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Wednesday Warblings
Pseudo Science Hits The Wine World Again

By Stephen Eliot

It is reaching epidemic proportions, this need to try to make science out of art, and the wine world has become ground zero for far too many would-be statisticians.

Over the last couple of weeks, these maker-uppers of fact out of stranger-than-fiction have told us first that a significant percentage of wine drinkers prefer wines with lower alcohol made from Cabernet and Chardonnay even though such wines do not exist and are not likely to exist and then that people actually prefer wines from wineries with tongue-twisting titles over those whose names are easy to say. Now, comes the news from “academia” that wine experts, through biological imperative, may self select for the profession and that their opinions may, in fact, be wholly irrelevant to the average consumer because they recognize bitterness in wines.

A new bit of research* coming from Penn State University, yes THAT Penn State, and reported in the March issue of the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture makes the claim “that the fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” -- wine experts, in this case-- and follows with the question “if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?” As proof of said “difference”, it seems that those in the study who were deemed wine experts demonstrated more sensitivity to propylthiouracil bitterness than the “average” or casual wine drinker. God, I just love this stuff!

Now, I confess to some comfort in the fact that this undermines the credibility of all wine experts for a change…retailers, sommeliers, educators, et. al., and not just on those of us who inhabit the journalistic world. I feel so much less exposed and vulnerable, but the conclusive leap to the notion that because of one’s inherent biology “expert recommendations in wine magazines and journals may be too subtle for average wine drinkers to sense” simply sets my head to spinning.

While the report grudgingly concedes that “prior experience matters”, the claim that biology may be primary rings rather hollow to me. I thought all this time that wine appreciation or that of music or art or fine foods was very much grounded in experience, study and practice, and I believe that most anyone is capable of finding a great deal of agreed-upon character, both strident and nuanced, in a given glass of wine should they have an interest. I have seen just that proven in practice in countless venues during my lengthy and varied career in wine as both a retailer and journalist and especially in teaching would-be chefs at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy.

Getting my students to pay attention to wine was just as important as informing them about varieties, places and affinities with food. I always believed that the more one paid attention to this or that glass, not only the more one would find, but that there were certain qualities that became evident to most everyone. Watching my student’s remarkable development as thoughtful, sensitive and confident tasters over a six-week class was one of my great joys and kept me coming back to the classroom for over twenty years. True, there was a small minority that never seemed to get involved, but to argue that the interested and capable majority were so predisposed by dint of biology seems downright silly.

Now I don’t doubt that there are plenty of folks, more than not I suspect, who drink wine without much thought, and there are plenty that might think a pretty label or funny story is more important than anything else. After all, last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle column on a wine named “Sexual Chocolate” received thirty times as many reader comments than that paper’s studied and far more serious piece on the wines of the Santa Rita Hills. The ultimate success of any of us in the business rests with the simple fact that our recommendations must make sense and carry weight with our respective audiences, and, if they do not, our voices will be ignored before long. If those of us who do, in fact, take wine seriously are “different” and are simply preaching to a deviant choir of shared phenotypes, I’m here to tell you that the choir is a very big one. I, for one, appreciate and am beholden to each and all.



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No Subject
Posted on:3/7/2012 11:56:14 AM

I think AJEV is a peer-reviewed publication. That is the key to selecting which research results should be given more credibility.
I also am inclined to believe the premise of the PENN State study (was it really necessary to make your comment about it being "THAT Penn State"? or to put "academia" in quotations for that matter?....)
However, I would caution against reading that to mean that critics have vastly different "hardware" (gustatory and olfactory) sensitivity. Rather, it's a matter of "software": the better ones among them are better able to recognize, categorize, organize and interpret sensory information.
It becomes a chicken-and-egg question because the more one practices sensory assessment the better they become at detecting and recognizing sensory stimuli.

I Know Bitter When I Taste It
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/7/2012 12:33:01 PM


Your last sentence explains why the Penn State findings are utter poppycock. Wine critics are not more sensitive to bitterness. We recongize it more readily, as we do also volatile acidity, brett and fixed sulfur.

The conclusion that ordinary punters should therefore ignore reviewers suggests that people should drink unclean or flawed wines. It totally misses the point that one looks to critics precisely for that kind of guidance both as to what to drink and what not to drink.

My strong and personal opinioin is that the study itself is flawed the makers of the study did not understand the findings and thus came to exactly thw wrong conclusions.

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