Should wine ratings be meaningless? (3 Comments)
A recent study was published by the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture called “Wine Expertise Predicts Taste Phenotype,” but credit goes to HealthDay for catching an interesting extrapolation of the data and posting it to Yahoo News here. They aren’t making the case that consumers don’t care about ratings, because, as we all know, they do… in some cases religiously. They do contend though that consumers shouldn’t care about ratings for one simple reason: their palates are not as highly trained and/or evolved as the wine critics’ are.
The study used a probe compound that would be easily detected as very bitter by people with sensitive palates while those with average palates would only detect slight bitterness, if anything at all. Out of 330 people tested at wine tasting events, only 111 participants detected the compound. All participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire to declare if they were an expert or not. They concluded that experts were much more likely to detect the compound and as such, expert recommendations may be based on tastes that are too subtle for the average person to notice.
They are careful to note that while the difference between an expert and the average consumer may have something to do with experience and education, previous research has shown that biological factors may explain the very sensitive taste of experts. In that case, if you are an average consumer, don’t hold out hope for becoming an expert taster. John Hayes, assistant professor of food science and director of the sensory evaluation center at Penn State says “If an expert’s ability to taste is different then the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”
I agree… sort of. In a perfect world, we should not care what reviewers say. I do agree that everybody actually does have different palates… it is the WHY that it up for debate. I like to hold onto the contention that the biggest factors in “palate awareness” are experience, education and training, not physiology. This view allows me to believe that there is room for anyone and everyone in the land of wine appreciation. It might be exposed as inaccurate someday, but for now, there is no fun in thinking that someone’s enjoyment of wine could be limited by their biology.
I do not personally pay attention to ratings and reviews when it comes to choosing what to spend my own money on. However, I understand that I have a lot more experience and knowledge at my fingertips to help with my judgment then some folks do. For some, ratings and reviews can be a comfortable place to get started and I would rather someone have a comfortable starting place then feel lost in a metaphorical (and literal) ocean of vino. In short time, most people will learn to take what a review says about a wine with a grain of salt, if not ignore it altogether anyway. Just remember, at the end of the day, the only persons palate that matters is YOURS. If you like a wine that scored low, stand proud. If you don’t like a wine that was reviewed well, don’t be afraid to speak your mind… you’re not “wrong.” There is no wrong or right when it comes to personal taste.
So, where do you start when you are deciding what to buy? Easy. The one thing a wine reviewer can’t ever say to you specifically is… “Yes, you will like this wine.” Why? Because they don’t know a damn thing about your individual palate. Go talk to a wine professional at a reputable wine retailer. Be ready to articulate what you like and just as importantly, what you don’t like… and then trust when they say you’ll like something… repeat after me: “ignore the score.” A wine reviewer cannot and will not ever take the time to learn about your likes and dislikes and personally recommend wines just for you…. some who you can actually converse with… CAN. The more time you spend developing trust with a retailer and the more feedback you can give… the more rewarding your drinking experiences will be. With just a morsel of info from you, they will be able to recommend wines that your palate will be able to understand, appreciate and enjoy. Just imagine what they can do for you when they have a deeper understanding of your preferences?
Do I think that things will change and move away from a marketplace controlled by the critics? Yes. Do I think that is a good thing? Yes. Do I think it will be anytime soon? Surprisingly, yes again. It is going to be a very exciting time to be in the wine industry but my thoughts on that and my other reasons for being anti-critic are best left for a different post. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How much weight do you give to reviews and ratings? Why? Do you trust the “experts” over your own instincts, or the recommendations of people you know personally?