Hanging it up

April 29th, 2009



In every profession and endeavor there comes a point when it’s time to quit. In most cases, physical abilities or endurance wane despite a wealth of experience, knowledge and competence. In some instances, sadly, it is the other way around. In other cases, the passion fades and there is nothing to drive one forward. Sometimes, the going simply gets too tough.

The inevitable senescence of our bodies forces many to detach themselves from the professional activities which were the embodiment of their identities.

Surgeons, pilots and others with the lives of numerous people in their hands come immediately to mind as professions subject to mandatory retirement rules. While there is no mandatory age of retirement for doctors, there exist health, competence and performance- based criteria which guide the often difficult and painful decision.

Wine writing – wine assessment, to be more precise – is also a profession in which the performance and reliability of the individual is subject to age-related physiological changes and limitations. Certainly, no lives are at stake, but the critic is providing a consumer service.

With age, our senses fail or lose acuity for a number of reasons. Olfactory and gustatory acuity diminish with age. This happens at different rates and to different degrees in individuals and there is an exception to every rule. Most often, this decline in sensory acuity is attributable to changes in the functioning and number of taste buds and olfactory receptors. In a small portion of those with olfactory loss, the changes may be an early harbinger of dementia.

At the age of 39, I hope that these changes are a long way down the road for me. However, I expect that they will come. As an epicure, I shudder a little at the thought.

Presuming that in 20 or 30 years I am still tasting and writing about wine, the question recently came to my mind: Will I know when its time to hang it up?

The argument has been made that an organoleptic assessor with sensory acuity far greater than the average person is not serving the reader and their opinions are not relevant. The same can be said of a reviewer or critic whose sensory abilities are waning.

So, the next question also begs asking: Should there be retirement guidelines for wine critics?


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8 Responses to “Hanging it up”

  1. Dylan Says:

    So these are the kind of thoughts which will enter my mind 16 years from now. I don’t think wine critics will ever need retirement guidelines. Followers of their reviews will either be degrading in the senses at the same rate or they will notice that the tastes of the critic are no longer in line with their own. Either way, no one will be at major harm due to declining senses. Just like aging, I think these decisions can happen naturally.

    I’m still young, but I’ve been through a lot. At least, I’ve been through enough to know that everything I know today can change tomorrow. Just like that. That thought is what drives me to follow my passion, and should I find that passion suddenly gone one day, my next day will not be spent in mourning but in searching–searching for the next bold path in my life, regardless of how advanced in its stages it may be.

  2. John Kelly Says:

    Years ago I spent some time at the UCD library reading up on the geriatrics of taste. The winemaker where I worked was concerned that the owner was forcing poor blending decisions on him. I found 5 or 6 seminal papers, copied them and left them on the owner’s desk with a note: “There’s a reason grandpa wants his desert first.” The take home message on geriatric taste is the older we get the more we crave “sweet.”

    At the same time, as a professional I believe by force of will I can continue to recognize the textures that defined great wine for me when I was younger. Worked for Tchelistcheff. (Not that I’m him, or even a poor simulacrum.)

  3. Fred Swan Says:

    They say the legs are the first to go. So, if you can no longer discern legs when drinking California wine, it’s definitely time to call it a career.


  4. larry schaffer Says:


    In many ways, age is irrelevant in this discussion. As we have discussed, the concept of an ‘objective wine reviewer’ is an oxymoron, anyways . . .

    Might your olfactory senses begin shutting down at a certain age? Certainly. Might your sense of color differentiation begin to wane at a certain age? Of course . . .

    But wine tasting, and wine reviewing to me, is certainly a heck of a lot more than simply that. It is understanding the processes by which a winemaker gets to the end product, the history of the vineyard, the story of the region, the fascination of the variety . . .

    What someone who gets older might lack in ‘preciseness’ due to failing senses they more than make up for, in my opinion, with their history, experiences, and ‘sense of place’ . . .


  5. Kelly Says:

    I am a couple of years older than you – and I smell your sense of your own mortality getting stronger, as it does to most people about this age.
    I don’t think there should be guidelines for wine tasters as far as quitting at a certain age. Your other commenter s have pretty much covered most of the points that are relevant. I think there will be time enough to deal with it, when the time comes…right now it seems a bit premature..:-)

  6. edward Says:


    Two thoughts conflicting from this, first – don’t keep your precious bottles forever – drink while you can still smell! But also with time does come knowledge, and presumably the more knowledge the greater the contextual appreciation of those great bottles. So some patience is still needed. . .

  7. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    As I get older, I find my sense awareness not decreasing but holding steady in some and increasing in others. I attribute this phenomenon to practice–daily practice at looking, smelling, tasting, etc.

    Perhaps, our senses are the one area that we can count on to break down last, since the senses are necessary for our survival. I expect, that after my bones are done moving and my movements are unstoppable (if you get my drift) I’ll still be able to proclaim that Pinot Noir aroma, which actually is Syrah that I smell, but no one else will know the difference either ;)

    Incidentally, Larry’s point about the oxymoron of objective critics can’t be stressed enough.

  8. winesooth.com » Blog Archive » Better wine Says:

    [...] raisin purée. My brother drinks wine for the alcohol. Grandma likes anything sweet – and I have a theory why. All in all, my family responds to the first impression of a wine and they do not seek out nuances [...]