Is Tasting Wine a “Shared Hallucination?”

Can a sommelier really pick out individual flavors and aromas in wine? Apparently not, according to a group of wine-tasting Princeton economists who call themselves Liquid Assets. In an excerpt from his new book, Proof: The Science of Booze, featured on SalonAdam Rogers details Assets’ findings. 

One of the founders, Richard Quandt, wrote a computer program to compile statistical ratings among its blind tasters. The group turned their wine tasting events into a formalized research journal published as the American Association of Wine Economics to express “a streamlined locomotive of skepticism about the vast, lucrative world of wine tasting and reviews.”

Although Quandt’s research attempts to connect people’s preference of wine to its chemical composition, it is impossible to discern what a wine would taste like just from its structure. “Nobody can even identify, with certainty, all the ingredients, all the molecules in a glass of wine (or beer or gin or whatever),” writes Rogers. “Nobody understands, exactly, why booze tastes the way it does, and why people like it.”

Quandt believes that wine connoisseurs and professionals are “essentially making it all up.” Because we don’t really understand how our noses and taste buds work, the best we can do is to come up with a common vernacular to describe wines; say, bitter almond and cherry. 

In defense of wine tasters, Rogers discusses the issues with Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser who says, “My strongest belief about wine is that it’s not precise. We do everything we can to give structure to the experience.” Rogers believes that Gaiser, like us, is merely “filtering experience through memory and a trained vocabulary.” He calls wine “a shared hallucination.”

The takeaway is that no one can know more about your palate than you. Sommeliers can guide you through the experience, but that doesn’t mean their noses and taste buds are inherently more talented than yours. [Salon] [Photo: Flickr/Prayitno]