Andrew Polmear

Wine tasting – is it a con?

Every now and then this question is raised by a perfectly reasonable wine-writer, the evidence is perused and the uncomfortable conclusion, that the answer is nearer yes than no, is quietly shelved. The latest episode in this uncomfortable debate was outlined by David Derbyshire in The Observer June 23 2013. He describes the experience of a Californian winemaker, Robert Hodgson, who for years has entered his wines in various competitions around the State. He felt that awards were distributed at random rather than according to excellence. To test this he persuaded the organisers of one competition to let him present three glasses from the same bottle to the judges, mixed in amongst the 30 being tasted. He found that only 10% of judges who gave an award to one glass also gave it to another identical glass. Another 10% who gave one glass an award would give another identical glass an award but not at the same level (gold/silver/bronze). The other 80% showed no consistency.

It’s not just the experts who seem unable to tell good from ordinary. At the 2011 Edinburgh International Science Festival, 578 visitors were given two glasses of wine and were told that one was cheap, the other expensive (which was true). They had to say which was which. Overall, the results were no better than if they had flipped a coin.

Outraged commentators, of course, replied to Derbyshire’s article, saying that these results do not tally with the experience of those who love wine and are prepared to pay more than £10 a bottle (the definition of expensive in the Edinburgh study). Can The Whistler lay this debate to rest once and for all? Here goes.

There are practical points to make about all such studies. Firstly, the Californian judges were tasting 30 bottles at a sitting. This is an experience far removed from enjoying a bottle on its own. The taste of every glass depends on what you have already tasted. In a way I’m impressed that 20% showed the consistency that they did! Secondly, the expensive bottle of claret in the Edinburgh study was too young. Many people would find it hard and raw and would be right to rate the cheap bottle of generic Bordeaux higher.

Wine tasting cartoonMore importantly, statistical averages can hide the performance of individuals within a large group. I bet there were wine lovers in the Edinburgh group who could tell the difference between the two bottles. Which brings me back to the point I have made in a previous article: wine tasting takes practice. Never drink a wine without making yourself describe it and, if possible, write it down. Then check that against what you think next time you drink it. You will soon come to know whether you can detect quality or not. As for the experts, perhaps some quality control would be a good idea. If surgeons have to publish their results perhaps wine critics should too.

A final point: don’t confuse being able to detect quality with the party trick of being able to guess origin (the “Ah, Lafite ’53” trick). Some people have that skill, and others pretend to have it and cheat, but it’s not necessary for the enjoyment of wine.

Andrew Polmear

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