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NorCal Wine Blog

You CAN be a Good Taster

Don’t believe the catch-phrases in some mainstream media publications and blogs this week. You can be a good wine taster, despite what they say. Almost everybody can. You wouldn't know it by the dumbed-down, overly general leads the publications used in coverage of a new study.

Tongue-bitterAmerican Journal of Enology and Viticulture published “Wine Expertise Predicts Taste Phenotype” by John Hayes and Gary Pickering in the March 2012 edition. The research surveyed 331 wine drinkers. It also tested their taste sensitivity to proplythiouracil, a bitter chemical used to identify “supertasters.” The study concluded “that wine experts are more likely to be medium-tasters or supertasters than other wine consumers may suggest a possible discordance in judgments of quality and value between the two groups.“

Put simply, a greater percentage of the study’s wine experts had naturally high tasting acuity than did its random selection of non-professional wine drinkers. The researchers suggest that may lead to disagreements between the experts and consumers about what is and is not “good” wine. I have no basis for disputing their claim. But some mainstream publications broaden and simplify these conclusions to the point of inaccuracy. They discourage consumers from trying to become better tasters, something that is easily within anyone’s grasp.

Huffington Post translated the conclusion this way, “Average folks have little use for expert wine commentary.” proclaimed “Consumers can’t taste what wine buffs sense.” The Telegraph proposed that ”Wine experts’ recommendations are of no use to most drinkers because their palates are not sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtle flavors.” These statements feed off of, and into, the reverse snobbery and celebration of non-thinkers that is so popular today.

Even when The Telegraph defends wine commentary, they do it in a negative light. “apparently eccentric descriptions of wine by critics such as Jilly Goolden as having the taste of “pear drops,” “liquorice” [sic] or even “rubber” may not be wrong just because ordinary people cannot taste them.” So the wine wizards aren’t making things up, they just have powers you can’t understand. Ignore them, muggle.

Here’s the thing. If you can taste licorice when you bite into the candy, you can taste licorice when it is prominent in wine. If you find raspberries flavorful, you can find that flavor in some wines. Really.

Very few people are “supertasters,” those who are especially sensitive to bitterness, sourness, astringency and high levels of alcohol owing to a well-above average number of taste buds. That’s okay. Being highly attuned to those things isn’t necessarily pleasant anyway. And you don’t need a crowded tongue to be a good taster.

Here is what you do need to become a good wine taster: practice. That’s all. It helps to have a partner or two with more experience, but it’s not a requirement. Neither are classes nor a beagle-like nose. [I wrote recently about the difficulty of putting words to aromas, but it isn't impossible. Practice really helps.]

How To Become a Good Wine Taster

Be mindful when you smell and taste everything. Everything. Don’t just focus on wine. You can’t identify black cherry in a wine unless you remember what black cherries taste like. Eat some and concentrate while you do. Close your eyes. Be the flavor.

Taste and smell a lot of things. Start with the basics: various fruits and berries. You can go further though. Open up your cupboard. Sniff things. Taste them. Learn the difference between allspice and nutmeg, white and black pepper, milk chocolate and dark chocolate, almonds and hazelnuts. You may become a better cook!

Go outside and smell individual flowers and trees. Learn their names. Smell the grass. Smell the dirt. Stop and smell the roses.

If you do these things enough, you’ll recognize a wide variety of flavors and aromas when you are trying to do so. You will also awaken your senses in general. People rely a lot on vision. With eyesight as a crutch, we take the pressure off our other senses. With practice, you will find your awareness of aromas will be much greater even when you’re not thinking about it.

Taste a lot of wine. Taste, not drink. Swirl it in the glass and smell it. Don’t think too hard about it. What aromas come to your mind almost unconsciously? (Identifying flavors and aromas can be like hitting a golf ball. The more you try to kill it, the less successful you'll be.) Focus on the second sniff, but don't work too hard at it.

Try wine that critics like. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But it shouldn’t be $5 wine. Those wines are blended and manipulated to the point that they have few remaining natural flavors. Like Kool-Aid, they may be pleasant to drink, but even expert tasters can have a hard time identifying genuine flavors in them. If you think "wine just tastes like purple," the problem may be your wine.

When you taste wine, don’t drink it down like it’s Coca-Cola or Bud Light. Sip it. Let it roll around in your mouth. Take in just a bit of air. (Be careful not to inhale the wine.) Think about both flavors and texture. Is is smooth or rough? Does it bite at your tongue or feel dry and chalky? Does your throat burn when you swallow?

Read a wine’s review while you taste a wine. Can you perceive many of the same things the writer did? I'll bet you can.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. Tongue graphic is from Grays Anatomy and not subject to copyright.


#1 TimMcDonald 2012-03-06 01:37
Great post Fred, I really agree with your take on the topic! I sniff fruit and flowers and nuts all the time. The grocer may think I am a bit odd but it is how I improve my taste memory. I judge at 12 or so wine competitions a year and experienced tasters have to taste a minimum 5K wines a year just to stay even. Sniff 3 times whilst swirling and always spit and scribble and discuss....chee rs to you!
Fred Swan
#2 Fred Swan 2012-03-06 06:43
Thanks so much for your comments, Tim. You raise an excellent point. As with musicians and athletes, the practice has to continue. You can't just get to a certain level and stop. Fortunately, the practicing is fun!
#3 1WineDude 2012-03-06 17:52
Awesome - great take, will be linking to this next week when I publish my thoughts on all of this madness!
Mr. Black
#4 Mr. Black 2012-03-06 21:37
Great article!! It's refreshing to know that anyone can come to taste wine better. I think knowing this is half the battle. Confidence to a beginning wine drinker goes a very long way!
Cristóbal Arellano
#5 Cristóbal Arellano 2012-03-06 23:08
It's very easy to overlook the simplest of things while tasting wine. This is a good refresher for those of us that have been doing it for a while, and excellent pointers for the newbies.
#6 Cato 2012-03-07 18:11
I was a taster for Beringer for a while. They have a room full of small jars with lids (about 70) with all the flavors one might encounter when tasting wine. This really got me going in wine and tasting. Great post, thanks!
Fred Swan
#7 Fred Swan 2012-03-07 19:38
Being a Beringer taster must have been a really interesting experience. Cool insight about the jars. Thanks, Cato!
#8 Liz 2012-03-10 21:01
Great article, and very encouraging. As a non-professiona l in the world of wine, I try not to get too hung up on identifying the individual flavors - that can be intimidating. I still try, but I also try to identify what I do and don't like about a wine. By taking advantage of opportunities to taste a wide variety of wines, I've found whole new worlds of flavors that I like. It's a little like that old saw about art: " I don't know much, but I know what I like." I'm not going to be a great wine critic, but by tasting a lot, I've really been able to figure out what it is that I like :-).
Donn Rutkoff
#9 Donn Rutkoff 2012-03-14 16:11
The conclusions were awful, if I read them properly: that consumers should ignore reviews because they can't taste. The research did not measure whether consumers successfully use reviews. Did not even try. Can't jump from one piece of research to a different conclusion. I am surprised that the peer review, if there was, on the research article, did not question the jump to conclusion about consumer behavior, a wide wide world of consumer behavior, not in the study at all.
Donn Rutkoff
#10 Donn Rutkoff 2012-03-14 17:46
In fact, the conclusion should be the opposite. Consumer can benefit by carefully reading various reviewers and locate a reviewer whose superior discrimination leads that consumer to wines that work for him. Which is how the real world works, consciously or not. Consumer probably buys more wine at a tasting room if the employee makes suggestions that cohere with the customers reactions to what he tastes while in the tasting room. And continues to buy into the future.
Fred Swan
#11 Fred Swan 2012-03-14 17:59
Donn, I'm in complete agreement with you.
#12 Beytullah 2012-04-10 17:13
That's pretty neat! The whole thing cnuofsed me a little, though, as it seemed a little backwards to me. I would think that if you were a Super-Taster that WOULD mean that you have an advanced palette and like a lot of foods because you'd be able to taste them properly where as non-tasters might be pickier because they can't taste all of the flavors necessary to make something taste the way that it should. But, then again, I haven't studied it nor have I even heard about it until today. I'm not very picky, but the pickiness I do have comes more from texture than taste. If I can't get past the texture of something (or the smell) then I don't really care what it tastes like. Very interesting!
Fred Swan
#13 Fred Swan 2012-04-10 18:21
Hi Beytullah,

Your confusion is understandable. The situation is a bit counter-intuiti ve. The particular tastes that supertasters are more sensitive too are related to bitterness. A little bit of bitter goes a long way. Some foods that most people find to have just the right amount are over the top for supertasters.

The situation is similar to that of people who have highly sensitive and well-trained ears (for music) and noses (for analysis of wine or perfume). That sensitivity can be a real drag when faced with grating sounds or unpleasant aromas. Those things are easier for the non-trained person to tune out.
2020 Tax Resolution
#14 2020 Tax Resolution 2014-11-21 22:00
Greetings! Very useful advice within this post!
It's the little changes which will make the most important changes.
Many thanks for sharing!

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