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The Greying of The Wine Taster—Better With Age

By Stephen Eliot

Starting way back at the beginning, in the earliest days of my fascination with wine, days in which I could drink those benchmark bottlings that I can no longer afford, I learned and accepted without question the idea that great wines were not half so great in their youths as they were when properly aged. Old wine was better. It did not take all that long to realize that older was not necessarily better and that each and every wine did not benefit with time, but it seems to me, some forty years later, a self-evident truth that the very best do.

I really cannot say when I began to truly appreciate just what a great, properly aged wine was about. I knew the jargon and could talk about those special bottles with the authority derived from reading every word that Alexis Lichine, Andre Simon, Frank Schoonmaker and Harry Waugh wrote, but really understanding what the words meant was a more slowly learned lesson. It turned out that just as time was required for the world’s classic wines to show the complexity and nuance and subtle shadings, so too did this taster become better with age.

Now, from time to time, I confess to wondering if that somewhere hopefully well down the line, I just might, to continue the fine wine analogy, reach the end of my own plateau and my ability to appreciate and fully grasp all that a wine is will be lost. We are told that after a certain age our acuity as tasters sharply declines, and I am certain that there is a certain truth to those claims, but it has been wisely said that we taste with our brains as much as our senses. It may be that we taste differently as time takes its toll, but I would argue that there is a base of knowledge, knowing what to taste for, and a frame of reference that nothing other than years of experience can bring.

These days we hear steady grumblings about the graying of wine critics, the “old white men” who are out of touch with the real market and whose acumen as tasters has become questionable. I do not recall the same itch of rebellion or the need to overthrow the “gray heads” of my day, but I do understand the need of every next generation to create a world of their own, and that “new” necessarily depends on being better than “old”. Still, I value the insight born of experience today as much as I did when counting on my mentors of long ago and would remind that enthusiasm without experience is at best a glass only half full.

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Silverback in the back of the room responds
by Alfonso Cevola
Posted on:3/14/2015 7:24:14 AM

Dear Stephen,

We didnt apologize for being young when we were. And I reckon we won't be apologizing now. I too, wonder at the occasional vitriol that is hurled against the silverbacks in the forest, but this I know: whatever one loses in acuity, one gains in experience. That, in my mind, levels the playing field. And, as far as I can tell, everyone walks the same road of time. No one stays young and upright their whole life. So to those who worship at the altar of eternal youth I say this: go wander after your Eldorado, please. We'll guard the wine cave...


No apologies...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:3/15/2015 7:32:01 PM

Hi Alphonso,

Nice to hear from you and we seem to agree. I can't say that I sense any loss of tasting accuity over the years, and I honestly believe that I am a better and smarter taster now than I ever was.

I suppose some of the sporadic invective tossed at those of us who have been around for awhile is from a few who feel that they are outside looking in or maybe it's just the energy that comes wih being a young true believer. There are a great many more would-be wine writers than ever before, but far fewer places that afford the chance of making a living from writing. Envy and entirely understandable frustration are probably catalysts, but there are always self-righteous folks whose rapturous joy in exposing false idols in no way depends on the existence of the same.

I can't say I feel threatened by forced retirement any time soon and, with your permission, I'll take my watch guarding the cave along with you...just as soon as I take my nap. 

True Confessions
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/15/2015 8:22:04 PM

Since I am older than either of you, and probably than the two of you combined, I am happy to report that I agree with both of you with one caveat.

I am not as sharp at adjectival descriptions of aromas as I once was. But as a recent Decanter article so carefully and fully reports, one can use what one senses on the palate to "read" the aromas. We all know, if we have paid attention, that tastes are not aligned to the what we smell but that we do get olfactory feedback from our mouths back up to our noses.

And with more than a decade or two of tasting memory, which keeps on growing, I am a better taster, a more complete and knowledgeable taster, than I ever was.

Will some of that start to drop away some time in the future? Quite possibly, but it will not be all at once in any event, and, in my case, with CGCW tastings being done by professional panels, the early effects of loss of acuity will be corrected by the panel. But more importantly, at some point, if there is a giant loss of form, it will become irrefutably evident in results that will not square with the panel. 

And I would argue that my experience is more or less comparable to the average older taster. Less nasal acuity does not mean less overall ability because there are multiple compensations including using all of the senses including tactile, including depth of knowledge and trained memory, including greater discipline in analysis.            

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