So You Think You Have Taste?

[here] Beer, Booze and Bars,
Issue: September 11, 2008
Title: So You Think You Have Taste?
by Craig Pinhey

As someone who hangs out a lot with Sommeliers, beer and wine judges, and other less official but just as qualified tasters, the subjects of impartiality and  personal preference come up a lot.

We spend a lot of time in our introductory wine courses and full Sommelier program (contact me if you are interested – we have courses coming up in Fredericton. Moncton and Saint John) teaching our students to evaluate wine without letting personal preferences get in the way.  I was trained as a certified beer judge to determine how close a beer is to its intended style, ignoring my dislikes of specific beers.

You can tell someone to be completely open-minded and neutral all you want, but they’ll always rate based on what they know and like. They can’t help it. Training certainly mitigates this to a large extent, but it can’t get rid of it entirely.

So why do we bother judging?  Well, the panel helps. If you use panels of 4 or 5 judges, then average scores or kick out the highest and lowest then average, you hope each judge’s personal biases cancel out and the cream rises to the top. I think this does happen much more often than not, but there are also times when it seems all but one judge are on one side, and the one is cowering in fear, alone.

Whether it’s music, art, or wine, it is very difficult to understand why one person likes one thing and someone else prefers a completely different style. It must be a product of a myriad of factors: genetically predetermined prowess, where you grew up, how much your parents exposed you to the “good things” in life, what you experienced as a child through to adulthood, and what you learned in school – whether it’s Sommelier school or in the campus pub.

In my years of judging beer and wine I have run into all types of judges. Some have very similar palates to mine. Some seem to hate what I love and vice versa. Some are much more sensitive to defects. Some don’t notice ANY defects! Some seem to like everything and score them all very closely: 85. 84, 86, 85, 85, 86, 84. The latter are the worst kind of judge – they might as well not bother even showing up, as their scores mean nothing.

With all our training and years of experience, you might think that we can nail a brown-bagged and taped “blind” wine from the first sniff. “Cabernet, Medoc, from 1982, harvested before the rains,” etc. That is the stuff of braggarts and liars, and Jim from Taxi. The truth is that the best blind wine guesser (it is guessing, believe me) is the best cheater. They are the jerks that recognize wines by their exposed tops, the shape of the bottle, the markings, and by knowing the person who brought the wine. What do they prefer? What do they have in their cellar? Where have they been on holiday recently? These are the tools of the best wine guesser/cheater.

In a full-on blind tasting, where you know absolutely nothing about the wine or beer, we can’t be expected to guess it. I think I’m as good as most professionals at making a guess, but I would never expect to nail it without lots of hints. That said, I am confident that I can describe any alcoholic beverage – from a blind sampling -  in such a manner that a consumer could tell from my comments whether or not they might like it. That’s what training does: it gives you the sensory tools to describe something and the perspective to speculate as to why it tastes the way it does.

Unfortunately, all the training and expertise goes out the window when you know what you are tasting, or you think you know. No trained palate or nose is good enough to overpower ego or the power of suggestion. Recent studies have shown that when people think a wine is very expensive, they prefer it to when they think it is cheap. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that humans are shallow and insecure, know this: it has nothing to do with that.  What happened is that, when the subjects were told the wine was really expensive and high quality, their brain fired up all their sensory tools so that they were revved and ready to love it. Naturally, then, it tasted great, complex, with all those medal winning nuances in addition to the obvious explosive elements.

Now, in the other case, when they told the test group that the wine was a basic wine, their systems were essentially on “pause” when they smelled and tasted the wine, so – what a shock – it was judged bland and rather uninteresting. What do you expect for $8?

A similar trick is to put an ordinary (not defective – good tasters will pick up a corked wine even if they think it cost $500) wine in a famous bottle and pour it for a group of “wine experts,” hyping it up all the time as a “95 pointer” or “the best wine I’ve had in years.” I guarantee that most of them will love it, unless they noted your horrible acting.

This is why I object, on one level, to grouping wines, at judgings, by price or region or grape.  Judges will already have a preconceived expectation, and they can’t help but let this affect their scores. So Cabernet Sauvignon will probably always outscore Marechal Foch, even if the wine in question is worse.

Keep these thoughts in mind the next time you do a home tasting, or someone hands you a glass and asks: “What do you think of this?”  My answer? “Cabernet, Medoc, harvested just before the rains.” I cheated, of course…

Craig Pinhey is a Certified Sommelier and Beer Judge. Contact him at frogspad@nb.aibn.com.

All About The Value, But Here’s The Score On Wine

Good Drink July 11,  2008

By Craig Pinhey

I was in Alberta last week judging the Wine Access International Value Wine Awards (IVWA), and, although I can’t reveal any official results yet, I did get a chance to taste many wines that are available in our market. All were judged blind in sub-categories of like wines, so this makes the impression different than if someone just poured you a glass of wine and asked “What do you think?”  Many wines in the $10-25 range are very good, and some grapes seem to be universally good (Malbec from Argentina & Spain’s Tempranillo, for example) but it is interesting how some wines show up as so much better than their peers when tasted in the blind format.

It is interesting to consider what value means to one person versus another.  I used to say under $15, then it crept up to the teens, and now I’m not sure that under $20 is even high enough. Certainly some of my favourite value wines have crept over the $20 barrier.  Has your salary grown fast enough to keep up with wine prices?

This said, there are still some under $15 wines that impress, and a handful of under $10 “steals.”  Rather than talk strictly price it is good to measure wine quality, like at the IVWA, where scores are given by qualified judges. This enables us to attach a Quality/Price ratio to a given wine.   If you score on the 100 point scale, most commercial wines score in the 80-90 range, which is actually misleading, because the 100 point scale has this major flaw: it is really only a 10 or perhaps a 15 point scale. Most magazines don’t bother mentioning wines scoring under 80 (who wants a B+ wine?) and judges seldom give wines above 90, and almost never above 95. This results in a tight scoring range, where 79 or under is wine I wouldn’t recommend, 80-81 is an uninteresting but drinkable wine,  82-83 is quite drinkable but plain, 84-85 is a nice little wine, 86 is pretty darn good, 87 is very good, 88 or 89 is borderline excellent, and 90+ is excellent.

This reveals a huge jump in perceived quality from 84 to 87, when in high school grading (where, let’s face it, all of us got to know the 100 point scoring system, and not just 10 points of it), 87 versus 84 is pretty much the same.  Add in price, though, and the scoring system gains merit, although it needs some sort of sliding scale. If an 80 point wine costs $10, it is a good value. At $15 it is not.  Similarly, an 85 point wine for $15 is pretty good value, whereas a $25 wine should really score higher than that.  Continuing on this argument, any time you get an 88 point or higher scoring wine for under $20,  it is fantastic value.   And a 90+ wine for under $30 is certainly a great deal, even if not all consumers can take advantage of it.

Where’s the value these days? Well, Spain is a hot bed for value reds, and the Campo Viejo brands are perfect proof. The $14.79 Crianza (minimum 2 years aging, with a minimum of 12 months in wood) and Reserva (minimum of 3 years aging, with a minimum of 12 months in wood) mainly Tempranillo-based reds from Rioja are excellent value, even if the Reserva has crept over the $20 line to $20.49. I don’t normally score wines in my column, but, if I had to, I’d score these wines both quite high, somewhere in the 87-89 range. So that makes the Crianza excellent value and the Reserva very good value. Both have good minerality, lots of plummy fruit, and classic tobacco herbal notes, good body and firm tannins, as well as some aged complexity.

Perhaps the Reserva has more tannins and will age better, but the Crianza is drinking better for the price right now, and I’m all about the value.

Craig Pinhey is a writer and Sommelier, available for private tastings. Visit him at www.frogspad.ca <http://www.frogspad.ca> .

Çraig Pinhey

“Atlantic Canada’s Wine, Beer & Spirits Writer”

Sommelier, wine consultant and educator, booze & pop culture columnist

www.frogspad.ca

frogspad@nb.aibn.com

506 647 8466