Expert Wine Tasters Often Don’t Get It Right

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Experts couldn't recognize a wine that was served to them 3 times from the same bottle, giving it different scores each time.

The science of wine tasting doesn’t hold water, according to a researcher who has been sneakily testing tasters for years.

Robert Hodgson runs a small California winery and is a longtime wine critic. He’s been entering his wines into state competitions for years, and has found that which wines win comes down to random chance, The Guardian says. The judges aren’t amateurs, it says — they’re among the most respected.

That led Hodgson to start playing a little trick at the California State Fair wine competition, with the backing of its organizers:

Each panel of four judges would be presented with their usual “flight” of samples to sniff, sip and slurp. But some wines would be presented to the panel three times, poured from the same bottle each time. The results would be compiled and analysed to see whether wine testing really is scientific.

He has done it every year since 2005, and has published his findings before. By now the judges should probably expect to be tricked, but the most recent test happened earlier this month with the results Hodgson has come to expect.

Only about 10 percent of judges consistently ranked the three-time wine, and even those guys don’t do it reliably every year, he told The Guardian. On average, judges scored the wine four points higher or lower each time they sampled it. A few points can be enough to affect contest results, which mean a large boost in sales for the winner, the paper says.

We did our own blind taste test for New Year’s. You can check out the results below:

Other research has poked similar holes in wine-judging expertise. One study that swapped labels found tasters were more likely to positively describe wines with the more expensive label. Another found a link between the price of wine and how much experts enjoyed it. Yet another found that people have about an even chance of telling whether a given wine is cheap or expensive.

Hodgson doesn’t think wine tasting is complete bunk. He just doesn’t think people can compare them reliably.

“I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense,” he told The Guardian, “but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability.”

Unsurprisingly, the research is causing sour grapes. The Guardian also published a wine critic’s response to the research.

Stacy Johnson

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