A professor of viticulture puts a stopper on wine hooey.
"From this point on, anything goes: Smell the wines first, smell the standards, start to see which terms describe which wine," writes Noble.
When I told Noble that I was tackling the workout, she replied, "Your nose is going to start to talk to you because the contrasts really stand out."
Following Noble's instructions, I put a little cheap white wine into 15 glasses and then spiked each one with a different physical standard: peach puree, apricot puree, brine of asparagus, strawberry jam, wet cardboard, fresh strawberry, pineapple juice, soy sauce, green olive, melted butter, coffee grinds, fresh lime juice, cloves, vanilla, and shaved almonds. I identified the contents of each glass with a label, stretching plastic wrap over the tops to prevent aromas from escaping. Into another set of labeled glasses I poured three different chardonnays (which I expected to have dramatically distinct attributes), one gewürztraminer, and one Riesling. After putting all 20 of the glasses on the dining room table, I enrolled my wife and 9-year-old daughter in the kindergarten of the nose.
As Noble instructed, we sniffed each standard, smelled the untainted wines, and then went back and forth between the standards and the wines. "My nose isn't talking to me," my wife said. Next, each of us wrote down descriptions of each wine's scent, but limited our vocabulary to words that matched the scents wafting from the physical standards.
Our daughter, who has great character and legendary intelligence, was a bit dense this evening and instead of describing the wines' aromas offered blunt descriptors such as "I don't like it." Fair enough. Interestingly, my wife and I listed different combinations of aromas for each of the five white wines under assessment. But when we spoke about the choices we made, resniffing the 20 glasses before us, we agreed on descriptions for four of the five wines.
As a final exercise, we shifted the labels identifying the white wines to the bottoms of the glasses, where we couldn't read them, and then tried to guess which wine was which. Save for the gewürztraminer, which I thought smelled of wet cardboard and my wife had called clovelike, we failed the test—misidentifying four of the five wines. Had I lost my wine aptitude or was my nose just fatigued? An hour later, I retook the test and scored 100. I had heard my nose, loud and clear.
Although my anecdotal evidence suggests that Noble's method works, I don't expect winemakers to begin printing labels that brag about a gewürztraminer's wet-cardboard finish. The French will continue to eschew back labels altogether, and the more conscientious American vintners will limit the label lingo to useful information about the winery's location, the soil in which the grapes were grown, and the climate. And make no mistake, a winery need not cram a label with absurd adjectives to sell a wine. Recently, I bought a bottle of Napa's Schuetz Oles on the strength of its label alone: "Planted in the early 1960s, above Calistoga on a rattlesnake infested rocky hillside, this Petit Sirah produces a dangerously red wine," the label reads. "BE PREPARED: DO NOT DRINK IF WEARING WHITE CLOTHING!"
Now that's stylish.
Jon Cohen writes for Science magazine. You can reach him at email@example.com.