“Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste” – I call BS!!

Last week, Bloomberg ran a story, “Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste,” summing up a study from the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture. And man, did that story raise some hackles for me.

You’ve heard of “supertasters” by now, yes? The roughly 25% of the population with more sensitive taste receptors? Odds are, if you’ve been to a food conference (or chemistry class) in the last five years, you’ve taken that test where everyone places a strip of paper on their tongue to see whether or not they experience that crazy-bitter taste that indicates the presence of propylthiouracil, or PROP for short. (Yes, if you care, I can taste PROP. It’s disgusting.)

But here’s where I take issue: Are wine critics (insert spirits or food critics here if you like) more sensitive to flavors that consumers can’t taste? In other words, is all that yammering about “red fruits” and “minerality” something that the average consumer won’t even be able to taste? Hell no.

The difference isn’t between what critics and consumers taste; the difference is in how it’s articulated. Consumers taste it; they just wouldn’t have thought to describe it that way — I never thought about “minerality” until I took a wine class, but after that, it was a very definite concept I can’t shake. I keep a journal of “taste words” for days when I need a little memory-jogging to pin down the difference between vanilla vs. marshmallow vs. custard flavors. That’s not an “exquisite, acute sense of taste,” as one of the study authors said wine critics possess. That’s just vocabulary.

The difference also is in experience. Think about your last vacation, and how you can almost taste the sea air in that lobster dish that reminds you of those final days in Maine. It’s like that for critics too:  once I visited Bourbon country in Louisville, KY and experienced the scent of a rickhouse first hand, it heightened my appreciation for whiskey, and Bourbon in particular, and I can now deconstruct certain elements in whiskey aromas I could not before. Or if you’ve had the privilege of blind-tasting your way through dozens of Pinots (whiskeys, dishes of salt), before long you’ll be able to pick out nuances and make an informed decision as to which one you like best. That’s not biological superiority. That’s education.

That said, I do agree with one observation, that supertasters are more likely to gravitate toward the wine (food, spirits) field.

Well, of course. And probably at the foodie conference mentioned above, more than 25% of the room raised their hands to indicate their super-taster-ness (you probably also could identify them by the sound of loud retching) — because as the study found, people with this heightened stimuli are more likely to be adventurous in their food and beverage choices. In other words, just the type of people likely to come out to a food conference.

So there you have it:  critics don’t taste better; they just talk better. 

This is also why I think there’s plenty of room for blogging and Yelping and taste-Tweeting. How do you hone your tasting skills unless you taste — thoughtfully and often –and pronounce an opinion? I know of no other way, and I don’t think the other wine (food, spirits) critics of the world do either.

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7 thoughts on ““Wine Critics More Sensitive to Flavors Buyers Can’t Taste” – I call BS!!

  1. I like the “taste words” journal idea! I always end up using the same words over and over again when I write my tasting notes. And of course I throw a “y” at the end of every word, i.e. leathery, cinnamony, hoppy, malty, etc.. Not sure if I mentioned this to you before, but there was a really good article by Dave Broom in the Winter 2011 edition of Whiskey Advocate about writing. Well worth a read.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

  2. Exactly. I feel as a wine and spirits enthusiast, we simply have more experience using a certain part of our brain that others leave dormant. We all have an internal rolodex of sense memories, but those of us in the trade are more practiced accessing it and relating what we’re tasting based on those memories. I actually don’t think I have such an advanced palate, but I’ve learned how to describe what I am tasting from constant practice. It’s about concentration and repetition.

    • Agreed – it’s about practice, practice, practice. But now you have me wondering which parts of my brain I’m leaving dormant that others use!

  3. Actually, being a super-taster would kind of suck – you’d automatically avoid anything bitter, or more than 10-15% alcoholic, or very spicy, or inmdeed anything strongly flavoured i.e., just the things most connoisseurs appreciate the most!
    The problem is the word “supertaster” – it sound so cool everyone wants to describe themselves as one. If it was “over sensitive taster” no-one would. Although there might be a few supertasters among food critics, there would logically be far fewer among wine critics (wine = alcoholic, so literally painful to someone with a high concentration of tastebuds) and far fewer again among spirits critics (liquor = distilled.Anything above 50 proof sets off the trigemic pain reflex on your tongue for everyone, not just supertasters – or supertasters it would be even worse).

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