Thursday, March 29, 2012

Supertaster ≠ Wine Expert ≠ Supertaster

Been busy with personal stuff lately.  So while I read about the article in the March 2012 edition of American Journal of Enology and Viticulture entitled, “Wine Expertise Predicts Taste Phenotype”, it’s taken a few days to get around to commenting.

What the researchers, Gary Pickering and John Hayes, found was that the ability to taste bitterness was higher among self-identified wine experts than among wine consumers.  According to the researchers, this means that there is a higher proportion of “supertasters” among wine experts than there are among the general population.  From there, the researchers make an amazing leap.  To quote from an article in the Globe and Mail, Gary Pickering of Brock University says

A wine critic may describe the balance between, let’s say, sweetness and acidity, or sourness and astringency, or fruit and wood.  But the overall intensity of these sensations will be different for Joe Consumer, and that’s a function of his biology. It’s not because he’s not clever or smart or verbose or because he lacks lots of experience.  

But is expertise nature or nurture?  Are wine experts born supertasters or do they become supertasters, or simply become more discerning, with practice and experience?  And is Joe Consumer condemned to a life of wine unappreciation simply because he isn't a supertaster?

I immediately thought of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers:  The Story of Success.  In this book, Gladwell explains the 10,000-Hour Rule:  Skill requires lots of time…greatness requires enormous time.  Gladwell cites examples of greatness (The Beatles, Bill Gates, himself - !) who practiced and developed their skills and – eventually – their greatness, over many hours…10,000 hours.  Reaching the 10,000-Hour Rule, which Gladwell considers the key to success in any field, is a matter of practicing a specific task 20 hours of work a week for 10 years.

Although I haven’t reached greatness as a wine expert, becoming a certified sommelier required many, many hours of practice in being able to discern and describe the appearance, aromas, tastes & structure, texture, and finish of a wine.   In that time, I became far more skilled at discerning all those dimensions, but especially aromas and tastes.  I’m no supertaster, but I know that, through sheer practice, I am far more skilled at identifying aromas and tastes than Joe Consumer.  I totally disagree with Pickering's assertion that the reason that Joe Consumer cannot taste what I do isn't because “he lacks lots of experience”.  It's precisely that.    Joe just hasn’t put in the time.  And probably doesn’t want to.

I’m sympathetic to Joe’s frustration with wine tasting notes produced by wine experts who are just trying to impress themselves and each other.  I’ve written before on What’s Wrong with Tasting Notes.  Too many wine experts simply don't keep Joe Consumer in mind when writing a tasting note.  Wine reviews are no different than any other review (films, books, restaurants); you have to relate to Joe Consumer, not Evelyn Expert.

If the failure of many tasting notes were because wine experts are disproportionately supertasters, then presumably tasting notes would make sense for the 25% of the general population who are supertasters.  I don’t have any research to back this up, but my gut tells me that isn’t so.  A supertaster who hasn’t encountered an obscure taste described in a tasting note will get no more out of that tasting note than does anyone else.

And being a supertaster will not make a wine expert.  Only practice, practice, practice does.

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