Tasting Philosophy

Not only the tongue but also the nose and your memory and knowlege are essential to wine discrimination.
Every normally functioning olfactory systems has strengths and blind spots. 

Developing Your Own California Pinot Noir Wine Discrimination Skills

For some people wine discrimination is a party trick or a competition to amaze and awe an audience.  Do you want to enter a blind tasting,  identify a bottle’s  country, grape varietal, winery, field and vintage like a famous wine critic?  And is that wine critic likely to give the same wine the same score the next time it’s tasted? Impressive, but that doesn’t mean that that a savant’s  wine recommendations will be helpful to you.

We think the reason to develop your own formal tasting skills — at a wine event, a winery tasting room, or at wine-tasting parties with friends — is to find wines you want to own for later consumption and enjoyment in a more natural setting.  One good time is dinner in your home. Don’t ever be afraid to take a bottle of wine to a restaurant, but do ask in advance about the corkage fee.  When you open that bottle from your home inventory, it should still please you at least as much as when you tasted it.  That’s successful wine discrimination.

What is Known About the Physiology and Psychology of Formal Blind Tasting?

The human senses of taste and smell are rather blunt compared to our fine-grained discrimination with the sense of vision. The evolutionary purpose of taste and smell is to guide us towards foods with nutrients we need and to warn us off toxic or spoiled food. It is not for discriminating among things in the environment.  We recognize a plum as a plum by seeing it. It is difficult to recognize even what grape a wine is made from by taste and aromas alone at a blind tasting. It takes practice, practice, practice to distinguish between a group of very similar wines at a tasting.  Hint: expert tasters rely on aromas much more than flavors.

Taste involves both the tongue with its taste bud receptors but also nasal receptors in the nostrils and more importantly up the back of the throat. Aroma is a key part of perceived taste. So far scientists say the tongue receptors identify only 5 flavors, sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami (savory).  People differ in how many tongue receptors they have on their tongue.  People with a very high density of receptors have been called “supertasters” and seem to experience some tastes, like bitterness, to almost painful intensity.

The receptors are only data-collectors. Just because supertasters have more stimuli coming in, that doesn’t mean their brain processing  is superior to that of non-supertasters. It is unlikely that being a supertaster is an advantage for a professional wine critic who is trying to rank and rate wines for a broad audience.

Factors that make Personal Consistency and Group Consensus in Formal Wine Ranking Difficult

Studies which evaluate whether professional judges can taste the same wines at several different sessions and reproduce their own initial ranking  find that most judges cannot (Hodgson, 2008). Furthermore there is little group consensus among judges at a wine event.  In a blind tasting of Bordeaux, the rankings across 8 judges of 18 samples were almost random (Brochet, 2001). The group average ranking of such a tasting has to be meaningless.  Imagine how different your preference among the 18 samples could be from the group average.

Wine Discrimination Class - UC Davis Extension
Wine Discrimination Class – UC Davis Extension

Temperature of wine changes its character – you might like wine 1 best initially, but wine 5 best when you taste the flight again 10 minutes later.  The order of wines affects results — the taste of wine 3 may influence your perception of wine 4.   Our human sensory adaptation — where the intensity of a scent or taste dulls over time — affects our perceptions.  In particular, the tongue tastes tannins intensely at first, but by wine 5 is desensitized to the sensation.   The fact is that the last wine in a flight will taste quite different than if it were presented first.

The study of human decision-making is part of cognitive psychology.  It seems that  the harder you work at tasting, the worse your decisions – so go with your first impressions.  A study of strawberry jam tasting demonstrates this phenomenon.  The researchers had food tasting experts taste and rank 45 brands of strawberry jam.  The investigators picked just 5 of the 45  jams selecting them to be 10 or so ranks apart. In that way the quality differences could be easily noticed by real people.  Two groups of students were asked to rank the five strawberry jams.  The first group was told just to rank them. The second group was told to write down their reasons for liking or disliking each jam before ranking them.  The first group who didn’t think too much came up with rankings consistent with the experts. The second group did not. Moral – go with your first impressions.

Tasting for consumption now vs. tasting for cellaring

Wine critics tend to rate tannic wines several points higher than ordinary consumers.  We think that is because wine critics assign a rating based on the lifetime potential of the wine with cellaring.  But ordinary consumers don’t have facilities for holding a wine for 2 to 20 years. Us consumers rate a wine based on its drinkability now and in the new few months.  Higher tannins are a key indicator of a wine’s suitability for cellaring for 2, 5 and more years, but consumers don’t like the taste of tannins.  A 2009 research study found that ordinary tasters willingness-to-pay was negatively correlated with wines with higher measured tannin. But it was positively correlated for professional wine tasters (Yang 2009). So in blind tastings, consumers rate highly rated wines lower than the wine critics, though usually in the same rank order.

Wine Discrimination vs. Wine Enjoyment

In a blind tasting you can try to exercise and develop your gustatory and nasal discrimination, and wonder if you would rank the wines the same next week when presented in a different order.  But blind tasting is a very artificial though fun exercise.  In many settings — a winery, a wine bar — you will see the bottle shape, the label art, know the price, be offered a typeset sheet of flowery tasting notes, and hear the comments of others in the room.  These become part of the tasting experience.

And how do you suppose all these environmental cues affect a person’s taste perceptions and willingness to pay?  Baaaaaaah! Yes, we tend to be sheep. Let’s look at one cue. It seems that a higher price makes us expect wine to be of better quality and to genuinely enjoy it more (Plassmann, 2008).  Twenty casual wine drinkers were hooked up to an MRI brain scanner and given 5 cabernet sauvignon samples to rate blind except for being told the price of each.  Wine A,  a $90 bottle, was poured twice – once at $90, and again at $10. Wine B, a $5 bottle, was poured twice, once at $5 and again at $45. Guess what?  Participants rated the same wine higher when it cost more.  But also the MRI brain region activity showed that they actually enjoyed the wine more when they thought it was expensive! “In the lingo of neuro-science this is top-down processing, where higher cognitive centers are modifying the results of inputs from lower centers” [sic… like the taste and smell centers] People expect expensive wine to taste better, so it does and it is enjoyed more.  A self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was such a thing.

How to improve your discrimination by tasting

Set a realistic goal of learning to taste to enhance your enjoyment, not to perform as a party trick. Then, practice, practice, practice.  Taste, taste, taste.  Go to the wine country for a day and visit 5 wineries. Go to wine events where you can taste  scores of wines without driving.  Try your local wine retailers tasting room — though finding a flight that is all pinots is too rare. Organize a tasting of 6 bottles with 6 friends in someone’s home.

If you are tasting in a public place, remember that tasting means you should swirl, sniff, sip once sliding the liquid fully around the whole tongue, preferably spit in a spit cup, and then dump the rest  of the wine in the dump bucket. Even with spitting, after about a hour or two, or 50 to 60 tastes, you will have absorbed enough alcohol through your tongue and mouth tissues and will have so desensitized your sense of taste with tannins, your judgment will be impaired.  Probably also your driving and walking, too.  Be safe to taste again another day.

How the California Wine Fan Selects Fine Pinot Noir for Home Inventory

We are constantly shopping for mainly small-lot boutique pinot noir wine that is never at Safeway and seldom at even big city wine retailers. At a winery which is new to us, if we taste several releases of pinot noirs that we really love for the money, we usually buy 2 bottles of our favorite of the bunch to take home. Sometimes we join their wine club on the spot, figuring that this winery is a pinot noir specialist and is not just dabbling in the current hot varietal.  At home, over the next month we will try the 2 bottles with dinner on separate nights several nights apart.  This is the dating phase.

Drinking a bottle with dinner at home will allow you to get the pinot noir the right temperature, to taste and sniff it right after it’s opened, then 5 minutes later, then with food.  See how it tastes over the next hour. Was it interesting and pleasant over the entire cycle?  A top pinot noir will have pleasant aromatics, flavors of ripe fruit, solid structure, harmonious fruit-acid balance on the tongue, and a long finish.  It has no flaws – bad odors, green flavors, hot alcohol sensations, bitterness.  Some wines need to breathe before they open up.  One purpose of decanting is to aerate the wine and encourage the opening process.  There is even a device called a Vinturi that you can pour wine through, bubbling air all the while.

Unlike a domestic partner, you can change your pinot noir by cellaring it for a year or more.  Is this a wine you are willing to take a chance on improving its charms over time even more?

Refrigerate the leftover and taste it the next day.  Still pleasant smelling and tasting?  Did you have any pharmacological somatic effects that disturbed your sleep?  You should have had none – good wine doesn’t cause sleep disturbance or a hangover, at least not at half bottle dose. If we still really like the wine for the money after all these “tests,, we will order 6 to 12 bottles and join the wine club for the quantity discount. This is the getting-married phase.  We enjoy getting the semi-annual or quarterly pinot noir shipments of what’s new from the wine-makers we trust.  Yes, sometimes there is a divorce.

Reading List — What You Need to Know about Taste

How we taste — and the truth about ‘supertasters’ Interesting interview with a sensory scientist, Juyun Lim

From ‘Supertaster’ to the Taste-blind Yale researcher Linda Bartoshuk’s research shows why you don’t want to be a supertaster anyway. They suffer.

Do You Taste What I Taste? This is installment one of Mike Steinberger’s, Slate.com wine critic’s,  three-part  story about thinking he wanted to be a supertaster and his quest to find out whether or not he was one.

There is a ton of research on the science of taste and smell in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis.  You can delve about as deeply into chemistry and biology as you want.  Researchers in this area include Prof. Susan Ebeler and Prof. Hildegarde Heymann.  You can spend a pleasant few hours browsing the department’s research.   A list of faculty with their specialties is at http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/people/faculty.php.  The J. Lohr winery sponsored a project to provide online summaries of faculty research, available at http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/vensourcesummary_categories.php.  Among other items you will find there, we especially enjoyed “Comparisons between Australian consumers’ and industry experts’ perceptions of ideal wine and cheese combinations.”

“Letter to the Editor – Blind Tasting,” Jeffrey Postman,  Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 5, Number 1, 2010, p. 184-187. California Wine Fan leverages J. Postman quite a bit.  He pointed us to several articles in the Journal of Wine Economics, to which we subscribe and occasionally submit publications.

Brochet, F. (2001) Chemical object representation in the field on consciousness. Application presented for the grand prix of the Academie Amorim following work carried out towards a doctorate from the Faculty of Oenology , General Oenology Laboratory, 351 Cours de la Liberation, 33405 Talence Cedex.

Goldstein, R., Almenberg, J., Dreber, A., Emerson, J., Herschkowietsch, A., and Katz, J. (2008). Do more expensive wines taste better? Evidence from a large sample of blind tastings. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(1), 1-9.

Gordon, J. (2008) . Blind-tasting Napa Cabernet. Wine Enthusiast (online), February 25.

Hodgson, R.T. (2008) An examination of judge reliability at a major U.S. wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3 (2), 105-113.

Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B., Rangel, A. (2008) Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105(3), 1050-1054.

Wilson, T.D. and Schooler, J.A. (1990). Thinking too much: introspection can reduce the quality of preferences and decisions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 181-192.

Yang, Nan, McCluskey, Jill J., Ross, Carolyn (2009). Willingness to Pay for Sensory Properties in Washington State Red Wines. Journal of Wine Economics, 4 (1), 81-93.

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