It seems as wine consumers, we are all constantly bombarded with everyone else’s opinions about whether the wine has a hint of black cherries or chocolate. Not to sound jaded, but we never understand why wineries and restaurants always feel as if they must insist on telling us what we’ll smell or taste. And, we’ve never bought a wine based upon a description of what we should taste. The question in our mind, always, is whether the wine tastes good. Complexity matters, body matters, finish matters, etc. But does the fact that someone thinks the wine tastes like black currants or smells like gooseberries make a bit of difference? So we decided to test the question – Are wine descriptions useful or complete bullshit?
If we were following our high school science class rules, where you create a hypothesis and then try to disprove it by experimentation, here is our hypothesis: “Wine Descriptions are Bullshit.” How do we test the hypothesis? By drinking, of course.
We decided to test our hypothesis by buying five bottles of wine with various descriptions, inviting some friends over, and seeing how the group did in a blind tasting trying to match the description to the wine. We chose to have the same style of wine, as if we were mixing varietals, that may give away the answer – for example, we’d know that if we saw hints of grapefruit, it would not be a Zinfandel. So, to avoid biasing ourselves, we chose the same varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon) from the same region (California) at the same general price-point ($25 to $40). Side note: This is no reflection on the wine itself, we’re just questioning the wine descriptions.
What were the wines we chose and how did the wineries describe the wines on the back label?
- The Hess Collection Allomi (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon: “Bold, rich tannins and intense, complex flavors of black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, plum and a touch of spicy oak.”
- Raymond Reserve Selection (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon: “Full of ripe blackberry and black cherry flavors with hints of chocolate and peppery spice.”
- B.R. Cohn Gold Label (Napa and Sonoma) Cabernet Sauvignon: “Aromas and flavors of currant, plum, black cherry wrapped in oaky spice and cedar.”
- Charles Krug (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon: “Flavors of ripe black cherry, blackberry and black currant with hints of dried blueberry and cocoa.”
- Ferrari-Carano (Alexander Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon: “Vibrant aromatics of wild berry and spice give way to cedar and mocha flavors, complimenting the lingering sweet notes of vanilla bean and caramel.”
So, we had six of our friends (ranging from novice to expert tasters) over to our house, we poured the wines into decanters to blind them, and gave all eight of us score sheets to try to match the wine description to the wine. What did we find?
Science proved it!
Wine descriptions are complete bullshit. Out of the eight of us, one person matched two correctly, five people matched one correctly, and two people matched none correctly. In other words, for all intents and purposes, we got a random result, doing no better than if a monkey was randomly trying to match the wines.
And, tellingly, there was absolutely no correlation between tasting experience and the number of times a person matched the right wine. The most tannic of the five wines was not the one that listed tannins in its description. The wine with the sweetest finish was not the one that said it had a sweet finish. Wine descriptions such as the ones on the labels are so subjective, they are meaningless. There was simply no correlation.
The only other explanation for the result, other than the fact that wine descriptions are bullshit, is that all eight of us are tasting dunces. Considering that the most experienced taster of the group (an industry person who’s probably well past tasting 10,000 bottles of wine) was no more accurate than the least experienced taster of the group, we think the bullshit option is the more likely.
That said, before we started the test, we all rated from favorite to least favorite the wine descriptions in terms of how good the wine sounded. And sure enough, the group tended to agree on better and worse descriptions. Too bad the better descriptions didn’t match the better wines. Attention marketing departments of wineries who are writing these descriptions on wine bottles and tasting notes – we’re on to you. The emperor has no clothes.