A Difference in Taste

Does it matter that self-styled experts are more sensitive to some tastes than consumers?
Apr 23, 2012

Someone could write a treatise on why some researchers seem hell-bent on proving that wine experts are full of it. The most recent is a study by John E. Hayes of Pennsylvania State University and Gary Pickering of Brock University in Ontario, Canada. Early news coverage was along the lines of "all those expert wine reviews are meaningless because most of us can't taste that stuff anyway.”

My colleague Ben O’Donnell reports on the actual paper. Having read the study, my take is that it falls in line with others of recent vintage that purport to show that experts can’t differentiate high-quality wine from rotgut, or that we always prefer a wine identified as more expensive.

If I read this newest study correctly, it acknowledges that wine experts can find more details to describe in the wines they taste than ordinary wine drinkers do, but experts and consumers prefer different attributes in wine. How do the authors know this? Did they offer the participants wines to taste and gauge their reactions? No, they just asked whether participants were likely to try new food, wines or unfamiliar alcoholic beverages.

Actually, first they asked everyone participating in the study to identify themselves as a wine professional or consumer. Then, they sorted out how many of those were “supertasters,” “nontasters” or something in between. You may have heard about these categories, based on how densely our taste buds are packed on our tongues and our responsiveness to bitterness using a chemical called PROP. But this study only mentions PROP, not a taste bud count. Taste scientists will have to weigh on on how valid that might be.

The study finds a higher percentage of supertasters among those who self-identified as wine experts, and from that finds “a discordance in judgment of quality and value” between experts and consumers. Or, as Prof. Hayes put it, “If an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”

I know from my own experience that we all have different thresholds for everything we sniff or nibble. Cilantro, for example, tastes soapy to some, while the rest of us love it. It’s the same with aspects of wine. But bitterness is only one element a wine taster must address, though this seems to be the basis of their conclusion. What about sensitivity to acidity? To brettanomyces? To vegetal aromas? To oak? Can those who did this study prove that they all correlate with PROP?

In the 1980s, as chief judge of the San Francisco Fair International Wine Competition, I tested every judge for their sensitivities to various aspects of wine. I worked with enologists to come up with tests to determine how much all of us responded to sweetness, oak aromas, volatile acidity, brettanomyces, oxidation and other aspects of wine’s taste. My goal was not to weed out judges but to make sure I didn’t assemble a panel of three who might unknowingly reward a flawed wine. Knowing their own blind spots, the judges found that they could work together more effectively.

Besides, if you think all experts, self-anointed or not, agree on the wines they favor, you haven’t been paying attention to the wars of words in today’s wine world. Some sommeliers favor high-acidity wines. Alcohol is a flash point. So is brettanomyces. You like fruit character in your wine? Expect scorn from some. And by the way, only three of the 330 participants identified themselves as wine writers. There were many more sommeliers and vintners.

So-called supertasters, by the way, are not superior to other tasters. They simply are more sensitive to certain elements. I agree with Barb Stuckey, author of a new book, Taste What You’re Missing (Free Press, $26), and the folks at University of California at Davis that the term “hypertaster” is more precise.

The study, however, extends this particular reaction to PROP to encompass similar sensitivities to aromatic elements, based on a previous one by Pickering that suggested hypertasters pick up aromas such as citrus, butter and a madeirized character more strongly as bitterness increases. I'm not sure that proves much. My sense is that we tend to experience aromatics more strongly when our taste buds are stimulated by anything. I bet they would have gotten the same results with increased sweetness. (Low-end wines are often left a bit sweet for exactly this reason.)

Wine isn't the only field in which the tastes of experts may differ from those at whom they aim their advice. That’s not what makes a critic worth following. Good critics learn to communicate with greater precision and depth than “I like it” or “I don’t,” whether it’s music, art, literature, theater, film or, of course, food. Whether we decide to follow the advice of restaurant critics depends on whether their descriptions, and not necessarily their star ratings, can lead us to good experiences.

It’s the same with music or films. Some of us love monster movies. I don’t. If a critic recommends the latest slasher flick, I’ll still give it a pass, even if I respect the critic. Isn’t it the same with wine? We compare our personal preferences with what the critic has to say, and respond accordingly.

Bottom line, we all learn to adjust to our sensitivities in evaluating wine or food. You need not be a hypertaster to be a wine critic, any more than you must have perfect pitch to be a music critic. On that, this whole study becomes beside the point, at least for wine writers and their readers.

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