There has been an increasing amount of discussion over the past few years over what a ‘Fact’ is which is interesting in itself, because the word has a definition as all words do and that is a fact. However, in this era of truthiness, an aspect of that definition that is more and more frequently being warped is the process of turning experience into fact. This insistence that things that are not actually facts are in fact facts is something that the wine world has been dealing with for quite some time. Perhaps it correlates with the invention of the wine snob, but I can’t verify that as a fact.
If an experience happens; that’s a fact. The fact that the experience happens though doesn’t mean that the experience was perceived accurately or that the experience is reflective of some larger truth. As one example let’s say Person A believes, based on their experience, that all people with the name Aaron are horrible people. Person B doesn’t believe this because they’ve had quite a few pleasant experiences with people named Aaron. Additionally, some research has been performed which defines what a horrible person is and there has been a reasonable evaluation of a sampling of Aarons and that sample didn’t meet the definition of horrible people. However, neither Person A or Person B is fully aware of this. In this case the facts are this:
- Person A believes people named Aaron are all horrible people based on some bad experiences.
- Person B believes people named Aaron are generally decent people based on some positive experiences.
- Research shows that people named Aaron cannot generally be defined as horrible people.
If someone bothered to look into the issue (and they really should; highly critical issue here), we could see that while it is a fact that Person A and Person B believe different things based on their experiences, there is evidence that Person B’s belief is more in line with the larger truth. Therefore, if Person A went around telling everyone that it’s a fact people named Aaron are jerks, they would in fact, be wrong. No matter how many times they said it. Even if Person A said: well, it’s their opinion and they have a right to voice it, they are still, in fact, wrong and should be encouraged to not purport their opinions and/or beliefs as facts. Even if Person C comes in to the conversation and says they agree with Person A, they are still, in fact, wrong.
Unfortunately in the wine world, there are a lot of Person As running around and have been for quite some time. It seems that it is almost the standard rate of currency in wine knowledge that the more opinions/beliefs stated, the more knowledge that is held. The sad part is that there is now quite a lot of research and evidence that people can reference to check these opinions/beliefs against. People don’t generally question a statement coming from an “expert”, and usually take a statement expressed as fact at face value. There have been a number of times that I personally have made statements regarding wine that I believed to be true and purported them to be facts. Why? Because I was told they were facts by experts. I tend to be more careful about that since my younger days.
I would love to have an exhaustive list of all the mis-truths paraded around as facts in the wine world, but that would most likely be impossible and if it is, it would be better presented in an encyclopedia format. Therefore, I’ll just address the major categories that seem to contain all of the issues and what to look for.
What Wine Professionals Learn in Class
I went through the International Sommelier Guild for my “official” wine training. Through conversations and demonstrations of knowledge with people who have gone through other wine schools (International Wine School, Wine and Spirit Education Trust, etc. ), my impression is that the curricula are roughly the same. While the breadth of knowledge should certainly be viewed as impressive for anyone coming out of this education, it should be emphasized that the main focus as you reach higher levels of the education is on the memorization of wine regions, what wines they produce, and what appears to be unique about the wines from those regions.
- A historical overview of wine’s role in society.
- The very rough basics of how wine is made and the various styles it can be made into. Anyone attending these classes does not actually make wine as part of the course.
- A high-level look at viticulture and the common ailments grapevines can face.
- The wine regions, which grape varietals are most commonly grown in those regions, what styles of wine are generally made from those grapes, and what laws govern wine production including the legal descriptions of what “Quality” wine is in wine producing countries.
- Sensory training to identify and describe acidity, astringency, sweetness, alcohol content, and basic aroma descriptions (see more on aroma descriptors below).
- Traditions and expectations around wine service at restaurants including wine storage.
- Traditions of pairing wines to various foods and a collection of “rules” to follow when creating pairings.
- Cursory overviews of beer, spirits, and cigars.
It should be noted that little to no actual science is included in this education. Wine schools are geared toward preparing students to work as Sommeliers, be in wine sales, and writing articles entitled “The Top 5 Wines You Should Be Drinking NOW!!!”…which it seems a lot of people forget, is still wine sales. I always compare wine to fashion; if you are a fashion “expert” generally you’re just promoting certain brands and talking about trends and styles, but that doesn’t make you an expert on how the clothes are constructed, production costs, labor issues, the science behind dyes and fabric production, etc. Most wine “experts” I know and come across still haven’t even bothered to make a single batch of wine and therefore when they talk about the subject, it’s really from an armchair perspective. If you like sports commentary, maybe that’s your thing. A wine’s legs or tears (the drips down the inside of the glass after you swirl it) is an aesthetic that is sometimes evaluated in wines, but it means nothing in terms of quality despite the opinions of some. Therefore, it’s appropriate to question whether what is being related is a fact, or just this person’s opinion especially when it comes to statements as to what makes something better than something else. It is also appropriate to question sensory assessments, but more on that later.
Wine and Food Pairing
There are a lot of facts about how we interact with wine from a physiological and psychological standpoint. I address a number of these in my wine sensory experience series that starts here. When it comes to wine and food pairing advice though, these are all matters of opinion and not fact. Most current wine and food pairing advice can be boiled down to one of two things: 1) What grows together goes together (Traditional pairings), or 2) Flavor matching, or putting wines that have certain flavor characteristics with foods that share those characteristics. There’s a lot of talk about “perfect” pairings, but given that the designation is wholly subjective, as in, not based on anything objective or measurable whatsoever, we can throw out the idea that people are using any metric besides their preference to declare what wines go better with what foods. This is why we spent at least decades with the thinking that white wines can only go with fish and chicken and red wines can only go with beef and, depending on some cultures or who you’re trying to impress, Cabernet Sauvignon should be ordered with absolutely everything. Therefore, saying you had a certain wine paired with a certain dish and you enjoyed it is a fact. Saying a certain wine pairs better with a certain dish than all other wines is a matter of opinion and given that the person probably didn’t taste test all of the wines in the world with that dish, it is perhaps an uninformed opinion regardless of who they claim to be.
If there’s one thing all wine buyers are constantly exposed to it’s tasting notes. They’re on the bottle, they’re posted in reviews on-line, they’re heralded as the highest art form in the wine world. People who are respected by other wine drinkers are said to have a “Good nose” or a “Good palette”, and what the hell does that even mean?!?! Are these people quantitatively more in tune with their senses than the rest of us? Are the physically and mentally superior? Usually, the answer is no, they’re just better at bullshitting (Important life skill kids. Don’t say ‘bullshit’ though). Now, there is a way to see if someone was actually superior to someone else at identifying various aromatic compounds and it is a skill that can be developed. In a nutshell, we teach ourselves to match up the aromas we are smelling with the “image” of an aroma in our memory banks, but that process can be conflicted and conflated by a wide number of different things.
Let’s face it, most people in this world aren’t that great at describing what we smell. It’s not our fault, we just don’t have the words for it. Yet it’s the central focus in the world of wine. To alleviate this, various lexicons of aromas have been developed. Most notably is Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel which is a great way to have a discussion that compares and contrasts various wines. But the aromas listed on that wheel were taken from looking over tasting notes, which as mentioned above, aren’t really a scientific analysis of the actual volatile aromatic compounds in the wines. They are people’s perceptions or opinions of what they smell. Therefore, if someone says “There are lilac and peach aromas in this wine.” the fact that they are meaning to convey is “I smell aromas that remind me of lilacs and peaches in this wine.” You may very well smell something different. This isn’t to say that there are no “correct” or “wrong” answers.
Regardless of what we interpret as the smell, one could chemically analyze the wine and compare it to the 40+ million fragrant molecules that have been identified that our noses can sniff. And each varietal of wine has it’s own aromatic spectrum or range based on its genetic code of things it could possibly smell like…not to mention the addition of aromas that come from wine making practices, but we don’t have a definitive index yet of which fragrant molecules are absolutely found in certain wines based on terroir, or some might say, phenotype.
If someone tells you they smell cinnamon in a wine, you can wonder if someone else could interpret it as clove, anise, Thai basil, wild basil, malted barley, fresh mangoes, apricots, pineapple, strawberries, rosemary, potatoes, cooked asparagus, mozzarella cheese, or grilled beef. Why? Because all of those descriptions of aromas contain the aromatic compound eugenol. But if someone said that the chemical analysis of this wine reveals that there are molecules of eugenol, estragole, s-carvone, apigenin, r-carvone, menthol, and anethole. One could assume that an anise aroma could be found and one could also assume that someone wouldn’t interpret the aromas as butter (that’s primarily diacetyl).
But no one says that, and it’s highly improbable that you’re going to chemically analyze the wine you’re drinking. Let’s just say that when it comes to a wine expert describing a wine to someone it’s more of a performance and exercise in creativity than anything.The same goes with blind tasting. But since I’m not writing a novel on the subject right now, I’ll just say this: while training does help with identifying a typical variety of wine from a particular place, a wine of a different variety from a different place can be made to taste the same way. Education in wine builds the skill of identifying typicity, and that’s good for two things: recognizing when something is either atypical or typical of what it is supposed to be, and a neat party trick to impress your friends and potential mates. Actually, there’s a third thing: verifying the server brought you the correct glass of wine. Perhaps the best use of the skill, I’ve had to make corrections only a couple of times, but that was when I ordered a wine that I really, really knew. I’ve probably been served the wrong wine multiple times, but it was similar enough I didn’t notice. Mistakes in restaurant service happen and it’s ok.
The list of chemical compounds and aromas was taken from the book Taste Buds and Molecules and is the result of the chemical analysis of a large, but obviously not complete sample of wines.
To top it all off, there are a lot of “facts” floating around out there that have been disproven that are still in popular circulation: our tongues have certain areas that only perceive certain tastes (false), steak goes with tannic wines because the fat softens the tannins (false), sweet wines are always lower quality than dry wines (false), or even that people who prefer to drink red wines are more superior or somehow better educated than those who drink whites (false…in case you were wondering). Therefore, it’s acceptable and encouraged to question anything being presented as fact in the wine world until you can have it proven for yourself. You can prove that the more acid a wine has, the more saliva will rush into your mouth. You can prove that wines made in typical styles from different locations are different from each other. You can prove that when wines have certain characteristics, you tend to enjoy them better. But if something being said seems ungraspable, unreachable, untenable, there’s a good chance it is. While demonstrated experts should certainly be trusted, wine is not a magical beverage no matter how much we claim it to be so it’s best to also be skeptical.