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Wine experts? We have our place

29 comments

I wasn’t going to write about this study when I first read about it 2 weeks ago. My first impression was that it was really stupid, and didn’t seem worth writing about. But it’s gained a lot of traction, not just in wine blogs but the national media and overseas as well. So it’s time to add my two cents.

To summarize the study: “Wine experts’ recommendations are of no use to most drinkers because their [i.e. 'most drinkers'] palates are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle flavours,” as the subhead of The Telegraph [London] put it. “The fundamental taste ability of an expert is different,” explained one of the study’s authors, John Hayes, which surely is incontrovertible. But then he extrapolated from that a statement that is wildly misleading, and fails to grasp the essential truth of why people listen to experts in the first place: “And, if an expert’s ability to taste is different from the rest of us, should we be listening to their recommendations?”

Hayes may be a college professor, but he doesn’t understand the role of experts in a complex consumer culture. The consumer is overwhelmed with choice. Want bread? A hundred brands. A car? Scores of manufacturers and models. A DVD player? Smart phone? Even salt now comes in a range of colors and salinity. Going to the movies this Saturday night? There’s probably 50 different flicks playing within ten miles of my house. And don’t even get me started about wine. Thousands of bonded wineries in the U.S. alone, not to mention imports, and most of those wineries produce a whole bunch of different wines, sometimes even of the same variety.

This is where experts come in. Experts are modern-day America’s gurus, shamans and soothsayers. We read the entrails of the slain beast and interpret them. This isn’t in a religious or spiritual sense, obviously; but the first humans “invented” priests because they needed somebody to interpret the vast, confusing world around them and help guide them through it. Religion evolved from that.

If the world of our primitive ancestors was confusing, ours is beyond confusing. So we too have “priests” to help us get through without falling or failing or getting hurt or (in this case) spending money on junk. We read or listen to film critics we trust because we don’t want to shell out ten bucks on a piece of crap. (At least, I don’t.) We trust restaurant critics because if we’re going to eat out, we want to be as assured as we can be in advance that we’re going to like the place. And, Mr. Hayes, people listen to wine critics because they want and need all the help they can get in making that selection.

The reason we trust critics, be they film, restaurant or wine, is precisely because “their fundamental ability is different.” Duh! If an expert’s ability in his or her field isn’t different and better than everybody else’s, he wouldn’t be much of an expert, would he? And nobody would listen to him. So to say that “We shouldn’t be listening to a wine critic’s recommendations because his ability is different from ours” not only misses the entire point, it’s beyond dumb.

I like smart people and unlike some politicians these days I don’t think it’s snobby to go to college. But I do think that some of the “studies” I hear coming out of our institutions of higher education are pretty weird. There’s also a phenomenon in the news business where, if you put out a study, chances are it’s going to get a lot of articles written about it. News organizations have an insatiable appetite for content. I’m sure Professor Hayes knew his study would be spread around the English-speaking world for 15 minutes or so. Fine, but I would hate to think that anyone is going to take home the implied message that “A study proves that the evaluations of experts are meaningless and their word is no better than yours or anyone else’s.” That’s true in the strict moral sense (you’re entitled to your beliefs) but it’s not true if you think that a non-expert’s evaluation of a wine is as good as an expert’s. It’s not. We do live in a culture that increasingly questions the concept of “expert” as elitist, and to some extent I share that view. But when it comes to things like movies, cars, restaurants and electronic toys, I want and need guidance when I spend my hard-earned cash. I know I’m not an expert in those things and I respect the opinions of people who are. And the public should trust the opinions of people who write about wine. Well, some wine writers, anyway; not all.

  1. Jeff Coe says:

    I agree mostly with your perspective and I like the argument your put forward. I would state though that the article in the Telegraph was not completely misguided, just typical media generalization… why? As my belief with anything (just think of music) its about taste (no pun intended) so finding someone you believe has similar taste as you, then letting them help navigate through the choice. So experts have their place, its about finding the one you can align yourself best to, and then listening to what they say, as with music many people love Bob Dylan (experts darling) but I would rather be shit in the head than have to listen to one of his albums.

  2. Steve, an “expert” if you are investing in wine or just buying a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild is a good, no, great idea, and using one’s need for advice concerning an automobile purchase maybe a good one unless the reviewer is compromised, remember all the hype about the K-cars? My point is that buying a Lafite-Rothschild is like buying a car http://www.drvino.com/2012/03/02/parker-perfection-100-points-bordeaux-2009/, but buying a bottle of Bolla Merlot is more like taking a taxi, and maybe that’s why you see so few reviews of wines that are sold like candy at the check-out line in the market.

  3. I completely disagree with this study and feel that someone is significantly missing the point to suggest that experts live on some other plane of existence that is so different from our own as to cut off any relation between experts and normal folks. I feel that a true expert in wine should be able to talk about sassafras, sandalwood and lotus blossoms; but they should also understand the palates of their readership and when necessary, speak to the more broad approachability and “delicious” factor of certain wines. The latter is something anyone can relate to and will serve to assure the most value for the highest percentage of people. This does not even include the sector of wine geeks who likely don’t consider themselves experts, but may have the same palate capabilities of the critics (which is likely the reason they were ultimately drawn to wine in the first place). The article bugs me because it seems to suggest that the general population may as well just swill on yellow tail because they have no capacity for appreciation.

  4. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve,

    Maybe i have my english skills on pair with Borat’s level, but i understood that experts are able to withdraw from the wines aromas and flavours that most of us can’t because of innate or aquired skills. I didn’t see anything bad against critics in it.

    Critics DO HAVE greater milleage (we say here bottleage, in free translation) than us and are able to extract more from what they see, taste, sniff and so on.

    By the way, this critic following thing is VERY north-american. In many countries i’ve been to people tried to copy the north-american model, but the critics there receive a great “oh screw this, i have my own opinion” scoff.

    I like reading you because you’re great at teaching about what humans can do/and do. Most of your posts offer great lessons. To me , at least.

    I don’t care for your reviews…. no offense to be taken.

  5. Steve, very disappointing after the two great interviews to see you reverting to unfounded crankiness. Your take on the study you eviscerate here is completely off target. Most people simply do not share your taste preferences in wine; therefore, your critiques — and scores — are useless to them.

    Forget about the issues of “subtleties” and sophistication. It is way more basic than that. A wine you rate highly is usually of a completely different flavor profile than the type they prefer. Most “highly rated” reds, for example, are too intense, rough and sharp. They (and by “they” I do mean the overwhleming majority of wine drinkers) play the wine game a different deck of cards, so to speak. The style of choice for the overwhelming majority of American is softer, fruitier and easier to drink. That is all.

    For you to slam this study — and by extension the bulk of American wine drinkers — is an exercise in holier-than-thou ignorance. Your expertise is of value to a small segment of wine-drinking America. Nobody is saying your opinion does not count. Please let the rest of the wine-drinking public continue to enjoy their preferred style(s) of wine without impugning their intelligence by declaring that they should your “expert” guidance.

    The hottest wines in America right now are sweet Moscato and smooth, juicy red blends. Why? Because they taste good to more people than you can shake a 95-point stick at. The lesson of these trends is that people are *finally* embracing their own tastes — which is exactly what the wine industry has beeing professing for decades. No one says you have to embrace the same wines they do. But the reverse of that logic is just as true and far more important in today’s wine scene: they don’t have to embrace the wines you prefer. But by insisting that your opinions are more valid than theirs, you are merely acting like a modern-day, 90-point Wine Snob.

  6. Steve, I agree with your general premise on the rise of experts. But you are wrong on two accounts when it comes to wine. First, you quote (I assume the article) “their fundamental ability is different.” This is in fact not necessarily true. Some gain expertise from experience and have no different fundamental ability than the rest of the population. By tasting thousands of wines a year, you have a broad range of experiences most Americans do not. Your taste buds and ability to write is not necessarily “better” than lots of non-wine experts. You just have more experience.

    Second, and in line with what Tish said, your expertise is in fact reason enough that you’re critiques are useless to more people than they are useful. Your tastes, and perception of quality, probably do not align with the tastes of most Americans. Like Tish said, sweet Moscato and juicy (and slightly sweet) reds taste better to most more people than do the “quality” wines that we in the wine elite deem as being better. Why do you think the average cost of a bottle (750 mL equivalent) of wine is around $5. The answer is not frugality. A majority of wine drinkers actually prefer the taste of Franzia and Almaden box/jug wines (everyone reading can shudder…). And to these people, you and your tastes do not matter, and nor should they.

  7. Dear Colorado, please tell Costco that my reccos are useless for consumers. They don’t think so; Costco says that a good Steve review will empty that SKU off the shelf.

  8. Those Steve reviews aren’t appearing on $5 bottles of wine. And Steve reviews aren’t appearing, it is just a Steve number that is next to the bottles.

  9. It seems this is being blown a bit out of proposition in regards to who critics appeal to. It should be pointed out that the percentages of people who tend to pay close attention to critics do so because they love wine and drink a lot of it. My friends who follow critics drink good wine on a regular basis. They themselves have some amazing palets and this is the very reason the follow particular critics, because they like their palets.

  10. vinifra says:

    Duh!
    Did anyone expect anything different from an expert / critic whose place in society is based on:
    1) a symbiotic relationship…no wine, no free samples…no experts
    2) the self convincing of his / her uber dominion over the ignorant, uneducated drinking masses?

    I think not.

  11. James Rego says:

    Wow! Well, I agree with Wayne. I drink good wine and let certain critics point me in a general direction ; then, I verify and buy if I so desire.

  12. I respect you a lot, Steve, but I wonder if you’re overestimating your importance. The study was correct about one thing: If an average consumer buys a wine highly rated by experts, that consumer will likely not have the palate sensitivity to appreciate what they have bought. Maybe it’s like music. An average listener may be content with Bruce Springsteen, but Bruce ain’t Luciano Berio, and a listener who’s happy with the former will not likely appreciate the latter, and will feel no need of an expert to tell him/her whether the latter is any good.

  13. Steve,

    If he had stated that ‘the opinion of wine experts is of no value to most wine drinkers, because they don’t write about the wines most people drink’, that would be closer to the truth. For the most part as individual wine experts we evaluate and write about a very small segment of the market at large. Furthermore, outside of a respective sphere of influence any ‘expert’ has far less meaning than we would like to think.

  14. Not everyone wants or needs an expert’s recommendations. Bully for them. But consumers who are actually interested in wine, and in going beyond a handful of favorites, can and should “use” experts. Not only are we ferreting out the good stuff — and kissing a LOT of frogs in the process — but they can calibrate their palates with ours, just as many of us do with movie and music critics.
    I don’t have the exact same palate predilections as Steve or Robert Parker (pretty doggone close on Paul Gregutt) but I have learned from experience where our tastes converge and diverge.

  15. The press and blogosphere have been piling up a lot of conclusions on a small and possibly shaky stool here. I haven’t seen the actual paper, but based on the summary, it was not a random and perhaps not a representative sample, and the difference in tastes was only measured by receptivity to one particular molecule.

  16. I think this is a very misleading article, as its conclusions are not really supported by the actual study. And too many are jumping on those conclusions without actually considering the actual study results. The main problem is that the article confuses Taste and Flavor.

    Taste, which is experienced primarily on the tongue, includes the big five: sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and umami. The “Supertasters” have a different sensitivity to these five tastes, especially bitter. The study only addressed the bitter taste, and didn’t even concern itself with the other four Tastes.

    Now Flavor is experienced primarily through the retronasal smell, and how that interacts with the brain. The study did not address this aspect at all, and it is far more important to the role of wine critics than Taste. The experience of flavors of fruit, herbs, spices and such basically nothing to do with Taste, so Supertasters gain no advantage in this regard. You don’t experience blueberry flavor on your tongue, only whether you might taste sweet or sour.

    So all the study can conclude is that critics might be able to detect bitter better than some people. That does not translate into a greater generalization that consumers cannot detect subtle Flavors that critics do experience.

  17. Steve R says:

    I am with Steve H. on this one… I have never bought the relativist argument against any kind of criticism… sorry, but yes, some wine, art, literature, film, food, and autos ARE better than others. Just because there are different schools of thought in criticism (e.g., Auto Trader vs. Consumer reports for cars) does not invalidate the fact that critics have had and will have a very valuable role to play. The study falls back on the “most consumers are too unsophisticated to know, so it must not matter” argument that has plagued the other categories I mentioned above. This is NOT just a North American phenomenon — British music critics are often in the lead for new music, German critics have led the charge for performance-focused autos, and, yes, American critics have indeed added a lot to the conversation regarding quality wine. Are Steve, Steve, Jim, and Robert the ONLY voices that matter — clearly no, but the fact that they, along with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere have engaged in a thoughtful critical dialog has helped us all.

    Maybe the crankiness is common to we Steves, but let the criticism thrive!

  18. We can’t really pick apart the paper because I just looked and it isn’t online yet, which I’d be interested in reading because it’s really the methods that determine the results. It’s important to differentiate media and the authors, and the media feed opened the gates and clearly is misguided. John Hayes has published data about people who taste more literally taste more, particularly bitterness according to some previous papers. Sounds reasonable. That probably has less to do with critics than differentiation between avid and more casual wine drinkers.

    The author isn’t directly drawing these conclusions, it’s the media perhaps with a little help. I’m sure it was leaked and mutilated to get attention, but the conclusions the media draw ridiculous and the mere basis of it’s tenants were well deconstructed by Steve.

  19. I thinks the role of the wine is to recommend based on the fact he gets to taste more (a lot more) than the average consumer. To me the biggest satisfaction writing about some new wine is when a consumer sends me an email to tell me a review was spot on.

    The one mistake critis do make is to compare flavor profiles to thing that most people have never tried. But you should never doubt the place of wine critics… The information provided is very useful…

  20. Here’s the abstract, for those that care:

    Taste phenotypes have been studied in relation to alcohol intake, dependence, and family history, with contradictory findings. However, on balance—with appropriate caveats about populations tested, outcomes measured, and psychophysical methods used—an association between variation in taste responsiveness and some alcohol behaviors is supported. Recent work suggests supertasting (operationalized via propylthiouracil [PROP] bitterness) associates not only with heightened response but also with more acute discrimination between stimuli. This work examined relationships between food and beverage adventurousness and taste phenotype. A convenience sample of wine drinkers (n = 331) was recruited in Ontario and phenotyped for PROP bitterness via filter paper disk. The subjects also completed a short questionnaire regarding willingness to try new foods, alcoholic beverages, and wines as well as level of wine involvement, which was used to classify each one as a wine expert (n = 111) or a wine consumer (n = 220). In univariate logisitic models, food adventurousness predicted trying new wines and beverages but not expertise. Likewise, wine expertise predicted willingness to try new wines and beverages but not foods. In separate multivariate logistic models, willingness to try new wines and beverages was predicted by expertise and food adventurousness but not PROP. However, mean PROP bitterness was higher among wine experts than wine consumers, and the conditional distribution functions differed between experts and consumers. In contrast, PROP means and distributions did not differ with food adventurousness. These data suggest individuals may self-select for specific professions based on sensory ability (i.e., an active gene-environment correlation), but phenotype does not explain willingness to try new stimuli.

  21. All I can tell you is my experience…I do like to buy and enjoy higher rated wines…what I have learned is some critics ratings are in conflict with my taste buds, and some critics ratings are in concert with my taste buds…what this means is I have chosen to not buy some highly rated wines by certain critics and to buy some highly rated wines of other critics…and no my palate is not on par, or nearly a sophisticated as the Pro’s…

  22. To summarize the interminable abstract, and I quote:

    “. . . PROP bitterness was higher among wine experts than wine consumers.”

    In other words, they got one good result: wine experts are more sensitive to one bitter chemical, propylthiouracil.

    The actual “conclusion” is that “individuals may self-select for specific professions based on sensory ability”.

    The significance of the conclusion was not explained. It is reasonable to assume wine experts are more sensitive to bitter compounds in general, but that was not demonstrated in the study.

    This paper is weak.

    The inference that wine experts and wine consumers differ dramatically in the biological capacity, repeat, biological capacity to taste and smell is pretty much rampant speculation based on wild conjecture backed by a sliver of data.

  23. Donn Rutkoff says:

    The author John Hayes extrapolation is totally upside down. I don’t want to insult all writers and journalists, but his premise or conclusion is typical of the worst brain disease taught (or not) in J-schools. A few minutes of exposure to Greek philosophy or some good old Jewish shtetl humor of the wise men of Kiev, might have opened his mind to how the real world works, not how a sheltered academic who is afraid of his own shadow thinks. Steve is right but too polite. I would call Hayes and that line of ignorance of his as worthy of Ben Franklin’s Dogood letters, especially the fourth. Yea, it is an obscure reference. Go read it though.

  24. By the way, Steve, thanks so much for the email! Do you send snarky one-liners to all commenters who deign to point out flaws in your argument and suggest you suffer from hubris? I will be the first to admit that I did not read the study in question. My comments yesterday were about the position you set up in response, which is a far bigger issue.

    I have the good fortune of running dozens of consumer events every year. Every week I see how the basic taste profile that most people likPut that study aside and ask yourself: what good is your “guidance” to the average consumer? The answer is zip-zero-nada, if all you can add to their wine experience is rated reviews that imply that the styles of wine you prefer are fundamentally better (by virtue of their higher ratings) than the types of wines they prefer. That is a fact which is totally lost in the machinations of wine criticism.

    This is not to say that what you do has no value. It does, certainly, but only among peers who are on the tannin-is-tasty side of the fence. And on that side of the fence, it is perfectly logical that people can follow your work and gain “guidance” from your “expertise” if they discover that your palate is relatively in synch with theirs.

    But, getting back to the masses of people who drink wine, it is simply illogical for them to follow your advice regarding wines to buy. You taste with a wholly different set of standards than the average wine drinker. The fact that wine ratings (which remain more about preference than absolute quality) get filtered into the marketplace as marketing tools that work to move wine does not make it any different.

    It may make you feel good to know that a “Steve” wine sells out at Costco. But is that now the goal of a wine “critic”? Have we gotten to the point where the litmus test of wine expertise based on how many cases their ratings can move? Might want to rethink that criteria. If people are so clamoring for your expert guidance, then why is WE’s #1 wine of the year for 2011 still hanging out at wine.com?

    Steve, you are scribbling away in a fairy-tale world. Get out and taste with some real people more often. Not wine writers, not winemakers, not wine marketers. Real people just want stuff that is palatable to them. And they don’t need to be told that what they like is not as good (as in “highly rated”) as what you like. THey also don’t need to be told that the only way to taste wine is “blind”, but that is a topic for another day.

  25. As a wine marketer (boo if you must) for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen wines live and die by reviews and scores. I have to agree with Steve here for two reasons:

    1. There is a massively overwhelming number of wines out there. What’s the harm in a little third party assistance? Ideally, consumers use the info as ONE element to help narrow down their decision making.

    2. Sure, wine experts have better palates than most of the public but importantly, what comes from their experience is the ability to also understand that not all consumers are looking for the same thing in a wine. I’ve seen reviews on $7.99 wines that raved about how great the wine is for the money. Everyone understands that this wine is not a Screaming Eagle, but there’s a place for it and many reviewers acknowledge that.

    Think of it like movies – good movie critics will rave about a well done summer blockbuster as well as a fabulous foreign film, but they’ll recognize both for what they are. Personally, I appreciate the information. I read the text of the review and then decide for myself how much credence I’m going to put in it. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. No harm, no foul.

  26. Tish,

    Your comments simply don’t hold water. Yes, Steve put the cart before the horse a bit in not differentiating a study from the media interpretation. Yes, Steve has said some snobby things not being limited to Zin (which I love) and Moscato, but I’d still agree that he’s probably the least snobby of the big Cali wine reviewers.

    Let’s look at the numbers of “leaps of faith” we have to take just to get from the article to the media interp. In science, we allow maybe one. 1. Wine “experts” are wine “critics”. 2. Wine experts taste differently than the rest of the world because they are a larger number of super-tasters among them. 3. All wine experts are super-tasters because some, not all, are better at IDing bitterness based on a single compound. 4. Because experts taste…er critics, oh yes sorry, yes, the critics are super-tasters then they’d score differently, so thank goodness we just called them all super-tasters. That’s four and I probably would find a few more if I had the whole paper to read. And how many more just to get to your opinion?

    OK. But see your biased opinion isn’t based on science or this paper. Really it’s based on you slanted world view of wine scores, which is ALL over the place. You’ve created a web of half truths where Steve can’t win. Talk about scribbling away in a fairy-tale world. He sells wines based on his scores presumably because people appreciate what he has to say and that’s terribly apparently. You say the WE #1 wine hasn’t sold out. Nipozzano is available and it only got a 93. JS Trenton which SH gave a 97 has been sold out for months. See, anyone can cite examples. It doesn’t prove a thing.

    I thought he wasn’t tasting for the common folk? He’s not one of the reviewers who embrace bias, taste in unblind conditions, and promotes cult/fetish wines so tannic they can’t be enjoyed young or age gracefully. Tasting blind is about removal of bias for reviews and has a minor place in wine enjoyment. Just because something is being evaluated with different standards and conditions doesn’t mean that it will or won’t be of value. That’s up for the consumer to decide.

    Yet, Steve never said he was tasting for everyone (no critic reviews for everyone) and yet if anything he’s tasting mostly for the people that would probably qualify as wine experts in that paper, so he IS tasting for them. Your vitriol, while noted, doesn’t do anyone much good.

  27. This is better than the MMA on pay-per-view. Ding ding!

    Coming up ladies and gentlemen, round 3.

    Steve, next post consider something less interesting or that people don’t have much of an opinion on like politics, abortion or capital punishment.

  28. Hey Steve came late to the fight on this one, but here is my two cents. As a person who works retail I might have a little better vantage point then you do in regards to what the average wine drinker thinks about “experts”. Most wine drinkers are of the costco cheap and big as possible type, and they have no idea who you, James, Robert….etc are and do not care what it is you have to say. A portion of wine drinker who are in the $7-$10 (for 750ml) catagory are a little more influenced by “experts” most could not care less. “experts” become slightly important when a person is spending over $20. In the first growth world some experts carry more weight then others, but alot of the time it is we lowly retailers who carry the brunt of expertise. So in summation I agree with the article.
    On a side note I do find it funny that a critic is now being called an “expert”. Criticism is not a scientific evlaluation. It is an opinion. I find calling anyone an expert is nonsense, at least in regards to wine. A critic may have a focus and know more than most when it comes to a country or region, but I doubt that they know all producers, growers, and have all the other knowlege that would make a person an expert. Wine is too vast and dynamic to say that a person is an expert. Not to mention that wine is completly subjective. So let’s stop the self agrandizing. Critics, wine writers, and retailers are not experts they are critics, wine writers and retailers. But what the hell do I know I am not an expert. Cheers

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