The Myth of the Sophisticated Palate: The Dubious Skill of Tasting Wine Blind

 On TV, wine is often used as a prop to show sophistication.  Everyone has seen some form of the scene where, in an effort to impress, a character sniffs a glass and says “Cabernet Sauvignon, from Bordeaux...Pauillac...Chateau Lafite, and it’s from ‘75.  You can smell the effect of the rains that arrived just before harvest.”  Then the bottle is revealed and, what do you know?  Nailed it.  

This is complete nonsense.  However, this scene somehow seems more realistic than a doctor performing heart surgery while on a moving bus.  The reason is that wine is usually discussed in vague terms of mystery, exclusivity and romance.  It is comforting to believe that someone knows why the $150 bottle of Napa Cab is better -- objectively better -- than the $15 bottle from the next county over.  If the truth were that the expert was guessing and occasionally mistook the two bottles, it would be difficult to justify the additional $135.

Let’s radically shift gears for a second.  Imagine a yoga class where you walk in, and the teacher begins by asking everyone to touch their toes.  If you can’t touch your toes, then it’s best to leave.  Yoga just isn’t for you.  Namaste.  This is ridiculous is because everyone knows that there is much more to be gained from yoga than simply achieving the right positions in the correct order.  Yoga offers an opportunity to reconnect with the body, notice small movements and resolve tension.

Wine offers a similar opportunity to connect to the body and one of its most underrated senses: smell.  And there is much more to be gained than simply sniffing and identifying random bottles.  Ironically, the mystique surrounding wine is partially responsible for the distrust of personal perceptions.  The most common story goes something like this:

“I started drinking wine and was really excited to learn.  I bought a few different ones that scored over 90 points and I read the tasting notes while I was drinking them.  To be honest, they all tasted kind of the same.  I just don’t have the palate for it.”

Contrary to being indicative of a failure, this observation is quite astute.  The wines do taste similar.  Any differences are necessarily miniscule -- wine is just fermented grape juice.  But, when a tasting note is waxing poetic about leather, freshly roasted coffee and cardamom, it’s just easier to assume that you have a deficiency when you don’t detect those aromas.  The key to getting over this is to push past the similarities and keep exploring the nuance of smell.  The greatest thing about developing a connection to smell is that you will notice the slight change in the new bag of coffee, or that the corner of 9th and Pine smells like jasmine in the evenings, and your world becomes richer because of it.

So, the next time you see a character use sterling wine knowledge to prove their sophistication, just think about the last time your doctor proved his or her medical skills by performing a surgical procedures in a moving vehicle.  In reality, your doctor’s ability to do this would likely be indicative of poor judgment rather than skill, just as guessing a wine blind -- whether correct or not -- would only provide evidence of unbearable pretension.