Bad Science

Posted by Keith Wallace

A bevy of news outlets are reporting that only wine professionals can taste complexity in wine:

Ever wondered why you can’t quite detect those hints of vanilla and cardamom touted in a pricey bottle of wine? A new study finds that wine experts—like the wine writer who likely informed you of that cardamom in the first place—simply have a better sense of taste than most of the rest of us. Hundreds of wine drinkers sampled a chemical that gauges a person’s reaction to bitter tastes, and the wine experts were found to be around 40% more sensitive than casual wine drinkers, NPR reports.

Of course, practice is one reason wine experts get so good at tasting nuances and subtleties. But the study fits with the idea, formulated by prior research, that some “supertasters” are simply more sensitive to begin with. “Wine shopping can be confusing and overwhelming,” one wine writer acknowledges. Wine ratings can help you narrow down your options, but “every critic has his or her own taste. So the same wine might garner wildly differing scores from a variety of critics.”

“Why You Shouldn’t Bother Splurging on Fancy Wine”  in Newser

Ironically, about forty students at the Wine School of Philadelphia just proved that theory wrong.  Under the eye of the school’s sommelier-instructors, this group of wine novices was able to taste like a sommelier after a single semester. The proof? In a double-blind tasting, nearly every student could identify the wines by varietal and wine region, simply by tasting or smelling the wine.

The study in question found a correlation between taste bitterness and the likelihood of being a wine professional. This is easily explained by the well-documented effects of neural adaptation: if a person is repeatedly exposed to a specific flavor compound, her sense of taste changes accordingly. Since wine professionals taste much more red wine (which has a high degree of bitter compounds), their taste buds will be more sensitive to those flavors.

The conclusion one can draw from the study isn’t that only experts can taste wine. Instead, it means that one can become an expert by drinking a lot of red wine.  That’s a news story I can get behind!

The media is getting the story wrong because wine and wine folk are easy to target. They don’t make a fuss and aren’t the type to point out that small family-owned businesses make most wine that costs more than $15. Or that large corporate concerns make most wine under $10. The idea that “wine is for experts and snobs” is one of those old tropes that gets dragged out when an Ivy League graduate needs to prove she still belongs to the 99%…. at the expense of small local businesses. Good going, NPR.

2 thoughts on “Bad Science”

  1. Experience makes wine experts perfect. There is no wonder behind it. Only with practice and experience, one can understand the subtleties of different wines. You do not require any special talent for that.

  2. With practice, anyone can master an art. Wine tasting is no different. By exposing yourself to different tastes and smells, you can gain greater knowledge. Wine experts also need a lot of practice.


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