Rating wines: It’s not just taste
Ryan Summerlin May 27, 2012
Editor’s note: This column is the second part of a two-part series on wine ratings. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first column. When I closed last week, I had just finished discussing three prominent wine guides – Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and Gambero Rosso – and one new to the scene but quickly gaining respectability, Slow Wine. The scores the first three publications produce are objective. How they are determined is a largely subjective process that is reliant not only on wine knowledge but on a complex process of the critic’s mind and body interpreting the flavors. Even vaunted wine critic Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, admitted, “Wine criticism, more than any other forms, relies almost entirely on perceived – and largely unprovable – credibility.”Some studies even claim background music can impact how a wine is perceived. Could a wine critic’s choice of background music, if any, influence a rating? Perhaps. The next step in my discussion of wine ratings is to take a brief look at the biology and psychology of flavor experiences. Unfortunately, as I quickly learned, there is nothing “brief” about the science of taste and smell. Given that the multibillion-dollar food and wine industries depend upon the gustatory pleasures of their products, there is a plethora of research on the subject. The flavor experience is a combination of taste, smell, expectation and perception. Accordingly, experts from a broad range of disciplines study it: neurobiology, psychology and psychophysiology, to name a few. So in admitting I am no expert on the subject of flavor experiences, I offer my distillation of the subject that will hopefully tempt you to Google further. I have posted some interesting links on my Facebook page noted below.
Enology expert Jordan Ross, of yourloveofwine.com, defines wine tasting as the “sensory examination and evaluation of wine.” The gustatory system, our sensory system, is responsible for introducing wine flavors to the brain. Gustation, the act of tasting, is the first step in a long, complicated neurobiological and psychophysiological pathway to the final step of distinguishing flavors and quality. Long before the Food & Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and a bevy of governmental agencies charged with food safety, the gustatory system evolved to help humans distinguish between safe and harmful foods. Now it is routinely manipulated by the food and wine industries to insure we find certain flavors pleasurable. But for wine-tasting prowess, taste is only part of the equation. The flavor experience relies on taste (gustation) and smell (olfactory) plus purely subjective components, expectation and perception. Smells are only described through our memories relating a concept to a certain smell. Thus, to be able to critique wines, one must have not only a discriminating palate that can identify a multitude of different flavors on the tongue but also exceptional olfactory capabilities and a memory bank full of experiences to aid the brain in processing signals given it from the nose and mouth. The final step, perception of flavor, is known as the hedonic (pleasure) perception response. The above is only a snippet of the wealth of information available on the science behind wine ratings. Leonard Mldoninow’s Nov. 20, 2009, Wall Street Journal article “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion” set the blogosphere and supporters of the rating system alight picking apart and expanding on his discussion of studies that questioned the usefulness of wine competition judging results. In one such study, retired professor, wine judge and winery proprietor Robert Hodgson conducted a survey of 65 judging panels at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition between 2005 and 2008. Hodgson was out to prove there were inconsistencies in the judging of identical wines. And prove he did. Not surprisingly, his results came under fire from the wine-competition community. The results showed that of the 65 panels, only 30 judged the same wines anywhere close to each other. The disparity in results was so stark that in one trial where a wine was given in triplicate samples, the first two were rejected by three of the four judges but the third went on to the final competition and was awarded a double-gold medal. Given those results and other studies showing similar inconsistencies in judging, can it not be said that wine rating is subjective and can lead to different scores for the same wines?
I didn’t believe I could endorse the Slow Wine guide if I didn’t read it. So I ordered a copy and happily poured over it. The depth of information about each winery and the wines they tasted goes “well beyond the glass,” as the guide’s editor-in-chief, Fabio Giovedoni, promised. Slow Wine’s approach of including information on the organoleptic (sensory) qualities of a wine and the producer’s dedication to eco-gastronomy – the connection between glass and planet – makes it a useful tool in exploring new wineries. Although I would like to see more wineries included, I know winemakers are pleased to see such an effort being made to convey more useful – and fair – information to consumers. Through this entire discussion, I left out a great source of advice for wine purchases: trusted sommeliers, wine buyers and wine merchants. One of my favorite restauratuers and wine experts in the valley, Giuseppe Bosco, co-owner and general manager of Zino Ristorante in Edwards, gave me his take on choosing the wines that comprise his excellent list of diverse and well-priced Italian and American wines. Bosco’s philosophy is that simple is good, price is not an indicator of fine quality and that small, boutique wineries – not cults – should be trusted. That is not to say the large producers are to be ignored, only that small and unknown wines can be extremely good choices. So where does this take us? Since higher scores allow winemakers and merchants to demand higher prices, the usefulness of this arguably flawed system needs to be reexamined. Despite what executive editors might think of criticism of their rating systems, I am far from the first to question the incredible – and undeserved – power these publications have over the fate of wineries. There are too many extraneous influences, too much variation in scores for the same wines and too little science to prove that ratings should command such respect. It’s not that I have any issues with the ratings being given to wines I like or previously imported – although all of those wineries have been highly rated – it’s that I believe there is so much great wine out there that gets passed over because of bad or absent numerical scores. In the end, it’s all about exploration. Wine is not something we drink for sustenance, although many of us might like to think so. Its consumption should be an experience, from buying it to pairing it with your favorite foods and taking that first – and last – sip. Our wine cellar is a scrapbook of the trips and dinners where we discovered the wines. Given there are some great values out there, don’t be afraid of leaving your iPhone off next time you’re making a purchase. Wine scores can guide you on the general quality of a wine, but trust your own instincts, not a wine rating app, as the final determinant of your choice.Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets.