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In the future, everyone will be a famous wine taster for 15 minutes

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Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?

We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.

But what is tasting ability, anyhow?

Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.

But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.

But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?

Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.

What else does it take?

I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to

  • Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
  • Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
  • Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
  • Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
  • Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.

By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.

  1. Please help me end the ignorance about the context and research about ‘supertasters.’ Read the work if you really want to be familiar with it!!

    “We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.”

    If people would actually take the time to fully understand Linda’s work, which she admittedly rues the use of the ‘supertaster’ term, you would know that this is NOT consistent with her research in genetics. The true ly most sensitive tasters are White Zinfandel and Moscato lovers in general – the bitterness, alcohol and astringency SCREAM at them. Like my research colleague Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, the late great Harvey Posert and millions of other wine lovers the wine industry totally misunderstands and stigmatizes.

    The term ‘supertaster’ was applied to a very specific hypersensitivity to forms of thiourea, indicative of a general hypersensitivity, not a prowess or facility for wine tasting. In fact, an indication that dry wine sucks for them.

    Linda is a good friend and mentor for over 15 years now. Please reference her work correctly.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    For a deeper dive into Linda Bartoshuk’s research, access the Wikipedia entry on “supertaster”:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supertaster

  3. Bob Henry says:

    And for a review of Tim’s book titled “Why You Like The Wines You Like”:

    http://www.academicwino.com/2013/02/book-review-why-you-like-the-wines-you-like-tim-hann.html/

  4. Scott Wiegand says:

    To echo the sentiments in other comments, super tasters are widely misunderstood. Famous wine tasters that prefer highly extracted and over the top wines (Parker et al) probably lean towards the opposite end of the spectrum of tasting sensitivity. This makes sense if you put this in the context of how taste changes as we age. We start to loose the ability to taste subtleties in foods and loose some specific tastes more prominently. Sweet is the sense that goes last and that is partly the reason that we will start to favor the taste late in life (and carry around hard candies in our pockets) beacon se that is the last sense we can still enjoy in the end. As the senses start to fade, we prefer stronger versions of them so we can still taste them. Also the same reason older ladies smell like the department store perfume counter since they need to use more and more to detect the scent as they are applying their daily odorant.

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