News: Study shows Emperor actually wearing clothes

The recent study Wine Expertise Predicts Taste Phenotype has concluded that wine experts taste differently to the rest of us (or the rest of you, depending on how much credit you want to extend to me).  That is to put the study at its very highest.  It actually concluded that people falling within the experiment’s definition of expert were more likely to be more sensitive to a particular bitter taste.  That still leaves plenty of room for overlap between experts and consumers.  It also leaves open the extent to which the particular bitter taste in question extrapolates to the whole field of flavours that people perceive in wine.

The inference sought to be drawn, or at least suggested by some more sensationalist reports, is that wine columnists’ recommendations may therefore be useless to the majority of the population.  Experts get “gooseberries with a hint of elderflower”, consumers just get “mm, winey”.

Unsurprisingly, I am writing in defence of the wine experts.

First, we might pause to ask whether any other form of criticism would have been subject to this sort of resentful reportage.  The difference between critics’ and consumers’ taste is divergent in all disciplines but critics in other fields do not draw the same level of vitriol as this study has generated.  Might we not expect the literary editor to have a bit more to offer on Ulysses than it was “hard to follow”?  Or the music editor to say more than a new album “sounds nice”?  In other disciplines we expect experts to be, well, expert in their field.  A bit surprising isn’t it that wine critics should become objects of derision for writing in a style that reflects their expertise?

But let us assume that there is a physiological difference in play here with the consequence suggested by people who haven’t actually read the study, i.e. there is an irreconcilable schism between critic taste perception and consumer taste perception.  If that is so then the question at large is whether one can be trained to develop one’s palate to have this heightened sensitivity (or just to have a “better” palate).  I think you can, not on any scientific basis, but simply because I’ve done it myself.  I used not to know what Riesling, say, smelled or tasted like, or how to describe it.  Now I do.  It takes perseverance.  If you’re not interested, fine, but it’s fair to think that wine writers might well write for an audience that has a modicum of interest in the subject matter, and is therefore prepared to develop their understanding on the basis of experts’ recommendations.  What’s wrong with that?

But even if you can’t, then embrace it.  Can’t tell the difference between Chateau Lafite and Chateau Cardboard?  Lucky you.  You’ll save a lot of money and never be disappointed.

Finally, it’s a bit of a facile view of wine writing to portray it all as lofty descriptions of inaccessible wines.  Wine columns might focus on a particular region, or style of wine, or perhaps what wines go with what foods, and so on.  These topics don’t necessarily rely on having a sophisticated palate.

As a last thought, I’d be interested to see what the headline would have been if the study had shown that expert and consumer palates were not different.  No doubt “Wine ‘experts’ no better at tasting than consumers” followed by the usual range of reverse snobbish vituperation.  Plus ça change…

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