Wine needs its Nate Silver: Can we quantify and more accurately describe how alcohol tastes?

Over on Twitter, @TheAcademicWino posted this fascinating Salon piece (or rather an excerpt from a new book by Adam Rogers titled Proof: The Science of Booze ). The Salon headline immediately piqued my interest. Not because I’m a Nate Silver fan (nor am I not not a fan – apologies for the double/triple negatives here), but because his name implies data… which in turns screams exactness. And in the digital journalism world – which is currently abuzz with the * need * for more databases – coming up with an original idea for the wine world, that is both accurate and precise, has not been easy.

I’d love for the wine world to neatly fit into a box that we could wrap with a bow. Something we could present as an amazing app that novice and expert wine drinkers could use to discover delicious wines, or help pair the right vintage to a specific palate. A former colleague (and brilliant developer) is just as eager as I am to create such a thing.

Yet this study seems to confirm the impossibility of completing such a task. And rather than the science or preciseness in understanding how wine tastes – it’s rather  more about the language that sommelier’s and other wine experts have developed:

 The wine world is full of strange (and often delightful) labels and combinations. [Tim] Gaiser admits that those could fool anyone, even a master. For him, the trick is finding ways not to eliminate subjectivity in tasting, but to share that subjectivity. “My strongest belief about wine is that it’s not precise,” Gaiser says. “We do everything we can to give structure to the experience.” More likely, he’s filtering experience through memory and a trained vocabulary.

So the researchers conclude this:

“We tentatively suggest that the verbal skills, which are developed around wine, perhaps lead to a somewhat similar overestimation of confidence in expertise,” the researchers write. They’re hinting that knowing many words to describe wine makes people think they’re better at identifying it than they really are. 

And as much as I want to find a way to make my day job and my passion unite in a lovely little app, it’s the very reason I’m passionate about wine, which may prevent it: Wine is experiential. It’s about communication. It transcends data and science.

If we can’t quantify happiness, how can we ever quantify wine.

Wine needs its Nate Silver: Can we quantify and more accurately describe how alcohol tastes?

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