5/7/13 - how expert are wine experts?

In today's selection -- expertise in evaluating wines may be more elusive than wine experts would have us believe:

"Because it's hard for people to gauge quality by flavor, they tend to gauge it by price. That's a mistake. [Industry consultant Sue] Langstaff has evaluated wine professionally for twenty years. In her opinion, the difference between a $500 bottle of wine and one that costs $30 is largely hype. 'Wineries that sell their wines for $500 a bottle have the same problems as wineries that sell their wine for $10 a bottle. You can't make the statement that if it's low-cost it's not well made.' Most of the time, people don't even prefer the expensive bottle -- provided they can't see the label. Paul Wagner, a top wine judge and founding contributor to the industry blog Through the Bung-hole, plays a game with his wine-marketing classes at Napa Valley College. The students, most of whom have several years' experi­ence in the industry, are asked to rank six wines, their labels hid­den by -- a nice touch here -- brown paper bags. All are wines Wagner himself enjoys. At least one is under $10 and two are over $50. 'Over the past eighteen years, every time,' he told me, 'the least expensive wine averages the highest ranking, and the most expensive two finish at the bottom.' In 2011, a Gallo cabernet scored the highest average rating, and a Chateau Gruaud Larose (which retails from between $60 and $70) took the bottom slot.

"Unscrupulous vendors turn the situation to their advantage. In China, nouveau-riche status-seekers are spending small for­tunes on counterfeit Bordeaux. (from Mary Roach)

"Marc Dornan, of the Beverage Testing Institute, for instance, says to anyone who asks him that rating wines on a hundred-point scale, which is now common practice, is 'utterly pseudoscientific.' Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine, believes that most commentary about wines fails to take into account the biological individuality of consumers; he claims that he can predict what sort of wine appeals to you according to such factors as how heavily you salt your food and whether your mother suffered a lot from morning sickness while carrying you. Hanni has said for years that the matching of a particular wine with a particular food is a scam, there being 'absolutely no premise historically, culturally, or biologically for drinking red wine with meat.' As a way of illustrating the role played by anticipation in taste, Frédéric Brochet, who is a researcher with the enology faculty of the University of Bordeaux, recently asked some experts to describe two wines that appeared by their labels to be a distinguished grand-cru classe and a cheap table wine -- actually, Brochet had refilled both bottles with a third, mid-level wine -- and found his subjects mightily impressed by the supposed grand cru and dismissive of the same wine when it was in the vin ordinaire bottle.

"An urge to refute the notion of expertise certainly seemed to be reflected in the headline of an article from the Times of London about the research Brochet has been carrying on -- 'CHEEKY LITTLE TEST EXPOSES WINE 'EXPERTS' AS WEAK AND FLAT.' The headline caught the tone of the article, by Adam Sage, which began, 'Drinkers have long suspected it, but now French researchers have finally proved it: wine 'experts' know no more than the rest of us.' The test of Brochet's that caught my eye consisted partly of asking wine drinkers to describe what appeared to be a white wine and a red wine. They were in fact two glasses of the same white wine, one of which had been colored red with flavorless and odorless dye. The comments about the 'red' wine used what people in the trade call red-wine descriptors. 'It is a well known psychological phenomenon -- you taste what you're expecting to taste,' Brochet said in the Times. 'They were expecting to taste a red wine and so they did. . . . About two or three per cent of people detect the white wine flavour, but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine.' " (from Calvin Trillin)

author: Calvin Trillin
title: "The Red and the White"
publisher: The New Yorker
date: August 19, 2002


Mary Roach




W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2013 by Mary Roach. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company


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