I’m not sure why I have so little confidence in the idea of palate calibration. It may have something to do with the variety of individual tasting abilities I have witnessed at numerous tastings over the last 30 or more years. Couple that experience with the increasing scientific knowledge on the complexity of taste and smell receptors and uniformity would appear to be the exception rather than the rule among wine tasters.
I was reminded again about just how different we can all be at a recent tasting of Italian wines; my notes on that tasting should appear some time soon. As usual the tasting was done single blind but during the tasting we were supplied with tasting notes from various critics on a number of the wines. At these events there are almost always a few people who will try during the tasting to pair the wines against the tasting notes, usually with quite poor results. I find it hard enough to record my own impression without seeing if I can match what someone else has written. Once we had tasted through the wines, rated them, voted for our best wines, and the wines’ identities were revealed, the discussion among a few of us turned to just how different our perceptions of the wines were compared to the supplied notes. The differences in the descriptors used were so great that jokes were made about how professional wine critics come up with their tasting note descriptions!
As with any tasting, the voting for the best wines among the 10 wines tasted varied considerably. While there were several clear favorites, and wines that were favored by none, the middle ground was a mixed bag. Even among the agreement that existed there was far from consensus. Such diversity of opinion usually, but not always, reflects upon the experiences of the tasters present.
Just how variable can a group of tasters be? The best examples I have found are those from the Palate Calibration Exercises (PCE) on Tom Cannavan’s Wine Pages. The idea behind the PCE was for forum members on Tom’s site to taste the same wine and then record their score and impressions so that other members can then gauge their palate against those impressions; information that might prove useful when reading tasting notes on other wines from the same individuals. Two wines have been subject to PCE so far. In 2001 the 2000 Rosemount Shiraz Cabernet was tasted by 36 people from all over the world. I won’t go into the details as they are readily available on Tom’s site. It is sufficient to note that the scores vary widely (perhaps wildly may also be correct) from 6-18/20. A similar situation was found with the 2004 PCE in which 54 people scored the 2003 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages "Combe des Jacques". Again the scores covered a considerable range going from a low of 7 to a high of 18 out of 20.
It is very instructive to read the tasting notes that accompany the summaries provided with each of these two tasting exercises. Again I am not going to go into any detail here, mainly because there is a wealth of information there that would take considerable time to discuss. But it is quite easy to note that there is a range of experience among the tasters; some of the names may even be familiar. It is also obvious that some are not that experienced with scoring wines; this may have influenced the breadth of the scoring. What the PCE make clear, once again, is that palate variation is a reality. My palate is different from yours, Robert Parker’s, probably everyone’s. But does that really matter? If you and I are confident in our ability to identify the wines that we enjoy then where exactly is the problem? Why do we have to spend time trying to figure out whether we are calibrated to this or that critic?