[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 andÂ 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.Â 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?Â 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 â€“ 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 canâ€™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 â€“ from a blind sampling -Â 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.Â 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 â€“ what a shock â€“ it was judged bland and rather uninteresting. What do you expect for $8?
A similar trick is to put an ordinary (not defective â€“ 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.Â 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?”Â My answer? “Cabernet, Medoc, harvested just before the rains.” I cheated, of courseâ€¦
Craig Pinhey is a Certified Sommelier and Beer Judge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.