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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!


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).

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