In our new MW Perspectives essay, Natasha Hughes MW discusses the challenges of objectively evaluating wine quality. Read an excerpt below, and find the whole thing in the MW Perspectives section.
For more than one reason, my first-ever IMW trip, taken in 2015, a year after I graduated as a Master of Wine, came as quite a shock. The first was the sheer bewildering pace of the thing: eight days, three Australian states, 11 wine regions, and God only knows how many wines. By the end of the week, most of us were reeling—all but the eldest member of the group, a spry 80-something year old, who finished the trip off by dancing us all into the ground after a last dinner at an Adelaide wine bar.
The second reason I was taken aback was more fundamental. By the time I returned home, my newly acquired certainties about wine assessment had been shaken to the core. As we climbed back onto the coach after our very first winery visit, the group began to discuss the cuvées we’d just tasted. The range of opinions expressed by the 40 or so MWs ran from high praise to an excoriating assessment that suggested that the wines were borderline faulty. It wasn’t a one-off, either—these polarized opinions became a hallmark of the trip.
The reason I was so surprised by this diversity of viewpoints is that, like anyone who’s been through some form of professional wine training, I’d been taught to assess quality in a way I had come to think of as being objective. When you sit the IMW’s blind tasting papers, you’re required to argue eloquently about the quality of a high proportion of the 36 featured wines. Take the 2021 exam, for instance. Across the three papers, 26.5% of the total marks were awarded to questions that asked candidates to comment on the quality of the samples in their glasses. There’s no two ways about it—if you can’t spot a great wine (or a mediocre one) in the glass, and back up your assessment with a solid, evidence-based argument, you can’t pass the exam.
Nevertheless, my Aussie experience caused me to question the underlying principles of quality assessment. Is it really possible to be objective when judging wine quality? Or are we all in thrall to our own personal preferences? And, if it is possible to be objective, what are the factors that help to keep an evaluation free from subjective bias?
Read my article "Rate the Raters" in Journal of Wine Economics. Yes, assessments vary a lot, but that article shows that most wine judges' ratings are highly correlated. There is more agreement on relative quality than there is disagreement.