Why It’s O.K. to Disregard the Opinions of Wine Experts

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Wine critics have special powers. Not superhero-type powers like the ability to fly or control the minds of strangers, but, according to a new study, top critics have the ability to taste subtle flavors and chemicals that the masses can’t detect. It’s this acute sense of taste that helps the experts describe and rate wines. But does it make sense to pay attention to ratings that are based on subtle taste differences that mean nothing to the average drinker? Perhaps, then, wine critics really can control minds: after all, they’ve managed to persuade plenty of wine drinkers to care about their opinions.

In a new report published in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (and covered by Bloomberg), a survey compared the tasting abilities of winemakers and wine critics with those of average consumers. Participants were tested to see if they could detect the presence of a certain chemical. Indeed, the experts were more likely than the riffraff to sense the chemical — and described it as intensely bitter.

But this “intensely bitter” chemical made little to no impression on average people. They weren’t bothered by the taste at all and may not have even noticed it.

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The moral is: wine critics and industry insiders taste things differently from you and me. So why in the world would you listen to someone whose tastes you don’t share? This is the equivalent (as I’ve mentioned before) of going to a movie based on the insights of a film critic who has a completely different sense of humor and what constitutes a good story than you. If your favorite movie is Old School, you probably shouldn’t pay much attention to a critic whose all-time top-10 list doesn’t include a single film made after 1957.

You certainly shouldn’t pay extra to go see a movie recommended by such a critic, but that’s basically what people are doing if they’re following the advice of wine critics whose tastes they don’t share. Wines with the highest ratings, after all, often cost a lot more than wines that the experts snub.

What’s more, investigations have shown that various wine experts rarely agree on which wines are best. And why should they? It’s a matter of individual taste, and each person’s tastes are different.

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What’s especially interesting about wine is that there’s a direct correlation between how much one pays for wine and how much he or she enjoys it. On that topic, a paper published by the American Association of Wine Economists (yes, there is such a thing) concluded the following:

“Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.”

The paper indicates that when consumers pay more for a wine, they tend to enjoy it more — because they swear it tastes better. But most drinkers, when unaware of how much a wine costs, are just as likely to enjoy a $15 bottle as a $75 bottle. That’s just how the human brain works, at least in terms of products surrounded with snob appeal and supposedly “refined” sensibilities. The truth is that with wine, a higher price yields higher enjoyment, but only if you know there’s a higher price!

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The best advice comes from John Hayes, a Penn State academic and a co-author of the new study, who told Bloomberg:

“If you think the wine is supposed to be good, you’re going to enjoy it a lot,” Hayes said. “But to me the simplest rule in wine is if you like it, drink it.”

In other words: enjoying wine is and should be a matter of, um, taste.

Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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