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Emperor Has No Clothes: Oenophilist Edition November 15, 2009

Posted by federalist in Markets, Open Questions.
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Leonard Mlodinow summarizes extensive research calling into question the abilities and value of wine critics. It turns out that wine critics and purveyors have been attributing far too much detail and precision to their reviews.

I confess that I am no wine connoisseur, but even a nephalist can be amused by the prices, prose, and rituals that surround the marketing and consumption of wine. In addition to nuanced appellations that detail which grape varieties were juiced as well as when, where, and how they were fermented, each particular wine gets adorned with pretentious and colorful descriptions of its distinctive traits. Today critics also rank wines on a 21-point scale (80-100) intended to establish their relative value.

Not surprisingly, most of this is absurd. Critics disagree so widely on the same wines that the outcomes of wine competitions cannot be distinguished from simply awarding medals at random. In fact, even the same critic tasting the same wine at the same sitting cannot reliably reproduce his own ratings. This industry has simply strayed far beyond the precision and detail inherent in either wine itself, or in the human ability to evaluate it.

Perhaps now we can retreat to a more realistically coarse system of description and quality that is both reproducible and standardized. A reproducible rating system would be one that is sufficiently coarse that (A) the same critic should never diverge from an earlier rating of the same product and (B) all critics should be within one point of the average rating. Obviously a 21-point system for wine will never be reproducible, so how about 4 levels — call them bad, not-bad, delicious, and sublime? A standardized system of description would dispense with nuanced and subjective prose and hew instead to positive — perhaps even measurable — qualities. Sweetness, acidity, and viscosity seem like obvious dimensions for any beverage. The universe of permissible flavors should be substantially narrowed. After all, we’re talking about fermented grape juice. Is there a meaningful and consistent distinction between “leather” and “tobacco?” Do we gain by dissecting the general flavors of “berries” or “flowers” into the subtleties of “black-currant” and “lavender?” Mlodinow notes that “even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more.”

I wonder why wine in particular has developed such a peculiar and unjustifiable culture of devotion. In other times and places wine has been a commodity more like, for example, grape juice: Juice may be bad, good, or delicious. It can come from this grape variety or that. But one glass of good red concord grape juice is treated pretty much the same as any other. Likewise, tea, coffee, and chocolate have in times past enjoyed ritual and nuance to rival that of wine today, but now they are now mostly treated like commodities. Why?

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