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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.