Standardized tasting: Could wine be like Thai food?

Wine tasting is astonishingly non-standardized. In an era in which kids’ writing on high-stakes tests is routinely being graded by computer algorithms*, computerized tongues still have a pretty limited use in grading wine. Sensory scientists try to standardize their human tasting panels as much as possible by training people to recognize standard smells and tastes and by using various statistical maneuvers to filter out individual variation. But wine tasting in nearly every important and interesting way involves everyone’s palates being a bit different. The question is: are we tolerating that difference or celebrating it? If we could really standardize wine tasting, would we want to?

My June piece for Palate Press is about a phenomenon, mostly marvelous but also a bit frightening, that could help a standardization agenda. Wine changes in our mouths, thanks to salivary enzymes and bacteria with more enzymes that create aromatic compounds from previously unaromatic ones. Because both the bacteria and the enzymes are different for different people, it’s likely that we’re each tasting the same wine a bit differently, not just because our physical apparatus for tasting is different — different numbers of taste buds and so on — but because the molecules we’re smelling are actually a bit different.

This is, on the one hand, fantastic. Not only is the science just plain interesting, but it’s one more part of an explanation for a common but peculiar and sometimes frustrating experience: multiple people taste the same wine, but taste different things. On the other hand, it opens up some frightening prospects. If we have individual variations, then we’re likely to find some way to judge those differences and make some better or worse or ideal or unacceptable. Will prospective judges for strenuous wine competitions need to spit into a sample cup for the sake of enzymatic analysis and be eliminated if they don’t meet the standard protocol?

Last year, the Thai government released an electronic tongue expressly designed to protect would-be eaters of Thai food from incorrectly prepared culinary monstrosities. (It occurs that the Thai government feels about its food something of the way France has historically felt about its language.) The machine awards a sample a score on a 100-point scale; 80 is the threshold for an “acceptable” version of a dish. The dense politics surrounding who gets to define the standards might be the only reason why a similar internationally distributable box for Bordeaux or Burgundy hasn’t yet been marketed.

Thailand’s authenticity verifier relies on standards generated by Thai university students: the scientists had students rank samples of a dish in terms of which they preferred. That strategy presumably worked well in a fairly homogenous cultural context and when we take it for granted that Thai people are the authorities on how Thai food should taste. Could the same ever be said for wine? I’d hazard that our global wine tasting palates — the way we educate ourselves to expect wine to taste — probably owe more to the oenophilous Brits, not only because they drank lots of wine but because they popularized a particular idea of wine appreciation and wine writing across their empire. Do we get British experts to generate our standards for good taste, or MW students, or some representative sample of global wine drinkers? And then, if your own tastes differ, are you wrong?

It may be that my notions about the validity of personal taste are peculiarly American, where individuality is so much a virtue that it’s hard to remember that the rest of the world doesn’t always feel the same way. But the question isn’t just about individuality, but about who sets the standards. Wine appreciators have spent a lot of energy convincing people who aren’t upper middle-class white British men that wine can be for them, too, and that what matters most is what you like, not what someone tells you you should like. Even if we can standardize wine tasting, actually doing so may work against what wine lovers at large are trying to achieve.



One thought on “Standardized tasting: Could wine be like Thai food?

  1. You bring our interesting food for thought, while also hitting the nail on the head: there can never be any such thing as a standardized qualitative judgment of wine.

    Wine competition judges, for instance, are acutely aware of this. In competition after competition we judge over 100 wines a day; and in round after round after round we are perceiving pretty much the same sensations as other highly qualified, intelligent, experienced wine judges. And in round after round we end up making different qualitative judgements. One judge’s “gold” is another judge’s bronze or no medal at all. One judge’s 98 is another judge’s 78. Same wine, different perspective.

    This, mind you, is not an “American” thing. It is a human thing.

    And this is what is so stupid (why mince words?) about the entire system of 100-point judging. The excuse is that “people want this.” But the excuse is irresponsible: you are leading consumers down into a never-ending rabbit hole when you proffer point-scores as systems of with any degree of integrity.

    One of the world’s most influential wine critics is blatantly insensitive to the serious flaw Brettanomyces, and has little sense of scale when it comes to alcohol/balance. Everyone knows this, yet everyone ignores the obvious. But that’s how close the world will ever come to “standardization.” There are too many lousy yet “authoritative” judges of wine to even begin to make this a possibility.

    But this, of course, is not cause for concern. We forget the other obvious factor: apppreciation of wine is pretty much like the appreciation of any of the arts, which is fraught with personal perspective. James Joyce was a great writer, and Jonathan Franzen and Kazuro Ishiguro are considered two of the greatest living writers. The vast majority of perfectly intelligent, devoted readers of fiction still find Joyce, Franzen and Ishiguro utterly boring. Nothing wrong with this. It’s just the way it is.

    Which is why the inference of, say, a 98 or 100-point wine as being something anyone and everyone should love and appreciate is pure nonsense. We should not pretend that lofty scores means something, yet that’s how infantile our grasp of wine quality is. We believe just about everything we read or what we are told, forgetting the most basic principal of anything having to do with the arts: that it is fraught with personal perspective. Objectivity is an impossibility. It’s idiotic to follow “tastemakers,” no matter what his/her qualifications, because even the best tastemakers differ significantly.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with this — it’s more a matter of coming to grips with it. And understanding that it’s just the way things are, and we should roll with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *