Trained wine tasters think more about their sips

After reading the story in the Wall Street Journal about “Why wine ratings are badly flawed?” it got me thinking. Not about wine ratings because that part of the article I agree with, wine ratings are subjective, and can generally be inconsistent across various types of “raters”. I’ve always thought it weird that one wine in Spectator can get a “90” and then in Enthusiast receive a “78” or vice versa.

There is a rich history of scientific research questioning whether wine experts can really make the fine taste distinctions they claim. For example, a 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed 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.”

The above comment is the one that got me thinking and one that I disagree with. Personally I know that I can taste more than 3 distinct flavors in any wine. Also, my years working in Sensory Research did many studies with trained panelists in which they identified more than three components in a mixture. I tried to find the study with no avail and was kind of disturbed that the author of the article in the WSJ didn’t put in any reference to the exact article. So, I couldn’t look at that particular study and examine exactly how that experiment was conducted.

In searching for some rebuttal papers I came across a cool article that I remember reading years back in the Journal “NeuroImage”. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) this study showed that trained wine tasters, in this case 7 sommeliers, showed higher brain function when it came to tasting wine versus untrained wine consumers.

A larger and well-defined cerebral network elicited by wine tasting was identified in sommeliers compared to naïve subjects that included the left insula and adjoining caudal orbitofrontal cortex, the left putamen, the right inferior frontal gyrus (opercular portion), and the inferior portion of the middle frontal gyrus in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) bilaterally.”

…A final intriguing finding was the consistent activation in sommeliers of the inferior DLPFC. In this region the BOLD signal time-course peaked initially during the taste period and then well after the cue to swallow had been given, suggesting higher cognitive processing modulated by expertise.”

So basically the paper is saying that people trained in wine tasting have a additional cognitive processing that is linking both taste, olfactory and somatosensory sensations together to evaluate the wine. Pretty cool! With all this extra brain functioning going on, I don’t know how someone who is a trained taster could not detect more than three flavors in a wine or a mixture.

If anybody knows the exact journal number that was referenced in this WSJ article let me know, I would love to look at it.



MLODINOW, LEONARD. “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion.” Wall Street Journal 14 Nov 2009,

Castriota-Scanderbeg, Alessandro, Gisela Hagberg, Antonio Cerasa, and Giorgia Committeri. “The appreciation of wine by sommeliers: a functional magnetic resonance study of sensory integration.” NeuroImage. 25.2 (2005): 570-578.

Categories: wine education | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Trained wine tasters think more about their sips

  1. Cool post and thanks for taking the time to cite your sources. The wall street journal article seems to have made some waves through the popular media and wine peeps.

  2. Simple Sam

    The WSJ article implies that there are only three aspects of wine tasting that wine tasters can most likely be counted upon to discern. No matter which wine taster you choose, they will probably agree on those three aspects of the wine’s taste. It’s not that they aren’t tasting more aspects to the flavor, it’s just that all those other aspects aren’t replicable with other wine tasters. Wine taster 1 might taste a whole series of aspects to a wine’s flavor, but most of them are based on him. Wine taster 2 tastes some of the same aspects and some different ones. And so on through wine taster 500. The point is that the only aspects of flavor that wine tasters can agree on without failing prey to their own bias are limited to just three aspects.

    In the brief prepared for the article in the journal NeuroImage the stated purpose is “to test the hypothesis that any difference in brain activity would reflect a learned ability to integrate information from gustatory and olfactory senses with past experience.” The article is trying to prove how increased brain activity comes from more experience, not necessarily skill. They compared experienced tasters against novices, this was not an experiment to determine the level of actual ability for expert wine tasters.

    The WSJ and your own are giving two different conclusions on the subject of wine tasting and do not necessarily disagree with eachother or even touch upon the same specific topic. The WSJ article deals with unbiased vs biased sensory perception and the NeuroImage article deals with brain activity between individuals with significant experience and those with very little.

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