine Trials is a fascinating book summarizing the findings of 17 blind tastings held over the course of a year involving more than 500 tasters. One interesting evaluation compared a bottle of Dom Perignon, a $150 Champagne from France, with a Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut, a $12 sparkler from Washington State. Both wines are dry with firm acidity. But, sixty-six percent of the tasters preferred the $12 bottle of bubbly when tasting both bottles blind. This finding was consistent with the authors’ yearlong study of a wide range of wines. Often the taste of money is what influences how a wine is perceived. If it costs more, it must taste better, right? The placebo effect is not limited to just medicines.

Today, the chance of bringing home a terrible tasting wine is small. Yes, there are unexciting producers out there but too much science and proven winemaking skills are employed to produce much wine that is undrinkable. Given the overall rising quality worldwide, few wineries could survive by peddling swill in a marketplace full of decent little quaffers.

So What’s a Body to Do
How do we separate the indifferent from the great and not bust our wine budget in the process? First, trust your palate. Yes, it’s great fun to identify the raspberry, smoke and spice components of a wine and declare it a 95-point winner. But if you can’t perform such palate gymnastics, and you simply like what you’re drinking because it’s “yummy”, go with it. Over time, you will become more skilled in classifying winners and losers and sharpen your buying skills. Taste. Taste. Taste.

Secondly, try evaluating wines blind. This is easily accomplished in a group setting where several similar varietals can be wrapped in paper bags and compared and evaluated. Such an approach is both fun and educational. In the event you’re not up to hosting tastings, consider buying two or three bottles of recommended wines and taste all of them at the same sitting. Using an inexpensive rubber stopper and hand pump, save all three bottles for the next night’s meal. Over a two or three-day period, you will be able to pronounce your top choice of the three. Then add the winner to your growing list of favorites.

Third, consider the impact of price. The Wine Trials demonstrated time again the effect cost has on our perception of quality. One of the book’s more important conclusions was that after pouring 6,000 glasses of wine to over 500 tasters who did not know the producers or cost, drinkers favored moderately priced wines over their more expensive brethren by a statistically significant margin. Expensive wine likely does provide greater pleasure for an experienced taster, but it can often be more tannic and robust than an average drinker cares for. Why spend the money simply to impress if it’s the enjoyment of the wine that you are pursuing, not the image.

Finally, rely on a trusted wine shop owner more than the major wine magazines. A frequently visited shop owner will soon discern your favorite styles and budget. He will also begin to guide you to some selections you might otherwise overlook. Some under appreciated reasonably priced beauties are coming out of Spain, Chile, Virginia, New Zealand, South Africa, Oregon and other emerging wine power regions. One of the great joys of wine is the anticipation of opening a bottle of something you’ve never tasted before.

So remember, your next favorite wine might well be sitting on the shelf of your local shop patiently awaiting your arrival. Don’t let it get too lonely. Both the chase and the taste are wine pleasures to be enjoyed frequently. Become your own expert.

Published in the 2010 Harvest edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES