Essay, Wine Words
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Wine Words to Data

It’s not always easy to find the wine market data you need. And even when you know where the data you need is, it can be expensive to get it. (If you’re ever stuck getting the data you require, let us know and we’ll help!)

The secondary market for wine is fascinating! But there’s more to a wine than its price.

Let’s take a step closer to the source. How about the fine line between sublime tasting note and, how can we put it delicately…  bullshit? That’s an area worth investigating. Luckily there is more free wine tasting data than you could usefully process.

To tackle the wine word challenge, we’ve strengthened the WineQuant team with a NLP specialist. (All will be revealed in due course.) In the mean time, here are some introductory thoughts.

Wise Words?*

Conveying sensory impressions in words is difficult. Émile Peynaud (1912-2004), a Bordelais legend among oenologists and wine-writers remarked that “we tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language.”

How can writers convey information about colour, sound and taste to readers effectively? Can you tell the difference between a robot and a human stock analyst or wine writer?

Serious interest in wine notes began after the 1976 Judgement of Paris pitted French against Californian wines in a legendary blind tasting. Nine judges rated wines on a scale from 1 to 20. Then Steven Spurrier, the organiser of the event, arrived at a final ranking by “adding the judges marks and dividing this by nine (which I was told  later was statistically meaningless).” Motivated by the flawed nature of this procedure, economists Richard Quandt and Orley Aschenfelter showed how to use elementary statistics to produce a more meaningful ranking. A software programme called “Winetaster”, which was developed by Quandt, codifies the underlying statistical methods. These have since been applied successfully in other high-profile blind tastings, for example in the 2012 Judgement of Princeton.


The Judgement of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens

In blind tastings conducted to rate quality, tasters assess wines without knowing what is what. The tasters may be told nothing about the wines that are being evaluated, or they may be told the names of the wines under assessment but not which wine they are tasting now. We can think of the tasters as biased (and often unreliable) machines who gather information about a wine sample (input) before producing an assessment (output).

The output takes the form of a rating on a number scale backed up by tasting notes. To assess consistency and reliability of tasting output, there may be several rounds in which the order of the wines is varied. Aggregation of the rounds leads to a final relative ranking. The challenges associated with this process stem from two obvious facts: no individual expert is a consistent machine and experts often disagree.

Two tasting notes for the same wine may differ to such an extent that it is not clear they are about the same wine. The same is true for analyst stock recommendations or user ratings on Amazon. It is not possible to compare ratings without embedding them into a common vocabulary.

We expect professional writers and critics to be more reliable than amateurs. Professionals use their vocabulary consistently while amateurs, in the words of Émile Peynaud, “speak in metaphors and allusions … inventiveness of their vocabulary conceals its vagueness.” But professional jargon is not beyond criticism either. In his essay “On Wine Bullshit” (the term “bullshit” is applied philosophically**), Richard Quandt generates random wine notes from a lexicon of standard wine descriptors. You’d be forgiven for mistaking the computer-generated notes for the real thing.

So where does that leave us on the subject of the wine critic?

They are more exalted when they talk about works of art than real artists, for their enthusiasm, not being an incentive to the hard task of penetrating to the depths, expands outwards, heats their conversation and empurples their faces; they think they are doing something by shrieking at the tops of their voices: “Bravo! Bravo!”… But these manifestations do not force them to clarify the character of their admiration…***

The constant aberration of criticism has reached a point where winemakers would prefer to be judged by the general drinking public (were it not that it has better
things to do).***

Be it a review of a plasma screen, a stock recommendation, a wine note or a theatre critique, the principle is the same. Tell the reader what your reference points are, make comparisons, explain the jargon you use. Or if you like to keep your reviews short, publish a categorized table** of your descriptors as a service to your readers. Wine critics and stock analysts must cultivate their tasting vocabularies with as much care as the winemaker handles his grapes. If a critic cannot explain her vocabulary, cannot categorize her descriptors and frustrates you with inconsistent vagaries then pour her judgements down the drain.


* Excerpted from Thinking, Hard and Soft (author affiliated to WineQuant).

** See On the Information Content of Wine Notes: Some new Algorithms?

*** Marcel Proust, Time Regained.



This entry was posted in: Essay, Wine Words


WineQuant is an independent research-led forum for wine enthusiasts, traders and investors. Our mission is to see the present more clearly and peer into the glass a bit more imaginatively.

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