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.