Tastes pretty good to me

Miles Raymond: Let me show you how this is done. First thing, hold the glass up and examine the wine against the light. You’re looking for color and clarity. Just, get a sense of it. OK? Uhh, thick? Thin? Watery? Syrupy? OK? Alright. Now, tip it. What you’re doing here is checking for color density as it thins out towards the rim. Uhh, that’s gonna tell you how old it is, among other things. It’s usually more important with reds. OK? Now, stick your nose in it. Don’t be shy, really get your nose in there. Mmm… a little citrus… maybe some strawberry… [smacks lips]

Miles Raymond: … passion fruit… [puts hand up to ear]

Miles Raymond: … and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese…

Jack: Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Strawberries. Not the cheese…

Sideways

Even if you don’t drink much wine there’s probably no way not to notice that there’s a lot of it around these days. Even in humblest of grocery stores anywhere in Europe or the US there’s a decent selection of different bottles, even if they’re all of uniformly humble origins themselves, sporting unassuming labels and single-digit price tags. However, as soon as you get into a proper store—or a specialized wine-shop—the choice can be quite bewildering and there seems to be no limit to how high the prices can go. All of the sudden, buying a bottle becomes an ordeal. Instead of simply going by time-honored red-for-meat, white-for-fish rule you now have to worry about grape varieties, regions, vintages, first- and second-growth vineyards, or how to pronounce stuff like Sancerre, Chianti or Chateneuf-du-Pape.

Getting properly acquainted with even one region or grape would take a lot of sampling from different bottles and once those start costing high double digits and upwards, it gets a bit awkward for most would-be connoisseurs, as it quickly becomes a substantial investment of both time and money. So voilà, enter the wine critic: a person who has valiantly spent many years of his or her life to sip and spit from untold number of bottles with intimidating labels, honing their nose and palate, and subsequently reaching the high level of proficiency that enables them to pass judgements on wine. Of course, for this sort of judgement to be worth something it has to be able to spot qualities and fine distinctions that escape untrained civilians. This is the origin of the dreaded wine-speak.

The trouble referring to wine with the help of adjectives such as “round”, “well-behaved” and “animistic” or to liken the taste and smell of a beverage made from grape-juice to figs, hay, tobacco or peat is that it assumes a certain poetic license and thus makes it very difficult to compare one bottle to another. The ingenious way to solve this situation is of course to reduce all the different poetic descriptions to a single, numerically expressed rating. American wine critic Robert Parker is probably be most well-known and certainly one of the most influential practitioners of that approach. In fact, his 100-point rating system has proven so successful that there have been complaints against Mr. Parker having destroyed the traditional French wine-making, as the French producers have optimized their wines to conform with his taste—thus making them more “round” and “full”. The scoring system has been since replicated by other critics, and it is indeed a very useful reference for the casual drinker who wants to get a good bottle with some oomph factor for the family dinner. In order for this to work, however, it requires a trust in the capacity of the critic to discern all those fine points that eventually get distilled into the final rating. And it seems that, despite of all the wincing at the high flaunted wine-speak, this trust has been there for most of the time.

Until a retired statistics professor and a small independent wine producer Robert Hodgson got curious how can it be that some of the wines he produces win medals at some competitions and get unceremoniously bumped from others. As is befitting to a statistician, he set up a proper study where some 70 wine judges scored about 100 different wines “blind”—that is, without knowing anything about the bottle that the drink came from. The trick with Mr. Hodgson’s study was that each wine was presented to each judge three different times, each time drawn from the very same bottle. When the results were tallied up, a rather astonishing, if not completely unexpected, picture appeared. Not only did the same wine get described quite differently by different judges, for got rated by ±4 points on a standard 20 point scale (running from 80 to 100) by the same judge at different times. You can read the whole story here, but to make it short it appears that the distribution of medals in wine competitions “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.”

This all, of course, does not mean that “all the wines are the same” and that it makes no difference whether you get your bottle from the top or the bottom shelf at the store. As anyone who has tasted, say, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc side by side, well knows wines are different. What it means is that drinking and appreciating wine is a very personal matter, and not only personal but also to a large extent social one. When it comes to drinking wine, good company goes a long way—how you drink is at least as important, if not more, than what you drink.

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