palate analysis

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Much discussion among bloggers centers upon wine ratings – the validity/stupidity/cupidity of various systems. The pros and cons of blind tasting. The advantages of a single taster versus a panel.

But what any critique always comes back to is individual palate preferences. If any reviewer’s opinions are to be of value to others, he or she must show some sort of consistency. Whether or not you agree, you should be able to dial them in, like getting a GPS fix.

I used to work as a DJ, on the FM side, at a time when radio stations were free-form and music libraries numbered in the tens of thousands of albums (yes albums – it was that far back). Anyway, I got pretty good at walking into a friend’s house, perusing their record collection, and knowing quite clearly what their musical preferences were. I’m sure you can do the same thing today by looking at an iPod, though it’s not nearly as much fun.

Point being, I think you can also do it with palates. In my two long-running tasting groups, having had the opportunity to sit down, taste widely, and discuss hundreds of wines over many years, I have a pretty good grip on who likes what and why.

The assumption there is that all are pro-caliber tasters, but this works for the average individual also. In fact, it’s probably easier to dial someone in if they do not explore wine all that widely. With my non-wine industry friends, it is fun to set up an exploratory tasting, pick their brains about what they like and don’t like, and do a fairly comprehensive palate analysis. After that, I know what they like and what to avoid serving them.

As with anything, your own personal biases (and blind spots) are the most difficult to discern. I would be quite curious to listen in on my friends and colleagues discussing my palate preferences, good and bad. That would be a valuable learning tool for me. But as long as I sit in the reviewer’s chair, that is not so likely to happen.

Question for you: how important is it to understand the individual palates at work behind the major wine reviewing publications?


Chris said...

I thought he had found a picture of a Yak in the Yak.

My answer to your question is that an individual profesional reviewer's palate preferences are not that important to me. I trust that they've been exposed to enough wine to be able to rank the sweetest ice wine along side the blackest dryest bourdeaux. Of course they'd have a preference but I take my own personal preferences more into account when reading a review.

For example I might spend quite a while reading the notes and profile on a big Syrah maker, because I like those wines and buy them. I couldn't care less about a profile or tasting notes of a chardonnay maker.

I think of the professional reviewer like the best of show judge at a dog show. He or she should know the standards and pick best against that standard and the competition. I, as a dog buyer, can pick the mutt at the pound that has the saddest eyes. My preference matters more than the judge's.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I think understanding the palates of the individuals who work at the major publications is extremely important. Taking an easy example, Jay Miller who has covered Washington for Wine Advocate for the last several years likes to drink older, aged wines (by his own admittance). His drinking windows are therefore much (much) longer than those seen in other publications, such as Wine Spectator. If one didn't know this (and share the same taste), he or she could be sitting on a lot of old wine.

I recall back when Siskel and Ebert were reviewing movies, I noticed that Siskel had a particular weakness for a type of movie I didn't enjoy. For this reason, it was important for me to listen to how he described the movie to determine whether I might or might not like it, rather than just look at the "Thumbs Up/Down." I believe tasting notes can play a somewhat similar role in providing some background information about the style of the wine. I would expect that some readers may find they agree with certain reviewers on a particular type of wine/style and disagree with them on others, rather than agreeing or disagreeing as a whole.

I like the idea of a formal palate analysis ("I'm sorry sir. You've got an incurable weakness in your midpalate.") It would also be fun to create a list of, say, 5-10 wines one could consistenly use to analyze anyone's preferences.

Thad Westhusing said...

Let's be clear, there is little objectivity when it comes to reviewing wine, outside of identify clear technical faults. Because of its subjective nature, all critics should be more transparent with their palate preferences. I hold more respect for reviewers who disclose their palate preferences than those who try falsely assume they can remain objective in their assessments of any wine. At the end of the day, it's all inconsistent subjectiveness.

Brian said...

it is truly important to understand the individual palates preferences and strengths. for the consumer, you can pick up on possible bias. for the winemaker, you know who will evaluate your wine most fairly. and for the publication, the wines can be routed to the most appropriate palate. Because of the nature of tasting and thresholds, no reviewer is an expert on every style of wine

Richard Shaffer said...

For me as consumer (and I observe wine critic ratings both as a consumer and as an importer of wine from Israel whose wines occasionally get scored), I think it is important to find a critic whose style preferences seem to mesh up somewhat with mine. The Israeli food & wine critic Daniel Rogov does that for me. Then I know that directional differences in rankings are more likely to align with whether I might like a wine more or less (of course this is not always true). I don't get so caught up with specific scores as much as how they seem to fall within that specific critics rankings of everything else he tasted.

So I think intra-rater score differences matter most to me. As opposed to inter-rater differeces between, say, Rogov (whose palate I seem to share) and say another critic or two from major magazines ;)

At the end of the day, I love the wine notes that are more like poetry and thereby highlight how wonderfully subjective this all is ("this wine smells like suntan on a woman's shoulders") than they are like notes a surgeon made into a patient's file ("what a nose then lots of body on the mid-palate I had to dig through the legs to get to comprised of 14 different fruits no one has ever tasted before")


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