While I fully admit I’m no wine expert, I do enjoy the occasional glass. I think that wine tastes good, it has some great health benefits and, with countless kinds of wine in existence, the combination of wine pairings with meals is endless. However, despite the fact that I’ve only been wine tasting a handful of times, there is one thing I am certain of: The whole wine-rating system is a load of bullcrap. I know saying something like that in Santa Barbara can be considered almost sacrilegious, as our school even sports a wine tasting class. But look past all the fluff spouted by the wine tasting elite, and you’ll find there’s something sour in our vineyards.
Professor Bob Hodgson of Humboldt State University decided to test if so-called “wine professionals” actually know anything more than, ahem, wine plebeians. In his experiment, he entered the exact same wine multiple times into tasting competitions, but told the judges that each of his wines were different. He found that the unsuspecting judges would vary on what score they would give the wine, and not just by a few points.
The lack of consistency amongst these wine aficionados was astounding. A bottle that would be discarded as “mediocre” by one judge would then be given the first-place medal by the same judge just a few trials later. Ultimately, Hodgson came to the conclusion that just about every bottle of wine has the same exact chance of receiving first place — that is, a completely random chance. Basically, instead of having a panel of high-status wine experts, he could have just had a team of coin-flipping monkeys decide which bottle to pick. The end result would have been exactly the same.
Findings such as these do not surprise me in the least. By any measurement, our weakest sense is taste. In nature, taste simply exists to discern which food might kill us (poisonous hemlock) from food that would keep us alive (a juicy apple). Humans only have five basic taste perceptions, and even supposed tasting-experts can only identify, at most, four components in a food or drink. These wine experts are not a different breed of superhumans above the rest of the taste proletariat — although they undoubtedly pay more attention to their wine than the average person, even they will get things wrong.
I’m not trying to criticize viticulturists, enologists or just plain wine-lovers — as I said, I enjoy a glass now and again as well. But there is a limitation to every hobby, even one as rich and ancient as the drinking of wine. And, unfortunately, much of this hobby has become overrun with so-called “experts” who, as it turns out, really don’t know as much as they pretend to. Like an uncountable number of things in our society, we view wine ratings as useful only because we put value into them.
Also, due to cognitive dissonance, if we pay more for something, we try to convince ourselves that it is better, when in reality it probably isn’t. That is, we fool ourselves into believing that a $200 Bordeaux is better than a $40 bottle simply because it is the more expensive one.
While people believe there are inherent differences between something that tastes “good” and something that tastes “bad,” we have to recognize that, at most times, these distinctions are completely subjective. Music, art, food, wine — these are all defined by how we, the individual, perceive them. So grab a bottle of two-buck Chuck, slap some expensive fancy French label on it and go ahead and impress your significant other tonight. They’ll be amazed at your wine prowess, and you’ll still have money in your wallet.
Jay Grafft can always tell a red from a white … and you can count on that.