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VineSleuth metrics validate expert tasters

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In the course of developing software for predicting consumer wine preferences, Houston, Texas-based start up VineSleuth is shedding new light on the abilities of expert wine tasters and the validity of blind tasting assessments.

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Contrary to popular belief, the company’s VineSleuth metrics, which are based on the work of Chief Science Officer Michael Tompkins and his team, reveal that tasters can consistently identify aroma and flavor characteristics in blind evaluations.

“We have extensive experimental data which support that expert evaluators have the capacity to precisely identify wine characteristics in blind repeat samples,” said Tompkins whose work spans thirteen years in the field of numerical methods. “During the course of our experiments, our vetted evaluators repeat sample characteristics about 90% of the time,” he said.

VineSleuth’s data directly confronts the popular misconception that consistent sensory evaluation of wine is a random occurrence. In developing an algorithm designed to help consumers make wine selections based on personal preference, the company has established a benchmark based on the results of its top-performing tasters (including this author) and intends to use those data to vet future tasters who participate in ongoing research and product development.

CEO and co-founder Amy Gross stepped forward with the company’s findings in advance of a beta release of the Wine4.Me smartphone application, wine ranking engine and website in response to several blog posts which inferred a general lack of expert repeatability based on a study conducted by winery owner Robert Hodgson and published in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009. Hodgson’s study which calls to light the inconsistencies between wine competition results has been widely misinterpreted casting doubt on the abilities of highly-trained wine professionals including those who participated in VineSleuth’s research.

While working with wine industry experts and sensory scientists to develop a proprietary, objective method to characterize wines, VineSleuth established metrics to qualify evaluators and to identify individuals who have the ability to not only duplicate their results, but also agree on aroma and flavor characteristics and intensities even when evaluating in isolation. “Our data is generated from controlled experiments that involve objective description of wine, not quality judgment, as in competitions,” said Tompkins. “In this context, we have a true measure of a taster’s ability to repeat.”

The relevance of Hodgson’s 2009 study, one that relies on highly subjective data and the work of evaluators who are not equally qualified to the task, has been called into question by VineSleuth’s findings. “Just because panelists in wine competitions can’t repeat results doesn’t mean that individual experts are not able to repeatedly identify a wine’s aroma and flavor characteristics and their intensities in blind samples,” said Tompkins who relied on experimental and statistical methodologies used in the field of sensory science as the basis for VineSleuth’s data acquisition and analyses. “We’re confident that our methodology is statistically valid and we’re eager to see it applied,” said Tompkins.

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