Oenophiles have their ups and downs

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote about mistaking a Bordeaux for a Burgundy. It was by British wine merchant and writer Harry Waugh, not British novelist Evelyn Waugh. This version has been corrected.

Columnist May 28, 2013

In my May 15 column, I described new research showing that Brettanomyces, a yeast traditionally considered a spoilage agent in wine, might actually contribute positive flavors that have traditionally been attributed to terroir. It pleased a reader who commented during the Food section’s online discussion that day.

“I’d read a study some years ago . . . that had shown in a double-blind test that even expert oenophiles couldn’t distinguish terroir better than pure chance,” the reader wrote.  “It has always seemed strange to me that people thought fairly minor differences in soil would show up as distinct flavors in wine anyway; roots work on osmosis, and only the water-soluble elements should be affected.”

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

That comment resonated on two levels. First, there’s a misconception that “terroir” means we can taste the soil in the wine. Wine should not taste dirty. Terroir has no set definition: It refers to the effect of soil, climate and the particular vintage conditions on the final product in the glass. The soil in the vineyard certainly does make a difference in the grapes. They may be concentrated if the soil drains water away from the roots and restricts vigor in the vine, or they may taste vegetal and diluted if the soil collects rain and channels it into the vine, swelling the grapes and weakening their flavor. We taste the soil’s influence on the wine, not the soil itself.

The second theory implicit here is that wine appreciation is nonsense. I don’t know which study showed that “oenophiles couldn’t distinguish terroir better than pure chance,” but any number of dissertations have been written on the premise that wine lovers are idiots: We cannot tell a red wine from a white when the color is disguised. Pour cheap plonk into an expensive wine’s bottle, and we’ll rave about it. Give us four wines to taste, then change the order, and we’ll give you wildly different evaluations. 

So what?

Such “proof” that wine tasting is subjective fueled a vituperative Internet post entitled “Wine Tasting is [Nonsense]: Here’s Why” that recently went viral. The writer cited one shocking finding — that people might like a wine more (as in, give it a higher “score”) when they’re in a good mood than when they’re angry or stressed — as evidence that wine lovers don’t know what they’re talking about. Forget the experts, he wrote. “Just have a beer — it’s unequivocally better anyway.”

Judging by the number of readers who “liked” the article, he’s not alone. (Likes are the scrip of the social media age, legal tender for half-baked ideas and the modern substitute for reasoned discourse.) In fact, the snarky post demonstrated the author’s insecurity more than it did any fallacy of wine appreciation. Wine’s variety — the grapes, the vineyards, the vintages — makes it fascinating to people willing to invest the time, effort and expense to explore it. Wine also is intimidating to those who pursue other hobbies. 

I don’t understand why so many people are scared of wine and bothered by those who invest time and money in its enjoyment. Sure, I might have successfully identified a Spanish garnacha in an oenophilic parlor game, but that doesn’t diminish your accomplishment in knitting a sweater, stroking a hole in one or changing the brake pads on your ’67 Impala.

After all, it’s not rocket science. The British writer Harry Waugh, a noted oenophile, was once famously asked whether he had ever mistaken a Bordeaux for a Burgundy.

“Not since lunch,” he replied.

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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