Which wine is better?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI would recommend reading this post by Stephen Eliot of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine:

BLIND FAITH: A Critique of Comparative Blind Tasting

(http://cgcw.com/databaseshowitem.aspx?id=78865).

As it so happened, I was at the Heinen’s / WVIZ World Series of Wine in Cleveland over the weekend, which only reinforced what Eliot had to say in his post.

To summarize the post, and the experience at the World Series of Wine as well: Critics (and non-critics) will disagree about wines. The idea that equally well trained tasters will agree on which wine is best is a myth.

This fact was reinforced at the World Series of Wine. Over several days, well over a thousand people attended the event, which involved over 400 wines that were available for tasting. We poured 7 different wines, and it seemed everyone had a different preference. One person’s best was another’s worst. Many people loved our wines (one person made a point of coming by to tell us he considered us the best of the show), but others didn’t seem that impressed. It would be nice to chalk down those who didn’t wax poetic about our wines to ignorance or lack of sophistication. No doubt, that could have factored in, as there were people who readily admitted that they didn’t know much about wine, drank beer most of the time, etc., etc.

But that would be a little too facile a take on things. There were certainly others who passed by fairly quickly when there was no reason to think they were inexperienced at tasting wine, at least on a consumer level.

If you believe that each of us has identical tasting equipment, then the differing reactions to the same wines are hard to fathom. But any belief that we all have the same tasting equipment is as much of a myth as the belief that experienced taters will agree on the best wine. Each of us has our own unique abilities when it comes to tasting wine (or anything else for that matter). Take any two people, and their tasting equipment may be similar, but more likely it will be very different.

I like to give the example of sweetness. People differ widely in their ability to perceive sweetness. I happen to be fairly sensitive to sugar, and will find sweetness in wines most people don’t. At the other end of the spectrum are people who can only perceive sweetness at fairly high levels. A wine I would find noticeably sweet, they would find bone dry.

While I’ve used the example of sweetness, the same thing applies to pretty much everything that can be perceived in wine. Each of the things you perceive in wine, be it fruit flavors, oak, tannin, or whatever, is the result of chemicals in the wine that are perceived by each of us. For every person who is particularly sensitive to strawberry flavors in wine, there is another person who is particularly insensitive to those flavors. And on down the line.

To complicate matters, being very sensitive to one thing in wine doesn’t mean you’re going to be especially sensitive to other things in wine. You could be particularly sensitive to sugar, but particularly insensitive to brett (in fact, that describes me). If you happen to be the opposite of me, low in sensitivity to sugar but high in sensitivity to brett, and we’re both tasting a wine with a little sugar and a little brett, it’s obvious you and I will experience that wine very differently.

So if all of us are all over the place in our ability to perceive the hundreds of different flavors in wine, why should we expect that we would, or should, react the same way to the same wines? It would be more accurate to think that even though we are each tasting the same wine from the same bottle, because of our different abilities to perceive different things in wine, for each taster each wine is a different wine than it is for the next taster.

By way of example, two of the wines we poured at the event were our Sly Dog Cellars 2007 Meritage and our Seven Artisans 2008 Petite Sirah. These are two very different wines. The Meritage is medium to light bodied, and very well balanced. It’s Merlot-based, and the prototypical Merlot flavors are prominent. It’s an excellent food wine, with relatively bright flavors and good acidity.

By contrast, our Petite Sirah is a monster of a wine. It has deep dark fruit flavors. It reminds me of Luden’s cherry cough drops, something I told a lot of tasters at the event. One person said she loved Luden’s cherry cough drops, and, predictably, she loved the wine.

Others found the Petite Sirah too big, too fruity, too tannic. Those people tended to gravitate to the Meritage instead. At this event, more people seemed to prefer to the Petite Sirah. But at other events, the Meritage has been the favorite.

If you assume we all taste wine the same, this is inexplicable. But when you realize how different each of us perceives wine, the shock would be if we all liked the same wine.

So which wine is better, the Meritage of the Petite Sirah? That not a question that can be answered for all tasters collectively. It’s only a question that each taster can answer for himself.

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3 Responses to “Which wine is better?”

  1. SUAMW says:

    Jeff,

    Read this: http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/uncategorized/when-critics-disagree-again

    “many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters. Aside from this, some very able tasters (in terms of recognizing wines blind, as in the sort of tasting exam you have to take to get the MW qualification) may actually have poor taste (in terms of the sorts of wines that they prefer). They may be good at differentiating wines, and spotting good quality from poor quality, but fail to distinguish great wines from merely very good commercial wines.”

    and

    “The assumption that if critics are all equally experienced and competent, they will come to the same conclusion. That’s not how it is.”

  2. Tim Hanni MW says:

    Great article Jeff - come have lunch with me in Napa when you get the chance. I would love to share the research I have participated in that provides really great insight into your post. Plus you get lunch! Plus I have a very funny cough drop anecdote from the opposing point of view I will share.

  3. gdfo says:

    ” It’s only a question that each taster can answer for himself.”

    Exactly and as long as the wine is not flawed in the first place.

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