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Wine Critics and The Judgement of Paris

Posted November 13, 2012 in Tasting

Okay, true story:

In another time and place, we were managing a restaurant in a popular resort town in the mountains of North Carolina.  A local spot for sightseers was the expansive mansion of a noted American family…Oh what the heck, it was a Vanderbilt estate.

Anyway, the estate featured the mansion, numerous outbuildings, formal gardens, and acres and acres of rolling farmland.  At one time, it was the largest private home in the country and donated lands created the 85,000 acre Pisgah National Forest.  So a pretty big spread.

A part of the estate was at one time a winery, and over the years they had attempted to resurrect the family name by growing some grapes and making some wine.  Just like in the good old days.

But back to the restaurant.  One night a waitress approached us, needing some help with a table.  They were asking questions that she really couldn’t answer.  We approached a group of businessmen who were poring over our meager list of wines, some imposed by corporate fiat and some representing local vendors.  They asked, “What do you recommend?”

We tried to steer them into something reasonably priced and consistent, not doubt a barrel select California red.  The gentleman who was seemingly in charge of this cabal asked, “What do you think of this Biltmore wine?”  Our knowledge at this point was somewhat limited, but Chef had an advanced palate and we knew that he was not only a native of the area but was a staunch supporter of local products.  We’d enlist him.

Chef was posed with the same query, and wiping his hands and furrowing his brow, thought a bit…

“I think that in a few years this wine is going to be very nice.  It is, however, the first year that they’ve bottled, so the wine is a bit fresh for me.  My choice, given what you’ve ordered to eat, would be this nice barrel select from California.”

Vindication.

But our joy was short-lived.  The decision-making-suit-wearing guy was a representative of said local winery, and was treating some overseas visitors (and potential investors) to dinner.

Open mouth – insert foot.

But was it really our fault?  What did we know?  It wasn’t like we were professional critics.  Since those heady days, the folks on the estate have managed to improve their wines and have received notable local and national acclaim.  Again, we certainly weren’t the best arbiter of wine quality.  And sometimes being a pro is no guarantee of being reliable.

In 1976 a group of connoisseurs gathered in Paris, France for the annual “Tasting of Le Wines.”  A British wine merchant gathered 11 judges, (one British, one American, the rest French) to taste 20 wines both red and white, rank them on a 20-point scale, and do it through two blind tastings.  They would see no label, no vintage, just wine.  “Here, it’s a chardonnay.  And this one’s a cabernet.  What do you think?”

Surprisingly, and to the chagrin of the French in attendance, the Americans won.  Every category.  After centuries and decades of domination of the wine world, the French picked upstart wines from California over their classic Gallic counterparts.  The French countered that their wines would surely age better than these American knock-offs, and so they reconvened two years later.  The Americans won again.

That original meeting of “experts” became known as “Judgment of Paris” and began a long line of critic ridicule.  The organizer of the event said that you couldn’t trust the judges, and a blind tasting a day later would no doubt produce different results.  He later said that a purely statistical evaluation of the judges scores rendered them meaningless.I can smell China from here!

Kind of like election day polling…

But what do critics really know?  In 2001, Frederic Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux, asked 57 wine experts to drink some wine and then rate them against each other.  They commented on the fruitiness of one versus another, the “woodiness” and other such wine-worthy appellations.  Two problems for the critics arose:  In one tasting they were given the same wine to compare and in another they were given a chardonnay and told it was a red.

They didn’t know the difference.

To be fair, a study at Penn State’s Sensory Evaluation Center found that “experts” had the ability to recognize tastes and flavors that we mere mortals were unable to detect, but does that make them experts?  Isn’t it kind of liking a dark, rich stout beer over a watered down light beer?  Or preferring a rich, chocolaty claret over a white zinfandel?

After all, it’s ultimately about your taste.  It’s not like you’re trying to sell it to the Rockefellers.

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