New wine research is blurring the efficacy of highly detailed wine reviews authored by wine writers and critics. Besides a case for the favored consumer engagement writers can create by formulaically humanizing wines made here last week, now there is further scientific evidence that consumers do not relate to the acute level of flavor specificity critics are capable of detecting and then writing about in vivid detail. Test results generated by Dr. John E. Hayes and Gary J. Pickering and recently published in the American Journal for Enology and Viticulture proved that while:
“Taste phenotypes have been studied in relation to alcohol intake, dependence, and family history, with contradictory findings…on balance—with appropriate caveats about populations tested, outcomes measured, and psychophysical methods used—an association between variation in taste responsiveness…is supported.”
The test results build on earlier research proving some chefs and foodies hold genetically imbued “super taster” abilities that can result in acute sensitivity to bitterness. Setting out to understand whether taste sensitivity had any relationship to food adventurousness, Hayes and Pickering administered the bitter tasting drug propylthiouracil (these guys weren’t playing around, this drug has some really serious side effects) to a group of wine critics, sommeliers, and other wine experts as well as to a control group of non expert consumers.
While interviews about willingness for trying new foods offered no linkage to the ability to detect the bitterness in the drug, the results did show that “mean PROP bitterness was higher among wine experts than wine consumers, and the conditional distribution functions differed between experts and consumers.” The researchers concluded that the “data suggest individuals may self-select for specific professions [wine critic, sommelier, etc.] based on sensory ability, but phenotype does not explain willingness to try new [food] stimuli.”
So back to the point; if wine critics can taste things their readers can not, why write about them? Was Eric Asimov onto something this past summer when he suggested wine bloggers should do themselves and their readers a favor by not writing descriptive wine reviews for six months? Are they boring, or even frustrating and demeaning, to consumers who drink and wonder if the critic had it right or if they themselves are simply unable to detect the same flavor detail of a wine?
A remedial suggestion is that while the specificity of an individual wine review may not translate equally to all consumers, the entire body of that reviewer’s work can. Following a critic or writer for an extended period can provide enough consistent language and orientation to let consumers know whether or not they will like a wine being reviewed, despite doubts over flavor alignment. Purchasing wines recommended by writers with reliable track records for connecting you with wines that are enjoyable is the first step to making sense of any writer’s genetically advantaged notes.
Personally, the fact a critic expresses detection of minerals, black cherry, banana, or leesy flavors has little bearing on whether I am inclined to try the wine myself. Still, wine critics are anything but useless to consumers. If I trust the writer after following them over time and have bought the wines they suggested with success, then I can begin to understand what they mean when they describe the style of most wines and develop an educated view on whether they are candidates for my own cellar.
In the end, it is all about drinking what you like and using critics as opinion leaders; not flavor specifiers. The new research makes a legitimate case that good wine professionals can be consistent in their detection of unique flavors and styles. Latching on to critics that prove alignment with your personal style preference is a legitimate way for consumers to lean on the genetic advantages of self selecting wine professionals without any concern for failures in identical flavor detection.