Food Science – Professional palates are terrible at judging wine



I’m wondering if it might also be a bit tied to something else. That many, or at lest some, people are condemned with one too many sp2 receptors, have access to distinguishable, various flavors or gradients of bitterness as a contrasting element early enough (in childhood,) and subsequently develop tendencies to be discriminatory, maybe even fanatical, about flavor – in wine (with relatively more tastent vs odorant derived flavor perception, the latter in a wine tasting competition potentially leading to more error) and/or food is pretty clear. (I’m not sure, but anecdotally…I wonder if that comparative excess of receptors relatively frequently extends downstream, so to speak, leading to, ah, sensitivity – ‘add water and flush’, – and maybe over time an increased possibility of developing some somewhat problematic conditions.) 

   Anyone can learn and appreciate but without those conditions…consistency, already nearly impossible in the typical context of wine tasting competitions with a bizzilion wines out of context, is unlikely. I suppose flavor perception might be comparable metaphorically to perfect pitch. Money can’t buy it. But as it seems to be increasingly evident, the notion of removal from context of sensory inputs, of sort of absolute qualia, probably isn’t usually descriptively useful. Maybe ever. Perception, integration and response seem to occur on many levels, use parallel pathways, and therefor per force are contextually influenced. Plus, well, this anglo-saxon notion of absolute point scores and our increasing use of uncouth symbolic representations of wealth…don’t change the fact that a cheap, disdained bottle of acidic, cherry-ish fast-fermented novello is the perfect fermented drinking sauce to accompany a paper roll full of steaming hot roasted chestnuts – and together they make a complex, culinary whiz. You need neither expertise nor wealth to enjoy that. (It might be, of late, better to have neither.)

   Anyone can learn and enjoy the learning. I have a cousin with a big encyclopedic mind that has done that, learning techniques, vineyards, soil composition, ecc. But in the blind tests he takes with his wife (who is a natural,) she always does better. If you taste, say, three or four similar wines or different vintages of the same vineyard and grape, I’m pretty sure most people will show improvement distinguishing and identification of odor compounds. But get to 8 or nine… the accumulation causes confounding, even more so out of context. The problem with people with more intrinsic, ‘natural’ tendencies to flavor (as in part of their developed motivation, their nature,) is sort of the opposite: the small tendency to too easily tend to fewer, rounder, deeper flavors depending on their previous exposure, so for some if a wine isn’t barriqued…or similar, it better have all the bells and whistles, so to speak, to be considered worthwhile.

Article clip from the Guardian:

Every year Robert Hodgson selects the finest wines from his small California winery and puts them into competitions around the state.

And in most years, the results are surprisingly inconsistent: some whites rated as gold medallists in one contest do badly in another. Reds adored by some panels are dismissed by others. Over the decades Hodgson, a softly spoken retired oceanographer, became curious. Judging wines is by its nature subjective, but the awards appeared to be handed out at random.

So drawing on his background in statistics, Hodgson approached the organisers of the California State Fair wine competition, the oldest contest of its kind in North America, and proposed an experiment for their annual June tasting sessions.

Each panel of four judges would be presented with their usual “flight” of samples to sniff, sip and slurp. But some wines would be presented to the panel three times, poured from the same bottle each time. The results would be compiled and analysed to see whether wine testing really is scientific.

The first experiment took place in 2005. The last was in Sacramento earlier this month. Hodgson’s findings have stunned the wine industry. Over the years he has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine.

“The results are disturbing,” says Hodgson from the Fieldbrook Winery in Humboldt County, described by its owner as a rural paradise. “Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year.

“Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win.”

These judges are not amateurs either. They read like a who’s who of the American wine industry from winemakers, sommeliers, critics and buyers to wine consultants and academics. In Hodgson’s tests, judges rated wines on a scale running from 50 to 100. In practice, most wines scored in the 70s, 80s and low 90s.

Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge’s scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94.

Some of the judges were far worse, others better – with around one in 10 varying their scores by just plus or minus two. A few points may not sound much but it is enough to swing a contest – and gold medals are worth a significant amount in extra sales for wineries.

Hodgson went on to analyse the results of wine competitions across California, and found that their medals were distributed at random.

“I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability,” he says. “We have won our fair share of gold medals but now I have to say we were lucky.”

Wine critic Robert Parker
 Robert Parker, above is the world’s leading wine critic and his score is key to determining the price of a new vintage. But Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist, invented a simple mathematical formula based on weather data to predict the price of vintages, which mimicked the predictions of Parker’s system. Photograph: Shahar Azran/WireImage

His studies have irritated many figures in the industry. “They say I’m full of bullshit but that’s OK. I’m proud of what I do. It’s part of my academic background to find the truth.”

Hodgson isn’t alone in questioning the science of wine-tasting. French academic Frédéric Brochet tested the effect of labels in 2001. He presented the same Bordeaux superior wine to 57 volunteers a week apart and in two different bottles – one for a table wine, the other for a grand cru.

The tasters were fooled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tonno Bisaccio © Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.
Translate »