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Elliott Morss has spent most of his career teaching and working as an economic consultant to developing countries on issues of trade, finance, and environmental preservation.

Dr. Morss received a B.A. from Williams College in 1960 and a Ph.D. in political economy from The Johns Hopkins ... more

Wine Descriptors Reconsidered

Date: Saturday, February 11, 2017 11:48 AM EDT

Elliott R. Morss, Ph.D.                                 ©All Rights Reserved


There are many ways to portray wines. Most have limited value because they do not help drinkers distinguish between wines they like and dislike. This piece reviews the descriptors in use and suggests ones that will be helpful. Before looking at what can be done, consider first the current practice.

Completely Useless Descriptors

Some time back, Richard Quandt wrote an oft-quoted piece: “On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software?” In it, he listed 143 useless descriptors. The following quote wherein he discusses descriptors applied to a Chateau d’Yquem and a Santenay Gravières provides a good sense of his thinking:

“Consider the Yquem. The eight flavors are honey, raisin, jam, quince, fig, hazelnut, orange and mandarin. The last two of these “fill the mouth;” hence they are likely to provide powerful taste sensations. We have only a hint of honey, raisin and jam and the quince, fig and hazelnut have only subtly aromas. Are we being told that these six subtle aromas that are only hinted at are not drowned out by the powerful orange and mandarin flavors? This is bullshit of the first order. For the Santenay Gravières we have to juggle 20 different flavors, from sweaty Pinot fruit to smoky fruit, from pinches of prune, animal (what kind? Lions smell very different from dogs), bread, plus earth, spice, skin, seeds, citrus and oat. The pretense that we shall be able to discern all those tastes and aromas is pure bullshit and only a bullshit artist can claim to be able to do that.”

As I have noted, the professional wine raters such as the Wine Spectator (WS) and Robert Parker use these descriptors endlessly. And one does wonder how tasters working for these companies can keep finding new ways to describe wines.

Another example of useless descriptors: While I do applaud the work that went into the following chart from Wine Folly, it has limited value in helping wine drinkers find wines they will like. And Wine Folly says it is “just the tip of the iceberg!”

Wine Descriptors – The Basics

What information is readily available on wines? From the bottle, we get price, color, and alcohol content. It turns out that price does not predict what people like. From tastings in Paris (1976)Princeton (2012)Stellenbosch (2013), the Lenox Wine Club (2012-14)Lecocq and VisserGoldstein et al, and Ashton, we have learned that people do not prefer expensive wines to less expensive ones: a wine drinker is just as likely to prefer an inexpensive wine as an expensive one. 

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