Wine Expertise: Is there a development process? Or are some just born lucky?

To date, there have been countless studies examining the differences in performance and wine knowledge between so-called wine experts and wine novices.  However, very little work has been done exploring the development of wine expertise, related to training and explicit learning and the progression of learning for individuals.  Research has shown that there are two separate cognitive skills involved in mastering wine; acquiring the lingo associated with describing the odor components of wine, and the development of schemas relevant to wine that represent features of any given wine type.  Both of these skills should equally be involved in the development of wine expertise.

The study presented today aimed to examine this very question of the development of wine expertise.  They used a cross-sectional approach to examine this question, and used four different groups with varying levels of wine expertise (from non-expert to professional sommelier).  The authors argue that perceptual learning (passive exposure over time) is likely a function of the frequency and the variety of wine exposure, and that cognitive expertise (learning the lingo and schema of wine) is likely gained more slowly and gradually.


Based on previous knowledge and their own professional insights, the authors of the study presented several hypotheses:

1.      Regular wine drinkers should have some perceptual expertise, and limited cognitive expertise.

2.      Sommeliers-in-training should have a well-developed perceptual expertise, with developing cognitive expertise.

3.      Professional sommeliers should have both well-developed perceptual and cognitive expertise.


With hypotheses come predictions:

1.      The identification of wine-relevant odors would be better for professional sommeliers than regular wine drinkers, but there should be no difference between them in regards to non-relevant odors.

2.      The sommeliers-in-training should have less knowledge of wine labels/lingo than the professional sommeliers, since these particular individuals had not had the relevant course work yet.

3.      There should be no difference between any of the groups regarding the identification of non-wine-related odors.

4.      The professional sommeliers should do best in recognizing particular odors than other groups, and both sommeliers and sommeliers-in-training should outperform regular wine drinkers with this skill as well.

5.      Verbal fluency (knowing the lingo) should increase with more training.


The four groups participating in this experiment were 1) 12 untrained wine drinkers (33.1 +/- 9.1 years old); 2) 12 2nd year sommelier students (35.8+/-7.6 years old); 3) 12 3rd year sommelier students (41.1+-9.4 years old); and 4) 12 professional sommeliers (49.2+/-9.7 years old).  Both males and females were represented in each group, and smokers were excluded from the study.

50 olfactory stimuli of “medium and comparable subjective intensities” were used.  Stimuli ranged from common household items (shoe cream or coffee) to essential oils.  All stimuli were either presented alone (“neat”) or dissolved in mineral oil or distilled water.  Containers were small (15cm) glasses with rubber lids with a cotton swap attached to the end of a stick.  Containers were covered with white paper to avoid any visual cues.  Stimuli were replaced once a week, in order to keep concentrations fresh and controlled.  40 red and white wines were used, with 10 target and 30 nontarget wines.  Target red wines included Cannonau, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Refosco, and Sangiovese.  Target white wines included Arneys, Grey Pinot, Sauvignon, Verdicchio, and White Pinot.  All wines were Italian in origin.

10 out of the 50 olfactory stimuli were compounds that are commonly found in wine, and have established names in the wine lingo (i.e.; orange, lemon, banana, leather, tobacco, etc).  10 of the olfactory stimuli were common substances that are not found in wine.  The rest of the olfactory stimuli were designed to be “distractors”.

The experiment was designed to have six different olfactory tasks: 1) wine-relevant odor identification; 2) common odor identification; 3) multiple choice wine-relevant odor recognition; 4) multiple choice common odor recognition; 5) multiple choice wine recognition; and 6) verbal fluency.

Identification task:

            Each participant had to smell 4 seconds a randomly selected odor, while the tester read aloud four different labels.  The participant then had to identify the proper label for the odor.

Recognition task:

            Each participant smelled both the target odor and a set of 4 odors (including the target odor).  The participant smelled the target odor for 4 seconds, then was presented with the set of 4 odors to smell and was asked to identify which was the target odor.

Rest was required between trials, to avoid any odor crossover.

Wine Recognition Task:

            Wine was presented in standard tasting glasses (ISO) and was simply sniffed by participants.

Verbal Fluency Task:

            Participants smelled each of the 10 wine-relevant odors and were asked to describe them as precisely and in as much detail as possible.

During all tasks, participants were asked to close their eyes.  Odors were kept 2cm in front of both nostrils.  The different tasks were administered in 4 sessions and were held 1 week apart in order to avoid any learning effects.  The tasks were administered in the following order: 1) verbal fluency task; 2) wine-relevant and common odor recognition; 3) wine-relevant and common odor identification; and 4) wine recognition.


  •        Age and gender were not included in the analysis because the authors determined they had no influence on test performance (results not shown).
  •       Untrained controls versus 2nd year sommeliers-in-training, versus 3rd year sommeliers-in-training versus professional sommeliers showed significant differences in the wine-relevant odor identification task only.

o   2nd and 3rd year sommeliers-in-training showed poorer wine-relevant odor identification than untrained controls and professional sommeliers.

§  The authors suggest this result for trainees is specific to wine-related odors, as they are in the process of learning about that particular information/knowledge in their coursework.

  •       There were no significant differences between groups for wine-relevant and common odor recognition.
  •       For the wine recognition task, professional sommeliers and the 2nd and 3rd year sommeliers-in-training performed equally on the wine recognition task, and all three groups performed better than the untrained controls.
  •       For the verbal fluency task, professional sommeliers and 3rd year sommeliers-in-training described wine-relevant odors with significantly more terms than 2nd year sommeliers-in-training and untrained controls (the latter two did not differ from one another).

o   Sommeliers performed better than the 3rd year sommeliers-in-training.


The results of this study appear to provide support for the hypothesis that perceptual expertise is attained through frequent and variable exposure to wine.  Even though there were no significant differences between groups in regards to wine-relevant odor recognition, the fact that there were significant differences between groups in regards to wine-relevant identification provides support to the hypothesis.  Basically, the experts, after years of frequent exposure to many types of wine, are significantly better able to identify a particular odor in the nose of the wine than untrained and in-training individuals (they just might not be that great at recognizing the odor among a group of other odors).

The authors had several conclusions for this study, one of which being that wine expertise is domain-specific.  What this means is that wine experts are good at identifying characteristics of wine, but not necessarily good at picking out the characteristics of other unrelated items (common odors).  Some studies have shown that some wine experts are also better at identifying and odors of other items, but inconsistent results across studies indicate that these types of results are specific to certain individuals.

Why weren’t the experts better at the wine-relevant recognition task?  The exact answer to this is unknown, however, the authors of the study speculated possible reasons.  It is possible that the wine-relevant odors used in the study were too “easy” and were easily recognizable by all participants (I’d be willing to bet almost everyone can identify what an orange smells like).  Perhaps if more difficult odors were used, the authors would have found a significant difference between the pros and the novices.  How about you all—without me describing other possibilities laid out by the authors, what do you think could be the reason for the insignificance here?

Overall, this study provides an interesting look into the unexplored science of the development of wine expertise.  According to the authors, it appears that perceptual expertise (which is based on exposure to wine) was significantly better in sommeliers-in-training and professional sommeliers than untrained novices.  The authors also found that cognitive expertise was much more variable between the different groups, indicating the slower attainment of this type of skill.

I’ve purposely left out a lot of the authors’ opinions on what they think is creating the results found, so that you all may come up with your own thoughts on the subject.  Any opinions are speculative and almost all are plausible until proven otherwise!  Please feel free to leave your comments below!

Source: Zucco, G. M., Carassai, A., Baroni, M.R., 2011. Labeling, identification, and recognition of wine-relevant odorants in expert sommeliers, intermediates, and untrained wine drinkers. Perception 40: 598-607.

DOI: 10.1068/p6972

I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!

4 comments for “Wine Expertise: Is there a development process? Or are some just born lucky?

  1. November 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Id' like to see a study comparing the cognitive processes (sensory and intellectual) at play and comparing them to those involved in learning a new language, or better yet: music. I think we'd see some interesting parallels.

  2. November 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Great idea! It'd certainly be interesting to see how learning develops for different senses. I'm also wondering if there are any connections between becoming an expert in wine and becoming an expert in other things like language and music, as you suggest. Is one person more predisposed to become an expert in wine than another? If so, is that person also more likely to excel in music and learning a new language as well?

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Bart
    July 27, 2013 at 11:48 am

    very interesting…i assume you’re familiar with the recent documentary Somm? covering the topic of “Master Sommelier” – i like to compare this to training of perfumers/noses: frequent exposure builds an olfactory memory (80% of tasting) and enhances vocabulary…but it still takes skill and certain level of talent.

    • Becca
      July 29, 2013 at 11:11 am

      Thanks for your comments, Bart! I do know about Somm, though I have to be honest, I haven’t seen it yet! I’ll have to give it a look soon!


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