Fooling the experts?

An article published last week in the Observer, Wine-tasting: it’s junk science, has proved controversial.  As it covers a subject that interests me greatly – how we perceive, describe and rate wines – I wanted to post about it here immediately, but I was not sure how to start.

Perhaps the best way is to point out that the article itself refers to the work of others, and it represents a fair summary of that work.  If you don’t like the results, read the original studies, and criticise them from a position of knowledge, but do not dismiss them out of hand.  As far as I can tell, with the exception of the widely reported Wisemann study, they are sound pieces of work.

The second thing I would say is that the article’s headline misses the point completely.  Winetasting is not junk science.  It is not any sort of science.  It’s…  well, it’s tasting wine: smelling it, putting it into your mouth, and attending to what you perceive.  Punters, individuals and businesses, do it all the time and base their buying decisions on it.

Tasting itself is not problematic.  The content of the article is about how reliable experts are at describing and rating what they taste.  To be reliable, each individual expert needs to be consistent, and also different experts needs to be able to form a consensus with other people, ideally other experts.  To me it is clear that the studies show there is little reliability.

But that raises another issue: who are these people (who I am calling experts) that are unreliable?  They are different in the various studies.  Judges at shows are typically taken from the wine trade, and can be a mixed bunch.  In the Goldstein study, those who had any form of wines education were deemed to be expert.  And university studies often use oenology students as subjects – these presumably have attended courses on tasting.  Few of the subjects would be Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, or even enthusiasts who take part in blind tasting competitions. Were they to be made the subject to research, who knows what the results would be?  Not too dissimilar from the existing studies I suspect.

I do not wish to associate myself with the tone of many of the article comments that glory in the stupidity of the experts and wine snobs alike, but I can see that they have a point.  A lot of the language used to describe wine is rather ridiculous.   Some is designed to elevate the status of the writer rather than to communicate, and other descriptions are simply invented to sell the wine.  Couple that with demonstrable expert reliability problems, and I can absolutely understand the substance of their complaints.

I think the premium end of the wine trade has a big problem in communicating to the general public, in the UK at least.  The answer is not for experts to get defensive about their abilities, and hurl criticism back to punters saying that they are stupid for continuing to buy cheap wine from their supermarkets and that they need to take courses to appreciate wine.  We really do need to move on from trading insults.  In my opinion, as evidenced by his recent book, Eric Asimov gets the tone just about right in his unassuming modesty and willingness to engage with the public.

Update: Just in case you are interested, here are another couple of responses to the article, from Fiona Beckett, Tim Atkin and Victoria Moore.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast and software engineer
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