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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 03/14/2012

Sniff test: Experts develop their skills over many bottles


Wine experts are not born with a silver palate. They develop their tasting skills with years of study and observation. (Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)
Are some people better wine tasters than others? Undoubtedly. But does this gift spring from genetics or experience? The question is just another variation on the old nature vs. nurture debate, this one based in a glass.

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 or even 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,0 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 “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 such as this because they reinforce the image of wine for elites.

As I told Allison Aubrey of NPR, I’m skeptical of any theory that assumes my genetic superiority. “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 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 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 began not only to appreciate their subtle nuances (which, in turn, drove my price tolerance level skyward), but also 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.

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 03/14/2012

Categories:  Wine | Tags:  Dave McIntyre

 
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