This is usually the first question that a person asks when they hear some critic going on about the bacon that they smelled in their Malbec, or the starfruit in their Chardonnay. I know that it was for me. After starting to have my own experiences with identifying flavors and aromas in wine I started to think that Robert Parker actually knows what he's talking about and that my palate just isn't refined enough to get what he's getting. Well, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, maybe I was right the first time.
I'm certainly not saying that you can't pick up aromas and flavors in wine, but it does seem that the specific experience might be more subjective than the Wine Spectator or Wine Advocate would have us believe. From the article -
There is a rich history of scientific research questioning whether
wine experts can really make the fine taste distinctions they claim.
For example, a 1996 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology
showed that even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify
more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics
regularly report tasting six or more. There are eight in this
description, from The Wine News, as quoted on wine.com, of a Silverado
Limited Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 that sells for more than $100 a
bottle: "Dusty, chalky scents followed by mint, plum, tobacco and
leather. Tasty cherry with smoky oak accents…" Another publication, The
Wine Advocate, describes a wine as having "promising aromas of
lavender, roasted herbs, blueberries, and black currants." What is
striking about this pair of descriptions is that, although they are
very different, they are descriptions of the same Cabernet. One taster
lists eight flavors and scents, the other four, and not one of them
wine critiques are peppered with such inconsistencies is exactly what
the laboratory experiments would lead you to expect. In fact, about 20
years ago, when a Harvard psychologist asked an ensemble of experts to
rank five wines on each of 12 characteristics—such as tannins,
sweetness, and fruitiness—the experts agreed at a level significantly
better than chance on only three of the 12.
The thing that makes all of this so problematic is the level of influence that a limited number of critics have on the entire industry. So much of the public's wine buying dollars are spent on the recommendations of these individual's tastes. If their judgment is unreliable then it seems that there are a lot of wineries whose livelihood is subject to the flawed perception of a handful of critics.
If the public doesn't taste the same thing in a wine as Robert Parker does, it is likely that they will chalk it up to having a less refined palate than he does. We live in a world of experts, and we generally assume that they know more than we do. Wouldn't it make more sense for us to trust our own palates? If you like a wine, it's a good wine. I think that you should try as many things as possible, and keep drinking the ones that you like. You can take the advice of anyone that you want about what to try, but just know that your palate may not be the same as theirs. Don't be afraid to try unrated wines, or even worse, 89 point wines.