Taste in wine is subjective!

by Stevie on September 10, 2009

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Wine blog-land is all aflutter lately with stories, comments and expressions of shock and dismay regarding the recent publication of “An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 US Wine Competitions” in the Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 4, Issue 1, Spring 2009, pp. 1-9. If you haven’t already read the article, or, more likely, read about it, it’s really quite straightforward. The author, R. Hodgson, studied the chances of winning a gold medal in a wine competition based upon data he obtained from the California Grapevine. The data came from about 4000 entrants and winners at 13 popular and prestigious American wine competitions.

 I don't know, maybe we can agree to disagree on this one?

I don't know, maybe we can agree to disagree on this one?

If all of this is already starting to sound drier than that ultra tannic-rich 2005 red Bordeaux you opened ten years too early, just wait! Dr. Hodgson’s conclusion? The possibility of winning a gold medal at a wine competition is determined purely by chance rather than any intrinsic quality to the wine!

That’s something to think about.

This “shocking” result has sent the wine blogging world into a tailspin. What can this mean?! How can this be?!? The good professor should lay off the sauce before publishing anything so controversial! Ha ha.

My question for all of you wine experts, novices, spectators, enthusiasts, Parkerites, devotees and lushes out there is: did you really think that the results would be any different?

I do appreciate all of the painful explanations that folks have been scratching their heads to come up with: the judges are probably not the same competition to competition; judges have biases and “good” and “bad” days, thus affecting results; location of the events might affect what wines get entered; the cost of entry to any particular event might affect which wines get judged; wine makers that produce famous or cult wines might not bother to enter competitions at all, thus affecting overall quality of what gets judged and possibly leading to more variability; blah, blah, blah…

OK. I get it. This topic makes people nervous, very nervous. And here’s why: the wine industry is just that; a huge, multi-billion dollar, multi-national industry with numerous powerful interests that don’t like to be messed with. This goes way beyond producing wine, too. Don’t forget advertising, distribution, book and magazine publishing, on-line publishing, tourism, and on and on. A lot of people want to be convinced that wine competitions and by extension wine ratings and writers know what they’re talking about. There’s big money riding on that statement of faith. In particular, industry wants to be sure that experts can consistently identify “good” wines and not only be able to consistently distinguish them from “bad” ones, but also be able to consistently find “great” wines among the merely “good.” It’s those three “consistentlys” that this study has thrown out the window.

Well I say it’s about time!

I am not a wine expert. I have had no training as a sommelier. Aside from being a consumer and amateur blogger, I have no ties to the wine industry. I simply love wine. And I have the good fortune to drink it fairly often. My spouse is the same.

Interestingly, he and I don’t always agree on wines even though we have a lot of areas of common interest. We tend to like reds over whites. We both like American Syrahs and French Chateauneufs, but not all of them; and we don’t always agree on which we like and dislike. Neither of us really enjoys viogniers, which also makes Côte Rôtie a bit intolerable, too. We prefer still wines over sparkling. We really start to differ when it comes to Italian wines. I love them all except Tuscan reds, which I humbly tolerate. Hegui only likes Tuscans, which he persists in calling “Chianti” regardless of what it “really is.” I like Spanish wine, too, but Hegui basically rejects them all with few exceptions. He likes Chilean and Australian but I find them a bit dull and overbearing. Whatever! My point is simply that we are two people with fairly similar tastes who have been sharing bottles of wine for more than ten years. Yet we differ significantly on what we like and dislike in wine. It’s no wonder that a panel of judges in one place cannot agree with a panel of judges at another competition somewhere else. It’s amazing that these esteemed panels can reach consensus enough to award any medals at all! Agreeing about a bottle is tough at my house and it’s usually just the two of us.

The finding that wine competitions are chancy events seems perfectly congruent with my own experience. We’ve done home tastings for highly rated malbec, pinot noir and other reds recently. Sometimes we like wines that the experts tell us are “91’s” or “92’s” and sometimes we don’t. If you’re really honest about it, I bet that you’ve had the same exact experience. Taste is subjective. Here, I’ll write it again: TASTE IS SUBJECTIVE! That’s the take-home message from Hodgson’s report.

Sure, the report isn’t perfect. There probably are confounding factors and statistical problems. But let’s face it, there are no “wines of the highest quality,” to borrow Alder Yarrow’s problem expression, that are universal to all tasters. And I think that’s simply great! I may come across a wine that I find absolutely perfect in every way. Heguiberto may despise it. I may discover one to which I’m indifferent, or worse yet, I can’t stand. Someone else may think it’s divine. That sort of happened to me the other week in Temecula Valley. I hated all of the wines at Hart but this guy standing right next to me joined the wine club he liked them all so well. So there we are. Taste is subjective.

Gold medals and high scores on various web sites and in magazines can be helpful to get you started. But really it only matters what you think about the wine in your glass. You should try things, test your limits and don’t believe everything you read. As comforting as it can be to have some “expert” tell you what’s “good,” isn’t it always better to find out for yourself? That’s been our philosophy at weirdcombinations all along. So get out there, try some wine, have fun and don’t take it all too seriously!

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