Are some people better wine tasters than others? Undoubtedly. But does this gift spring from genetics or experience? This is a variation on the old debate of nature vs. nurture.
I vote for nurture. Sure, some people may be “supertasters” with an acute sensitivity to bitterness, sugar or heat, but does that mean they are inherently better wine tasters, wine experts? It would not surprise me in the least if Robert Parker is a “supertaster,” given that he can glean all those gobs of flavors from a single sip, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if his success was a result of hard work and mental discipline.
I’m of Scottish ancestry, but that doesn’t make me an expert on distinguishing the flavors of peat in an Islay as opposed to a Highlands single malt. (It may predispose me to continue trying to distinguish them … )
So I was bemused a couple weeks ago at news reports of a study out of Penn State, published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, that concluded that “wine experts” are much more sensitive tasters than most people. Researcher John Hayes evaluated hundreds of wine drinkers and found that experts – wine writers, winemakers and wine retailers – were about 40 percent more sensitive to bitterness than average wine consumers. His conclusion was that we “experts” are born that way.
I don’t like studies of this type because they reinforce the image of wine for the elites.
As I told Allison Aubrey of NPR News, I’m skeptical at any theory that assumes my genetic superiority to the rest of you. “There may be some people who are gifted tasters, but I think it’s mostly experience,” I told her. “If as a wine writer I’m an ‘expert,’ it’s because I’ve taken the time and made the effort to taste more wines than most people have. Taste enough Cabernet Sauvignon and you’ll learn to tell it from merlot, IF you pay attention. And I suspect that anyone who does that might become more sensitive to bitterness.”
The key words there are “IF you pay attention.” People often tell me, “I had a great wine the other night!” When I ask what wine, they hem and haw and say, “Umm, it had a green label.” I can’t help those people. Even if someone wants to spend only $5 to $10 on a bottle, paying attention helps distinguish the plonk from the gems – and yes, there are gems in that price range.
By paying attention to what I was tasting as I became increasingly obsessed with wine, I not only began to distinguish wines I liked from those I didn’t, but I could explain why. By paying attention to the flavors in wine, I not only began to appreciate the subtle nuances that can be so expensive (and drove my price tolerance level skyward), but I began to notice flavors and aromas in nature around me. Jasmine flowers? Viognier. Wet stones after a spring rain? Chablis. A barnyard pile of manure? Well, any number of faulty wines.
I can walk through the woods in autumn, kicking up leaves and pine needles, and think of pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast. An old leather-bound book will have me salivating for cabernet franc from the Loire Valley. When I bite into a ripe peach or apricot, I’m swimming in Riesling.
In this way, my love of wine nurtures my appreciation for nature.