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Are wine tasters idiots?

5 Jun 2014 by Alex Hunt MW

Today's Throwback Thursday offering is one of Alex Hunt MW's bi-monthly columns, first published on 5 December 2013. They are so well written and provocative that it was hard to decide which one to share. This was prompted by then-current news stories in which wine enthusiasts were ridiculed. Plus ça change.

For incisive satire on the art world, my go-to source is Calvin & Hobbes. This brilliant comic strip features an impishly precocious six-year-old boy, Calvin, and his astute stuffed tiger, Hobbes. Modern art and art criticism were recurring targets of the strip's humour during its 10-year run, and a particular favourite goes as follows.

Calvin is seen contemplating various images.
Calvin: 'A painting. Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime. ... "High" art!
...
The comic strip. Vapid. Juvenile. Commercial hack work. ... "Low" art.
...
A painting of a comic strip panel. Sophisticated irony. Philosophically challenging. ... "High" art.'
Hobbes: 'Suppose I draw a cartoon of a painting of a comic strip?'
Calvin: 'Sophomoric. Intellectually sterile. ... "Low" art.'

I love the sneering tone of the punchline, I love the playful self-reference, and I love the fact that this particular (vapid, juvenile) comic strip contains a profound truth: that we have an instinctive tendency to separate aesthetic things into two tiers.

With a certain pleasing symmetry, the binary mindset operates from both 'high' and 'low' viewpoints. It is not just a framework from within which the sophisticate can scoff at plonk; spokespeople for the 'ordinary consumer', whatever that is, are just as likely to conjure up some highbrow target and then try to shoot it down. It seems we retain a lingering fascination for, and antipathy towards, the 'other'.

In the last few months I've come across a handful of opinions that apply this dogmatically simple caste system to wine. Here are some examples:

1. The Popularity Contest
In which cheap wine is pitted against expensive wine in a blind taste test for consumers. Cheap wine wins.
There was a flurry of excitement in the UK press last month when a £4.99 Australian Chardonnay was preferred over a £19.99 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru by 80% of consumers polled at London Wine Academy courses. The LWA gets brownie points for gathering 20,000 responses, then loses them again for including only these two wines, making it impossible to draw any conclusions. (The survey presumably took place over quite some time, too, since the Aussie in question seems since to have changed its name and gone up to £7.49.)

Never mind. The LWA used the result to show that consumers need education before they can appreciate better wine, although the national press, with commendable balance, pointed out that consumers might prefer to stick with nicer-tasting, cheaper wine, thanks all the same. In the lowbrow vs highbrow match, this looks frustratingly like a draw.

But then I stumbled across The Wine Trials by Robin Goldstein. This book presents '100 everyday wines under $15 that beat $50 to $150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings'. I'm not sure how 'brown-bag blind tastings' differ from 'blind tastings', but over 500 brave volunteers subjected themselves to the process. 'Hide the label, and the truth comes out', promises the back cover - the truth being, for example, that American consumers prefer Domaine Ste Michelle Brut from Washington over Dom Pérignon, and Beringer's entry-level Cabernet to the top of the range.

Mr Goldstein does admit that 'the wine experts among our tasters didn't dislike the expensive wines in the way that everyday wine drinkers did; they liked more expensive wines as much, or even a bit more, than cheaper wines'. He also has the wit to ask 'does this mean that the $12 Domaine Ste Michelle is objectively better than the $150 bottle of Dom?' and conclude 'probably not'. He continues, though, that 'the vast majority of wine consumers are everyday wine drinkers, not experts', and hence might be wasting their money on expensive wine. Lowbrow 1, highbrow 0?

2. The Study That Discredits Experts
In which some science is done proving beyond all doubt that wine experts can't taste for toffee. Newspapers then report it with barely disguised glee.
Note how, in the quote from The Wine Trials above, there are two kinds of wine consumers: 'everyday wine drinkers' and 'experts'. This is the second dimension of the 'other': not only are cheap wines pitted against expensive, but the uninitiated against the experienced. It implies that experts are categorically different from other people, as opposed to being normal drinkers who happened to take an extra interest over a sustained period of time and thus gradually acquired expertise.

In braver moments, I read articles about these 'wine experts' in the newspapers. I get the impression that, on the scale of public opinion that goes from doctor (hero) to double-glazing salesman (scum), the wine professional languishes in the lower half of the league. The phrase 'Emperor's New Clothes' crops up a fair bit. The suspicion lingers that it's all smoke and mirrors; that there is no real difference in quality between Bonnes-Mares and Blossom Hill; that only I claim to taste the disparity, and I would say that, wouldn't I?

It isn't just jealous carping, either, because people have done science to prove it. For example, in 2001, Frédéric Brochet et al famously offered tasters two glasses of the same white wine, one of which had been dyed red. The tasters used different terms to describe each glass, finding red-fruit aromas in the dyed white wine. Robert Hodgson, winemaker and retired oceanographer, has a done a very interesting study, published in 2009, showing that there is no demonstrable agreement between different wine competitions' results: a gold medal winner is as likely to win no medal in another show as it is to pick up gold again.

Perfectly decent, limited academic studies like these are periodically seized upon as if proof of what we all know deep down - that wine tasting is pretentious nonsense. The two papers above are cited, among others, in an Observer article entitled 'Wine-tasting: it's junk science'. And here's the Daily Mail's typically well-reasoned summary of Hodgson (2009): 'With their snooty mannerisms and pompous long-winded descriptions, wine snobs have long been regarded as tedious, insufferable bores. And now what many have suspected all along has finally been confirmed; most of them are faking it too.' The comments below the articles are telling, too. Do have a look - though you'll need a stiff drink afterwards.

What I find so strange is the underlying assumption that wine criticism should be a scientific, repeatable process. I have not seen the same sort of expectations applied to art, film or music critics. Wine experts, it feels, are far more likely to be demonised as the 'other', when in fact we have far more rigorous tests of identification and knowledge. The type of tasting exams many of us have passed are, I submit, unflukeable.

3. The Experts Fight Back
In which wine writers come up with a definition of 'plonk', and then lambast it. Much hand-wringing ensues.
The flak can fly the other way too. A critic might turn the spotlight on a method, a style, or a particular wine, then chuck some mud at it. Tim Atkin is fun for this. Possibly tiring of his 'none-too-subtle, one-man campaign' against Pinot Grigio, he recently slammed sweetened-up wines such as Tesco Cuvée Prestige Vin de France (12 g/l) and Gallo's Apothic (16 g/l) - 'undrinkable'.

Cue much debate on Twitter, with fellow wine writer Robert Joseph taking the view that we 'rubbish [sweeter red wines] on principle at [our] peril', while Atkin sees it as the duty of the critic to highlight what he or she sees as poor quality. Jamie Goode offers a very balanced appreciation of Apothic in this wine tasting selfie, but is not above creating an 'other' himself: in his recent, deliberately provocative wine manifesto, Goode divides wine into authentic - 'rooted in a place and time' - and inauthentic. This has been well debated on Twitter, too.

This depiction of an 'other', this division of wines or people into two kinds, gives the impression of simplifying matters, but this is far from true. The result is more 'divide and confuse' than 'divide and conquer'. All these factors - price, popularity, expertise, quality, authenticity - operate on continuums. They are not necessarily interlinked: popularity does not entail quality. The first of Grayson Perry's 2013 Reith lectures was cheekily entitled 'Democracy has Bad Taste'. But this is not a new idea. It was well expressed by Hume in Of The Standard of Taste:

'Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Teneriffe [sic], or a pond as extensive as the ocean. Though there may be found persons, who give the preference to the former authors; no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd and ridiculous.'

This point is picked up by Eric Asimov in his discussion of The Wine Trials:

'since when is popularity an indication of quality? Let's take those 500 people and analyze movies. If forced to sit through, say, both "Porky's'' and Ingmar Bergman's "Persona,'' most people would probably prefer "Porky's.'' Does that make "Porky's'' the better movie, the greater artistic achievement? Most likely, the vote would be an accurate gauge of commercial prospects, but of little else.'

Here is the heart of it: people do not always want to drink 'good' wine, where 'good' is defined in this sense of 'aesthetically superior'. The better wine might not be as pleasing, if purely hedonistic pleasure is the goal. For wine is unlike the arts, in that its first job is to appeal to the senses. An ugly painting, an unsettling film, a discordant piece of music can all be great, but an unpleasant wine necessarily cannot.

Our aesthetic notions of quality only come into play when people want to have a discussion about a wine. For many people this would be anathema. 'I know what I like' is shorthand for 'shut up and leave me alone'. On the other hand, it is only worth paying the premiums for better wines if they appeal to the intellect as well as the senses - if they are to be treated as aesthetic objects as well as pleasing drinks.

This is what hooks us. To provide simultaneous sensual and cerebral pleasure is wine's great attraction, and its great triumph. This drinker often finds that the best, most pleasurable wines in a line-up are those that inspire the longest tasting note. It is the only reason, really, why Bonnes-Mares is objectively better than Blossom Hill: because it gives those of us who have opted in so much more to say.

Tags:  tasting
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