Patrick Baudouin, winemaker in the Loire and a leader of Sève, an association of winemakers identified by terroir, has published an article in the French language section of TheWineBlog.net about the tyranny of the wine tastings used to approve appellation wines, pointing out the absolute unreliability of such subjective, imprecise procedures. What follows is an abridged translation of his article.
Despite all the criticism and evidence of their shortcomings, these tasting are being reintroduced by the current AOC reform as the most important criterion for approving wines as AOC. The latest INAO report argues that it is not the tastings themselves that are at fault, but the way they are conducted, which does not offer guarantees of impartiality. In order to correct this, INAO proposes to replace the current tasting panels, composed only of the winemakers themselves, with panels comprising experts, consumers/merchants, and something described as “carriers of memory”, whatever that means, presumably sages that know what wines from a certain area should taste like!
This flies in the face of the reforms that Seve had suggested, because it reintroduces tasting as a fundamental test for approving wines, because it allows the local control organization to chose the tasting panels, and because it brings back, through this tasting, the idea of a taste profile for each appellation, and wines that do not fit that standardizing profile will be rejected. It is the return of the slippery notion of what is typical of an appellation. Such procedures are not based on any solid scientific, cultural or commercial logic.
Taste, Nature and Culture
It is now demonstrated that each individual has his own genetically determined taste apparatus, which is as unique as his fingerprints. Perception of taste is different for each one of us. These differences, initially determines genetically, are further complicated and altered by our life experience, by the cultural elements that each one of us absorbs in life, under the influence of the culture we live in.
The word “taste” is ambiguous, it refers both to the individual perception of a taster, and to the object being tasted. When one asks if something is good, one really means to ask whether the person likes it. Declaring something to be good is an attempt to objectify one’s own personal taste and impose it on others, while in fact it remains a strictly subjective thing. Nobody can know what the other perceives. Descriptions of taste are personal and thus are attempts to communicate what one perceives.
The appreciation of a taste or smell depends on the pleasure it brings to the taster. Whether a taste gives someone pleasure or not depends on that person’s life experience. One person may love strawberry jam, another may detest it, but who is “right”?
André Holley, professor of neuroscience, and Patrick MacLeod, neurobiologist, agree that taste is not contained in food, it happens when food comes in contact with our taste buds. Taste is, mostly, acquired, something we learn.
How then can one pretend to constitute an independent impartial tasting jury in charge of approving wines? The INAO document does not define the objectives of the tasting. One can argue that there is no legal basis for such a procedure. What is the jury looking for? We mentioned the ominous “carriers of memory”, these are the people that will impose their personal definition of what is typical of an appellation on the entire procedure, but who are they, and in what way do they represent consumers, or the market? A jury can never be impartial, behind the tasting there is always some motivation, commercial or otherwise.
The basis for tastings as a means for selecting or rejecting wines from an appellation
At a time when our knowledge of physiology was not as advanced as today, J. Capus already realized that a tasting cannot be scientific or objective. Such tastings were introduced as compulsory in 1967, and already by 1974 Jean Branas was arguing that, due to the arbitrariness of such tastings, one might as well put all wines under the AOC system, as there was no longer any objective distinction possible between a good wine and a great wine, and this could imply the disappearance of all but a few great wines in France. Branas had predicted what actually happened, the entry of ordinary wines into the AOC system.
In a 1997 article by Jean Salette (INRA Angers) the AOC tasting is redefined more specifically as an instrument to determine whether a wine corresponds to a profile that is considered typical of the appellation. The problem is that, while it might be interesting to try and define what is typical (again with all the problems of who determines what is typical and according to what standards and on what basis?), the end result can only be a homogenization of all wines in the appellation, so that any wine that deviates from this arbitrary norm is rejected. His whole article rests on a wrong understanding of taste physiology, and on an even more unrealistic expectation: given that the appellations were by then dominated by bulk producers, the definition of what is typical would be up to the majority producing the most uninteresting wines. Terroir would be defined by those who use massive fertilization, chaptalization, osmosis etc., not by the top winemakers.
While these procedures have brought about some improvement in bulk wines, at the same time the system has become a tool for excluding any wine that the jury decides is “atypical”, even if what distinguishes these wines from the rest is the fact that they may have… character, or that they may actually express terroir. As a result, one often hears critics preferring table wines to AOC wines.
The tasting procedures also derails the AOC system for the profit of particular interest groups, introducing unfair competition. Salette wanted a uniform taste in order to better identify French wine on international markets. But that taste is decided by a majority that use the same heavy terroir-effacing procedures and therefore produce similar soulless wines, therefore true terroir wines that do not fit this sad standard are easily dismissed.
A tasting is an arbitrary tool that has no serious legal basis. N. Olszak, honorary head of the faculty of Law at Strasbourg, says that the objectives of the AOC tastings are defined nowhere. Imagine submitting your wine, the result of more than a year’s work and the sale of which determines the success or failure of your company, to a secret jury composed in part of your competitors, and whose criteria of judgment are unknown, but who have the right to refuse you the use of the AOC label, something that has become absolutely necessary for the success of your wine. Your wine may be refused, but you have the right to resubmit it at two more tasting committees. When you are refused, the tasting bulletins may be totally incoherent with the stated reasons for the refusal. The system is totally arbitrary! The very act of selecting the members of the jury is not objective, it alone can determine what kind of wines will be selected or rejected (see Dominique Valentin, Banyuls conference, and Gil Morrot CNRS)
Dominique Valentin stated that there is no relation between the opinion of a panel of experts and the perception of the final consumer. At the same conference Marc Danzart, a statistician specialized in sensory analysis and the food industry, illustrrated how some common place notions are false. Regarding products preferred by consumers, he states that 75% of consumers are “eclectic”, they may give top scores to several products. About disliked products, the ones obtaining lowest average scores may also figure among the favorite products of a small group of consumers. There is no ideal product; one must therefore offer a variety of products satisfying different consumers. So it makes no sense for AOC committees to try to define one typical model that all others must copy. It makes even less sense when that model is a bad one.
Taste profile of a PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) wine
These wines (in French, IGP, the new designation for Vin de Pays) represent a high volume potential for each region, therefore winemakers are seeking more freedom and relaxed rules at all levels in the interest of competitiveness. Given that each winery will want to find its differentiating factors in order to compete on the international market, does it make sense to look for a standard that tends to make all wines from a given region taste the same? Who will decide these standards? These standards clearly make no commercial sense, and the proof is that they did not work for AOC wines.
Taste profile of terroir wines (PDO = Protected Designation of Origin)
Unlike PGI wines, PDO wines (in French AOP, the new designation for AOC) must express the terroir they came from, a unique identity. Here it is not a matter of pleasing everyone on a jury. Alain Berger, director of the INAO, stated in 1995 that an AOC wine is a product that one has the right not to like, and that they are the opposite of wines where terroir is neutralized and technology dominates. At the time his statements, published in Que Choisir magazine, cost him his job. If one accepts terroir, then one has to allow for variability within the geographic area, variability from vintage to vintage, and variability due to the particular style of each winemaker, according to C. Asselin (INRA Angers). Terroir is not just about soil, in the widest sense it is also about the work of man.
Again taste cannot decide on whether all these different expressions of terroir conform to some appellation standard. Even so-called experts cannot help having been influenced in their taste by their peculiar culture, by their history. Hence it is not by taste standards that these wines can be judged, but by the soundness of the winemaking processes involved.
How tastings can be useful in the appellation system.
Tastings as they are practiced today are discredited both by winemakers and by consumers, and therefore would make the reform of the AOCs impossible. They are the perfect tool to lower the standards of an appellation to the lowest level, thus maintaining the domination by the large bulk producers.
In normal circumstances, wine tasting is a private procedure between a seller and a buyer. In French law there is even an article in the civil code dating back to 1804 stating that when it comes to wine, oil and other products that one is used to tasting before buying, a sale is not considered valid until the buyer has tasted and approved the product. It would be absurd to argue that the tasting procedures of the appellations legally constitute some kind of collective purchasing act.
For appellation wines, the tasting of wines should be rehabilitated as a cultural act allowing the free exchange of opinions between winemakers with the object of comparing how each producer arrives at the best expression of terroir.
The distinction between terroir wines and ordinary wines must cease to be a reason for never ending conflict between winemakers. Few wineries can play the terroir game; the market niche is just too narrow. Often these same winemakers also produce simpler wines in higher volume that constitute the largest source of revenue, enabling them to continue producing their luxury wines.
Many defenders of terroir wine were in favor of the tasting committees, until they found they had been themselves rejected. The feeling of injustice in indescribable, and some ended up making all sorts of compromises with the committees, just to be able to keep the AOC label.
It is in the interest of all winemaking to switch from tasting the final result to controls to an earlier stage, the production conditions. It is also clear, from what we know now about the subjective nature of taste, that nobody has the right to impose his own taste as the standard, because there is no standard.
SEVE, August 2007