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Science of Smell – Can wine critique really be “objective”

I just finished listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Science Friday, which aired a program on the Science of Smell. Psychologist and smell scientist, Avery Gilbert, who recently published What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life came on the show as the guest speaker, talking about the various ways that we as humans interpret smells/orders/aromas. And while they only touched on wine, he did raise some ideas that really made me think about wine judging.

Any hardcore wine lover knows that the “blind tasting” is the great equalizer, but how accurate is it really? I once asked the famous wine taster and Spanish wine critic, Jose Peñín, if he did his tastings blind, and his response was “Never!”. For him, wine was a multi-sensory experience. He felt that because there are a multiplicity of characteristics in a wine which can directly affect the flavor, to eliminate any of them, would be a disservice to both himself and the consumer. So if the label is effecting the flavor of the wine due to its pictures of raspberries, why would you taste it blind? If the consumer will be effected by the label/price/color, shouldn’t the wine be judged in the way it will be consumed instead of a sterile setting that no consumer will choose to replicate.

A few points that jumped out at me from this program were that:

  • There is no scientific definition, or test, as of yet, for a “super smeller”, or individual who is better than others at sensing odors. People can train themselves to recognize and identify smells, but there is no definition, or empirical test, that definitively concludes that some humans are “super sniffers”.
  • Humans generally have a sense of smell on par with dogs, or at the very least, not as far off as most people think.
  • Most people can train their noses to identify odors, but because a smell reminds you of one thing, does not mean that it matches that object on a chemical level. For example, they had mentioned that when making cleaning supplies, the scent of “chemically correct” lemon does not smell like lemon to us. Therefore, cleaning companies mimic “chemically correct” grapefruit so that we may perceive the “scent” of lemon.
  • Take a liquid and pour it into two glasses, then dye one of the glasses of liquid darker than the other. Test subjects regularly say that the tinted one smells stronger.
  • Females do have more sensitive noses, but, and this is funny, women ounce for ounce have stinkier farts! :) Though in fairness, men do it more often! Not sure what this has to do with wine, but I laughed and thought you might too!
  • Vanilla is one of if the most agreeable aroma to humans as a whole and is added to perfume, and to WINE(by the less scrupulous of winemakers), so as to make them appeal to a larger audiences. No wonder why there is so much oak in wine now-a-days.

I suggest that you listen to this program and tell me what you think. Can wine really be objective? Especially when the scientific community can show how even the most highly trained individuals are not always identifying what is infront of them correctly. I know that we all have strong feelings on this, but personally, my answer is no, we cannot be objective. Everyday, wine is influenced by what I’m eating, who I’m drinking with, and where I am standing/sitting. I have rated the same wine differently at different tastings. Sometimes the wine is a bit colder/warmer, or the wine glass is slightly different, or maybe, I’m in a tasting with other “geeks” where I push myself to delve deeper into the intricacies of the wine. Clearly, the experience influences my perception of the wine more than simply the liquid itself.

Though I will argue that you can tell some some objective facts about a wine. Whether is is powerful or delicate, light, or an ethereal treat. But you CANNOT tell a 87pt wine from a 88pt wine. It’s impossible. You can’t give me an objective argument as to why one is better than the next, only a subjective preference. This is why I drink and love wine. It’s subjective and my opinion matters. I can approach wine from whatever angle I want, and I can be right.

Yes, you can learn about wine and study wine and “geek out”, but in the end, this is true for any form of obsession. Wine is an obsession for me, and I choose to dig deeper. Some people do this with music, some with movies, but in the end, everything is influenced by cultural norms, expectations and opinions.

Keep sniffing!

Ryan

For some great facts about your sniffer, check out this decidedly web 1.0 page. My favorites include:

  • Viagra (sildenafil) may impair the ability to smell. This may be due to an increase in nasal congestion as reported in The Journal of Urology.
  • 90% of women tested identified their newborns by olfactory cues after being exposed to them from only 10 minutes to an hour. All of the women tested recognized their babies’ odor after exposure periods greater than 1 hr. These results suggest that odor cues from newborns are even more salient to their mothers than had been thought previously.
  • “Ninety percent of what is perceived as taste is actually smell” (Dr Alan Hirsch of the Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, quoted in MX, Melbourne, Australia, 28 Jan 2003).
  • 1WineDude

    Good stuff, it's a fascinating topic. Personally, I believe (though I've no scientific facts to back it up!) that we can reach a relative level of quality & aromas/tastes. This is borne out through history (see <a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…“><a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/wh…) ” target=”_blank”>http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…) - as cultures we more-or-less agree what we consider good. After that, it's all personal.

  • 1WineDude

    Good stuff, it's a fascinating topic. Personally, I believe (though I've no scientific facts to back it up!) that we can reach a relative level of quality & aromas/tastes. This is borne out through history (see <a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…“><a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/wh…) ” target=”_blank”>http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…) - as cultures we more-or-less agree what we consider good. After that, it's all personal.

  • 1WineDude

    Good stuff, it's a fascinating topic. Personally, I believe (though I've no scientific facts to back it up!) that we can reach a relative level of quality & aromas/tastes. This is borne out through history (see <a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…“><a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/wh…) ” target=”_blank”>http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…) - as cultures we more-or-less agree what we consider good. After that, it's all personal.

  • 1WineDude

    Good stuff, it's a fascinating topic. Personally, I believe (though I've no scientific facts to back it up!) that we can reach a relative level of quality & aromas/tastes. This is borne out through history (see <a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…“><a href="http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/wh…) ” target=”_blank”>http://1winedude.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-makes-…) - as cultures we more-or-less agree what we consider good. After that, it's all personal.

  • Viinipiru

    Spot on! I agree with the subjectivity. In my blog I've solved the everlasting problem of recommending wines while recognizing they represent my preferences by ditching the numbers and replacing them with simple labels "Get it", "Try it out" and "Avoid it" . It works, though not even close perfect… Well, for at least you need to get more verbal than "89 points. Coffee, jam, nicely concentrated body, medium long aftertaste". Nice to hear someone else feels the whole points system as absurd as I do:) Cheers

  • Kevin H.
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  • Kevin H.
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  • Arthur

    Nice summary. But I would caution against the "it's all so subjective" mentality. While the difference between an 87 and 88 point wine is a matter of how the rating scale is structured (and how rigorously the taster follows its criteria), the fact is – as you point out – sensory assessment is alike a language. it can be learned and used reproducibly, consistently and reliably. Don't buy into the "we're all so different and wine is h-so subjective" line.

  • Bill

    You have successfully explained why wine rating by the "professionals" is done in a "sterile setting" and done blind. They are seeking the highest level of objectivity they can find within the subjective framework of our human senses. Another way for consumers to mitigate the personal preferences of tasters is to try multiple wines being rated by different publications. With Parker or Opaz, you're getting a single person's opinion on a wine. With The Wine Spectator, you are getting a blended score from multiple tasters. One is not inherently superior to the other. The goal is to find the palate(s) that consistently provide you with a good wine experience, should you so choose to use outside assistance.

  • Kevin Hogan

    Human 'scent-sibilities' are close to that of dogs? How can that be? We each have around 5 million scent receptors versus around 220 million for dogs. While I feel as if I am better able to relate to my dog after I smell something really good (the new 2007 Blanco Nieva Sauvignon Blanc from Rueda, for instance), the way dogs use their noses is (though I have no proof of this) much more central to their perception of the world than is mine. Unfortunately, my dogs and I do not always share the same sense of what smells 'good' but I have learned much about the pleasure of scent from watching them.

  • Mark Koppen

    I would tend to agree that the language can be learned and used, but the 100 point system has to go, if only for one reason – the difference between 89 and 90 is about 20 times the difference between 88 and 89…you know what I mean!

  • ryan

    Wine is subjective. Yes there are objective elements, but wine in the end and in the most important facet, consumption, subjective. You can see that over time certain wines are born out as superior to others, thus implying some sort of temporal objectiveness, but the wines that are loved today are not the wines that will be loved tomorrow. If wine is objective then you could take a non-wine consuming culture, give them a series of wines and have them all agree with "us" the wine consumers. On the other hand you may now say they are not educated on what is good wine, well then you reinforce my opinion by showing that wine is dependent on the current wine education. Education is VERY subjective, as born out by looking at any text book from 50 yrs ago, it's based on current knowledge and ideas. Romans enjoyed wine with salt water, and you would never drink wine without dilution. Maybe this is due to wine making back then, but none the less the "objective" answer then is different than ours today. 100yrs from now we'll be arguing that another style of wine is better/correct. Subjectively as a Human organism we agree on what is in fashion with those who educate us. We are not individuals, but rather a larger group, that culture to culture decides what is right based on our tastes.

  • ryan

    I agree this comment blew me away and I want to read the book to learn more about it. I was shocked, though I have heard of the studies that show that blindfolded humans can track scents with similar accuracy to dogs…Very interesting at the least!

  • Arthur

    Fashions are fleeting. Maybe the salt water made the wines better and today's enthusiasts (or connoiseeures) would find those Roman wines better with a splash of salt water than without. We won't know until we try a wine made that way – with and without the salt water. I am wary of embracing ambiguous, relativist philosophies. They tend to appease and validate the masses and lull them into a false sense of comfort. The only people who come to be enrichmed by this are those who affirm the masses sense of quality or value about a product. I appreciate that prefences change, but the crowd is not always wise. What appeals to the masses is not necessarily the pinnacle of viticultural achievement.

  • Arthur

    Another critical difference is the location of the oflactory epithelium. Theirs is located closer to the nostrils and lines the path inhaled air takes. Ours is up between our eyes and not in the direct path of incoming air.

  • ryan

    and the best part is that pinnacle can never be defined or achieved thus leaving us with an ever changing standard of perfection. Thus we can temporarily define a standard of perfection, or "objective" set of rules. But this is only temporary

  • Philip James

    Love the fart comment! Even Parker and Tanzer et al admit there's no difference between 87 and 88 points. However, given that one number is higher than the other, whats the casual enthusiast to think? Its about time the 100 point system was abandoned. When the guy who invented it, and the most famous people who use it all admit that there's no difference between similar scores (within 2 or 3 points) and only use a few percentage points in the range, all youve left is a 10 point scale with 80 odd points tacked on as a base level.

  • Mike

    Avery Gilbert also recently did a Podcast for the New York Academy of Sciences' Science and the City, where he talks about some similar themes. For those interested in listening and hearing more from Dr. Gilbert, you can listen to that here: <a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841…“><a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.as…. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841….

  • Mike

    Avery Gilbert also recently did a Podcast for the New York Academy of Sciences' Science and the City, where he talks about some similar themes. For those interested in listening and hearing more from Dr. Gilbert, you can listen to that here: <a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841…“><a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.as…. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841….

  • Mike

    Avery Gilbert also recently did a Podcast for the New York Academy of Sciences' Science and the City, where he talks about some similar themes. For those interested in listening and hearing more from Dr. Gilbert, you can listen to that here: <a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841…“><a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.as…. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841….

  • Mike

    Avery Gilbert also recently did a Podcast for the New York Academy of Sciences' Science and the City, where he talks about some similar themes. For those interested in listening and hearing more from Dr. Gilbert, you can listen to that here: <a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841…“><a href="http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.as…. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcastdetail.asp?id=1841….

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  • http://www.breastpumpdeals.com Ameda

    Quite interesting and informative discussion going on in here, thank you very much for posting!

  • Bob Hope

    Hello smell/wine tasting people. I think wine is all about the smell, that the smell is the most important part of wine, and I speak from knowledge.

    I was hit by a car when I was 18 years old and I lost my sense of smell. I can’t smell a thing. It does bother me some times. But now my sense of taste still works fine, but not for all tastes, since some tastes are really mostly smells. Take for instance garlic. If I was to make spaghetti and put enough garlic in it so I could taste it, you would not be able to eat it at all. And when I have done that, the garlic has made me get sick. But it sure tasted like garlic used to taste like, pretty close any way.

    I have tried to learn to drink wine like 4 different times. I bought expensive wines too, thinking the cheap stuff was junk. What I found was that wine tastes mostly like alcohol. I would rather have hawaiian punch, which tastes good. I have tried and tried, but it still tastes like rubbing alcohol. Sangria is not as bad, but is best when there is mostly fruit, real fruit in it. Actually it is best without the sangria, just the fruit. It makes me sad I can’t learn to drink and enjoy wine. I had hoped of being able to enjoy a little wine with meals once in a while. I drank a little Mogen David my parents kept in the cupboard before I turned 18, and it did taste good.

    So what I am saying is, wine is almost all smell. If you couldn’t smell, believe me, you wouldn’t be able to drink the stuff. I bet if you could make a wine I would enjoy, you would make billions. Then again, you’d be the Hawaiian Punch company.