Sunday, March 30, 2008

Is this Budometer for you?

A couple of months ago researchers at the University of California, at Davis, in conjunction with a Master of Wine (and maybe promoter) announced the “Budometer,” a device that built on findings that there are three classifications of tasters in this universe: tolerant, sensitive, and hypersensitive.

Contrary to the way they appear, the hypersensitive is not the one who is supposed to be great at picking out the many nuances in wine.

In fact, according to the press release, hypersensitive tasters are more likely not to drink wine; they have an “aversion to bitterness, and favor delicacy over intensity.”

I guess you've got to give some slack to California wine researchers—maybe the many 95-point, high alcohol, bombastic wines on the Left Coast makes them unaware that there is such a thing as delicacy in wine. But let me not quibble—not right now, anyway.

The press release went on to talk about how this new discovery of our collective taste buds will revolutionize the way wine competitions are held. The theory is that if the judges can be tested in advance using a simple drop of blue paint on their tongues they can be classified in groups so that the wines will have a “fair shot” in competitions.

In other words, judges will evaluate only wines they are likely to appreciate.

Since when should wines have a fair shot in competitions? Is this some sort of offshoot of the new parenting concept: that all children are stars and that the idea behind a game of baseball has nothing to do with the better team winning but more to do with just playing the game?

That’s a great concept, except that the idea of the game, which is a competition, is to win. If you don’t play you can’t lose. But if you do play, you ought to be good enough to have a shot at winning, and that's as fair as your shot gets.

Besides, a wine competition is not supposed to please the judges; their job is to evaluate each wine on its technical merits. To accomplish that, judges should be trained not painted blue.

No matter. Based on my sampling of the Budometer, the thing will likely prove itself for what it is: a gimmick.

According to the online Budometer test that I took, I am supposedly a hypersensitive taster, which means that I prefer sweet wines over dry, dislike bitterness, and favor delicacy over intensity—getting one out of three right does not make for a stellar performance. Even the one that the test got right is up for grabs: yeah, I like delicacy, but I can also cotton to intensity, provided the wine has balance, which leads to another issue.

I don’t think the description of tasters in this system says anything about balance or nuance or anything interesting at all, really. But judge for yourself. Go to the link below to read the story. There, you'll find a link so that you can take the ridiculous test.

On the heels of the Budometer comes a news report that people given electro shock proved to have a heightened sense of smell.

Can you imagine what the next gimmick will be?

All I can say is that if wine judges are going to have to agree to have their tongues painted blue and then submit to electric shock before the competition begins, I’m going to start turning down wine judge invitations…



Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. Having a red hot poker up your Mezzogiorno also heightens your sense of taste and other 4 senses as well. Good point on delicacy and the California RP 95's.

  2. Thomas,

    Given your experiences as a wine judge, would you care to shed light on such activities ? Most wine lovers (including me) probably have a relatively weak grasp of the logistics and degrees of reliability of various approaches.

  3. Marco,

    Only a Northern Italian would refer to the Mezzogiorno being in that location ;)

  4. Jay,

    There aren't many approaches to wine judging. Essentially, wines are submitted to separate panels (each panel comprises a small number of judges). The wines are submitted by class: grape variety, region, vintage, etc. and then evaluated, normally single-blind (judges know the class, but nothing else).

    Most judgings do not use a 100-point scoring system. Mainly, the 20-point technical scoring scale that was developed at UC Davis many years ago is still in use.

    Judges are usually--but not always--trained, and they are told not to judge wines based on their personal preferences, but to judge on the wine's individual merits.

    Some competitions give awards based solely on the aggregate scores--others give awards based on a consensus of the panel.

    Wine competition awards should not be confused with wine critic ratings. Awards are supposed to be based on individual merits of the wines, with a technical bent in the evaluation. Critic ratings have a technical component (if the critic has any training for that) but the ratings are mostly based on the subjective personal preference of the critic.