Recently I read something that made me laugh out loud, as well as reminded me of my (increasingly distant) youth. A fellow opined in his wine blog that wine critics of advancing years should step down because, well, they’re getting older.
Why does this matter? Because, he claimed, taste acuity diminishes in critics as they age. Actually, the evidence for this is less than definitive, although, in fairness, it can happen to some of us, sometime, as we limp to life’s finishing line. But, hey, if you’re trying to storm the fortress, you use what battering rams you can.
The blog made me laugh for two reasons. The first is that it reminded me not just of my own youthful, er, indiscretions, but also brought back to me the glory days of the 1960s. I rushed to put some Jefferson Airplane on the stereo and re-live that moment when we fervently believed that anybody over 30 couldn’t and shouldn’t be trusted.
Our youthful blogger was actually kinder than we were. He was inveighing against, well, guys like me, who are in our late 50s. (I turned 59 yesterday, if you must know.) Apparently our palate power, along with teeth, hair, knees and all other attributes worth having, are declining, falling out or just plain not functioning. This is why it’s time for old, bald guys to shuffle off and make room for young palate-virile guys, like him.
Nice work if you can get it, pal. Full marks for sheer crust, as well as ambition. I recall all too well looking at my doddering elders and wondering “When, oh when, will these dinosaurs die off so that I can get their job?” Which I deserved, of course. And wanted. And felt I was ready to take on and do better than they.
It hadn’t occurred to me, however, to pitch it based on declining physical prowess. Back in the day, it was enough merely to be “old,” i.e., a creaky 40 or 45. That said it all, right?
Once the amusement subsided (along with the lingering, fade-out refrain of Grace Slick singing that rallying cry, “Feed your head!”), I more seriously considered this assertion. Was Shakespeare wrong about how age does not wither, nor custom stale our infinite variety? What about our ability to taste?
Here’s the nub of the problem: It’s our wine writer tasting notes. Yes, that’s right. It’s we writers who are to blame. You see, we write these tasting notes with a Shakespearean infinite variety of flavor and scent descriptors. We do this because readers want to know—or at least imagine for themselves—what a wine tastes like. After all, would you really be satisfied with “This here red Burgundy is really good”?
Consequently, these long strings of ever more persnickety-sounding taste descriptors leave the impression that the ability to nail these subtle shadings is what really counts. Big mistake.
What really counts is not your ability to slice a wine into its component parts with surgical precision. That’s just lab work. Rather, what’s important is your ability to evaluate what you’re tasting, never mind whether you did or didn’t find a shadow of a suggestion of, say, betelnut blossom.
"Do you really think that now, after 10 or 20 or 30 years of tasting wine, drinking wine and thinking wine, that you're a lesser taster than before?"
This business of lab work, by the way, is also what underlies the mistaken belief that taste acuity is what makes for a great wine taster. You see, back in the 1950s when processed food really began to take off, researchers began to apply scientific methods to sensory evaluation; if you’re manufacturing some sort of processed food produced by the millions of packages, then you want and need all the certainty you can get. What they really wanted was the unerring accuracy and reliability of machines. But because no such machine existed, they had to use fallible humans.
So the scientists emphasized the desirability—indeed the necessity—of establishing verifiable, repeatable taste acuity. The variability and subjectivity of human sensory experience was fundamentally offensive to these scientists because it precluded scientific certainty and statistical reliability.
Inevitably, the rigors of food science, with its double-blind tasting panels and tasters proven to be able to identify particular scents and flavors with near-mechanical reliability, made their way to wine.
Enology schools such as the University of California at Davis sought to sweep away the “romantic” subjectivity of traditional wine evaluation and replace it with methodologies sought by the big food-processing companies. (The fact that much of the research money came from big wine-processing companies such as Gallo was no coincidence.)
The wine scientists sought to change the very vocabulary of wine tasting by eliminating inexact terms such as finesse or nuance, which, because they could not be proved in a laboratory or a double-blind tasting panel, were deemed invalid.
You know, of course, the consequence of this effort. On the one hand, it did help create cleaner, more technically sound wines. On the other hand, it led to a sterility of imagination, even ambition. The ideal wine was declared to be one that was defect-free. That, after all, could be proven—and repeated.
This is why it’s now plausible to a certain group of people—such as ambitious young wine writers looking to take over positions currently occupied by others—that taste acuity is everything. They trot out studies by sensory scientists that tell us that as we get older we are not as reliable or acute in laboratory studies at identifying a series of flavors or scents with statistically demonstrable accuracy. “Time for you to leave, Grasshopper.”
Not so fast. Are you, ahem, getting on? And do you really think that just because gravity has become ever-friendlier with your body or that you’re not as quick of step as you once were that your palate has declined? Do you really think that now, after 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years of tasting wine, drinking wine and thinking wine, that now—of all moments—you’re a lesser taster than before?
I’ll bet you anything that it’s quite the opposite. I’ll bet you that precisely because of all your experience, including all those mistakes in wine buying and wine judgment you made over the years, you’re a better taster in your (forgive me) advancing years than you were in your statistically verifiable, tasting-acute youth.
This is because the bottom line to wine tasting is just that: the conclusions that you reach about the goodness, originality and sheer wonderfulness of a wine. If you’ve been around the wine block a few times, you know that being able to call out a string of taste descriptors is no measure of wine wisdom. How many wines have we tasted that had all sorts of identifiable flavors—but that we decided weren’t really very good at all?
Far from age having nothing to do with it, age—which is to say, experience—has everything to do with the kind of wine tasting that matters. And that’s all about evaluation, not mere taste acuity. If it were otherwise, then we should eliminate all the great orchestra conductors once they slink past 50. After all, they’ve got hearing loss, right? And what is Mozart or Beethoven but a bunch of tones?
So I ask you: Are you today a better taster than you were before? Or has age indeed withered your palate? Is it time for the likes of you (and me) to move on and let olfactorily acute youth determine the good, the worthwhile and the beautiful in wine?
Anabelle Sielecki — Mendoza, Argentina — September 21, 2010 2:15pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — September 21, 2010 2:39pm ET
James R Biddle — Dayton, OH — September 21, 2010 4:19pm ET
Ryan Fong — Mountain View, CA, USA — September 22, 2010 1:48am ET
Michael Twelftree — Barossa Valley, Australia — September 22, 2010 6:09am ET
Michael Twelftree — Barossa Valley, Australia — September 22, 2010 6:11am ET
John Shuey — Dallas. TX — September 22, 2010 9:30am ET
James Caudill — Bennett Valley, California — September 22, 2010 11:09am ET
David Peters — Mission Viejo, CA — September 22, 2010 1:14pm ET
Heidi Butzine — Redondo Beach, CA — September 22, 2010 2:18pm ET
Michael Schulman — Westlake Village, CA — September 22, 2010 2:19pm ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — September 22, 2010 2:29pm ET
Michael Bennett — Houston, TX — September 22, 2010 6:04pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — September 22, 2010 11:34pm ET
Tom Miller — Vestavia Hills, AL — September 23, 2010 12:26pm ET
John Hewitt — Port Orford, Oregon, USA — September 29, 2010 5:23pm ET
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