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The Influence of the Wine Critic

by Tom Cannavan, 01/00

This essay is the latest in an occasional series that takes a critical look at some aspect of the wine industry. Previous topics have included The Dumbing Down of Wine and Is Bordeaux Sexy? You will find these in the Wine Pages archives.
These thoughts are entirely my own, are possibly the most opinionated part of this site, and are all open to argument. There are already some excellent and thoughtful responses from visitors (link at bottom of page).
I'll publish any responses e-mailed to: tom@wine-pages.com
The Wine Essay
January 2000. Copyright Tom Cannavan

Wine Critics. What use are they? In a scientific lecture a speaker hands out squares of paper which have been soaked in a bitter chemical. During the presentation the audience are instructed to place these on their tongues. About quarter of the audience can taste nothing, half detect an unpleasant bitterness, the remaining quarter find the taste disgustingly bitter. This demonstrates a phenomenon first discovered in the 1930's: that individuals have genetic differences that determine their ability to taste bitter compounds. It seems we are divided into categories of 'supertasters' (with enhanced sensitivity), 'non-tasters' (with reduced sensitivity) and 'normal tasters'.

Whilst I've never really thought too much about the scientific reasons behind it, I have always accepted that this is the case: that different individuals have unique palates and react differently to flavours in wine - particularly tannins and acids. I have always believed that given any 20 tasters, each sipping exactly the same wine, you will get 20 different opinions of it. Each of these will be equally valid. On my wine appreciation courses the first lesson I teach - and one I reinforce continually - is that no-one is right and no-one is wrong when it comes to voicing an opinion on a wine. This is simply because no-one else is tasting the wine the way you are tasting the wine.

a world of taste

We each operate in our own "taste world". That world is formed by a combination of factors: there are the physical differences in taste sensitivity as proved in the experiment recounted above, but a whole range of factors to do with upbringing and culture play a part too. How vividly I remember my first experience of an olive at about the age of 14. The bitter, sickly flavour almost made me choke, yet I have since grown to enjoy the flavour. There's no doubt that appreciation of certain flavours is "learned", and the uniquely tannic, acidic elements of red wines are one example of tastes that are usually acquired rather than natural.

So given these unique taste worlds that we each inhabit, what is the point of taking the advice of a wine critic? If all taste worlds are different, how can anyone be "right" in stating that one wine is definitively better than another? How can we have any confidence that a wine recommended by a critic will suit our own, personal tastes? Another argument concerns the way critics taste wine: often 50 wines in quick-fire succession and in clinical conditions. We, on the other hand, will linger over a bottle, enjoying its subtleties with food and conversation.

So just how relevant can the tasting notes and ratings of any wine critic be? I would be the first person to caution against blind faith in wine critics, but I would also contend that there are very good reasons why critics, tasting panels and wine competitions are valid, necessary and provide an invaluable service to the wine lover.

why we need wine critics

We are brought up from babies being exposed to a variety of foods. Over the course of many thousands of meals we come to realise that we have certain likes and dislikes. We build a personal set of rules for what we consume based on these experiences. Like the olives, many of these tastes are acquired, but we have the time and opportunity to experiment and see which of these "problem" foods might grow on us.

Because we have formed such a clear set of opinions based on this experience, we react quite differently to food critics than to wine critics: just because the culinary equivalent of Robert Parker or Jancis Robinson tells us a liver recipe is the most fantastic thing they've ever eaten, we still might not touch it with a barge-pole if we know we detest liver. We have the confidence to stick by our own opinion, and the critic's glowing report is influential only within the context of our own experience.

For many people wine just isn't like that. They don't have the experience of thousands and thousands of bottles upon which to build a personal taste rule-book. Experience of a few hundred bottles is nothing - especially when many are consumed without analytical thought, but just to wash down a meal or lubricate a social occasion. Also, without some study and background knowledge, many wines - for example those that don't carry a varietal label - probably add nothing to the consumer's knowledge-base.

For most, wine is a luxury product too, so splashing out hard cash is an act of faith. Not many people have the time, money - or interest - to rigorously learn about wine through research and extensive tasting. Most are looking for "expert" guidance, perhaps by reading a newspaper column, or studying the results of a wine competition like the International Wine Challenge for example. And what do they get from these? From the former they get the opinion of one single palate which might well be in a different "taste world" from their own. From the latter, they get the aggregated experiences of a panel of tasters, which some might say is at best a compromise.

But for all their faults aren't both of these still invaluable tools for the wine lover? We've got to assume that Jancis Robinson writing her newspaper column can give an opinion that - although from her own "taste world" - is based on massive experience, is educated, is thoughtful, is fair, and is capable of selecting outstanding wines from a bunch of dull wines. Even a far more humble wine writer like me tastes through 40 or 50 "everyday" wines each week. I am perfectly confident that I can separate these into "poor", "average" and "good" categories. More importantly, my experience is that the vast majority of people - whatever their taste world - will agree by and large.

As for panels of tasters, well in some ways that result should be even more reliable surely? As long as the panel is made up of experienced tasters, then any faulty wines should be confidently rejected for a start (corked, oxidised, volatile). Beyond that, sorting wines into broad "poor", "ok", "better" and "best" categories should be quite possible. Having taken part in such tastings it is surprising that the disagreements between tasters are fewer than might be expected given the different taste worlds in which they must operate. Generally the ranking of wines sorts itself out quite efficiently, and arguments over specific wines are usually resolved by re-tasting and discussion. For the consumer it still may not be a perfect one-size-fits-all recipe for 100% agreement, but I think it is a pretty good yardstick for most people.

Blind faith in any wine critic is not a good thing. It does not encourage the wine drinker to learn and discover for themselves. In an ideal world people would taste and think about wine sufficiently deeply to form their own opinions. But since that isn't a natural process of our upbringing (like eating as we grow) it requires us to actively learn about wine: about varieties, countries, grapes, oak-aging, vintages, producers, etc, etc, etc. In order to choose confidently as we stand in front of the supermarket shelf we need knowledge. Since few of us have it, I for one feel quite happy that the various forms of independent wine advice available do a good job and are worth listening to - even if being beamed down from a different "taste world" to our own.

nurture verses nature

A final thought: say I ask two people to taste 100 wines and assess, rate and recommend the best half dozen for laying down over the next 20 years. Taster 1 is tee-totaller Joe Public who knows nothing about wine, but happens to occupy an exactly similar "taste world" to my own; taster 2 is a very highly experienced wine expert, who has a lifetime of experience in tasting and assessing wines, but who happens to be in a different "taste world" from my own. Whom would I rather trust if about to splash out my own hard-earned cash?

I know this is an extreme example, but it illustrates my point that training, concentration, diligence and - above all - experience are for me as important, if not more important, than physiological taste sensitivity or the conditions under which wines are tasted.

The good critic, given all the factors argued above, still has a role and still has value.