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.

 

 

Pairings with pinots and the futility of looking to science for answers

I have a horrible (given my current location) admission to make: Central Otago pinot noir is, to date and as far as I can tell, not my favorite thing in the world. That said, Otago pinot noir is lovely and fulfills a completely different function at table. One of the best meals I’ve ever had with an Oregon pinot was the whole salmon I roasted with a bunch of herbs and various alliums for my last Thanksgiving in the States. A guest serendipitously brought a Lange pinot, and it was memorable. On the other hand, Grasshopper Rock’s example — grown on the Clutha River in Alexandra, Otago — didn’t really grab me on its own, but was just lovely when I tried it alongside some smoked hoki that I’d brought home from the Auckland fish market (yes, in my backpack, on the airplane). Those rather robust smokey flavors emphasized the wine’s structural and savory notes and took the focus off cherry flavors that were a bit more candied than I prefer.

What I just offered you is a lay theory. To make it more than that, I’d need an empirical study or three to examine the interaction of smoky foods with various potential sensory qualities found in pinot noir. The problem with that idea, apart from it having nothing to do with my current main priority, i.e. the PhD, is that food and wine pairing research is obnoxious. .

Food and wine pairing articles (I’m quoting this one) are full of statements like this: “This research found that eating cheddar cheese before drinking Shiraz reduced some of the negative characteristics of the wine and enhanced the preference for the wine. This indicates that consuming food and wine together can minimize some of the less desirable flavors of both.” And hypotheses like this one: “Certain food and wine combinations will be perceived as significantly better than others.” The latter of which, I suppose, points out that food-wine preferences could be completely personal, like favorite colors (except that favorite color preference isn’t random, either).

Perhaps this sort of research really interests sommeliers who could think about the benefits of a shiraz and cheddar pairing in a tasting menu, though I doubt they need reassurance that their choices will work for someone other than just themselves. The question still arises: is science, in all its reductionist glory, really the best way to attack food and wine pairings?

First, let’s get a methodology point out of the way. Apparently, the best way to evaluate food and wine pairings is to ask people to eat and drink at the same time rather than, say, munching a bit of cheese, swallowing, and waiting thirty seconds before taking a sip of wine or vice-versa. Because that’s the way people usually eat.

Moving on. Research to date says that wine sweetness and astringency, but not its acidity, are significant in determining ideal food pairings. The most recent food-wine pairing article I’ve encountered tried to suss out whether acidity was in fact important, and the role of wine expertise in food-wine preferences, along with moving beyond many previous studies by pairing wine with foods other than cheese. The chosen foods? Chevre, brie, salami, and milk chocolate, paired with an Ontario chardonnay, an Ontario sauvignon blanc, an Argentinian cabernet sauvignon, and an inexpensive LBV Port. Needless to say, this study isn’t going to give me any insight into my pinot noir pairing theories. Or, for that matter, any insight into any real food and wine pairing conundrum anyone ever faces anywhere.

I’m poking fun, but I’m not being wholly fair. The authors of this article have more expertise in what they’re doing than I do. It’s obvious to any wine or food nerd which of the above pairings will and won’t work, but that evidence is anecdotal, not scientific, and maybe those assumptions are worth testing. But when the authors begin asserting that this study provides evidence that acidity, sweetness, and tannins are all important in pairings, just from showing that milk chocolate works better with port than with chardonnay? No. Four examples aren’t enough to allow for that conclusion, not near enough to weed through and rule out all of the other things (confounding factors) going on in both the wines and the food.

So we’re back to where we started with pairing food and wine. What says our weight of accumulated, non-scientific wisdom? And does it taste good? The reductionism of sensory science may have useful ways to tackle the hyper-complexity of food + wine (don’t ask me whether that’s more or less complex than, say, the human immune system, which science seems to tackle with at least some success), but I’m not sure they’ve figured them out yet. And when I’m trying to decide what to serve with my next glass of pinot noir — Oregon, Otago, or otherwise — the only research I expect I’ll do will be on my favorite cooking blogs.

**All sorts of other fascinating alternate-scientific approaches have been taken to food and wine pairing, Chartier’s fascinating Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor being perhaps the most interesting example. What I’m talking about here is the mainstream pairing science found in peer-reviewed journals.