Wine Expert? Nature, or Nurture?

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 … )

"Expert" judges prepare for the Sweepstakes Round at the International Eastern Wine Competition, held this month in Santa Rosa, Calif. Some of them even paid attention!

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.


About Dave McIntyre

Wine columnist for The Washington Post, co-founder of, and blogger at Dave McIntyre's WineLine (
This entry was posted in California, Eastern US, Weblogs, Wine and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Wine Expert? Nature, or Nurture?

  1. Well said. There is hope for me yet!

  2. Tom Wark says:

    It’s even more than that, Dave. The individual that dedicates themselves to the subject of wine not only has considerably more palate experience than the average drinker, they also gather more perspective, more historical knowledge, more understanding of the MEANING of a wine in in the context of history, in the current marketplace and in a cultural context. It’s no different than the student/critic of architecture, dance, film, music or literature.

  3. Sal Captain says:

    Very well said, you bring it home without the fluff, diversion or hair splitting arguments about so fine a detail that one ends up losing the point. Sorry Tom, I believe that 10,000 hours is needed to be an expert at something, but anything more than that is minutia, and that includes “more perspective, more historical knowledge, more understanding of the MEANING of a wine in the context of history, in the current marketplace and in a cultural context.”
    For years I preached at the medical device industry’s design guidlines to simplify and focus; results in much safer and more effective product. It is a process an engineer/scientist learns by education and experience (Nurture) assuming they have the fundamental (natural) attributes.
    Sal Captain

  4. gdfo says:

    Does a person love wine in general? They will pay attention to it regardless of genetics.
    Does a person love the aromas of food? They will remember them and be able to imagine the flavors with a wine, regardless of genetics. I think the key is Discrimination and Memory.
    Does genetics play a role? Of course it does. Why does it have to be either or?
    If you have an innate talent and develop it how much better for you.

  5. Pingback: Mythmaking and wine palates

Join the Discussion!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s