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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:

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!


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

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