A couple of recent posts on tea (see here and here) generated lively discussions about the many myths surrounding how to make a good cup of tea. I have also in the past mentioned that there are a lot of similar myths surrounding wine, compounded in that case by an order of magnitude greater level of pretentious vocabulary surrounding the topic. One thing I have noticed is that people who fancy themselves as connoisseurs of tea or wine or anything else refuse to be swayed by studies that suggest that the fine distinctions they claim to detect have no objective basis. Persuading them otherwise seems to be harder than persuading religious believers that there is no god.
One of the most famous studies that debunked the myths surrounding wine was done in 2001 by Frédéric Brochet
In a sneaky study, Brochet dyed a white wine red and gave it to 54 oenology (wine science) students. The supposedly expert panel overwhelmingly described the beverage like they would a red wine. They were completely fooled.
Here’s how the research went down. First, Brochet gave 27 male and 27 female oenology students a glass of red and a glass of white wine and asked them to describe the flavor of each. The students described the white with terms like “floral,” “honey,” “peach,” and “lemon.” The red elicited descriptions of “raspberry,” “cherry,” “cedar,” and “chicory.”
A week later, the students were invited back for another tasting session. Brochet again offered them a glass of red wine and a glass of white. But he deceived them. The two wines were actually the same white wine as before, but one was dyed with tasteless red food coloring. The white wine (W) was described similarly to how it was described in the first tasting. The white wine dyed red (RW), however, was described with the same terms commonly ascribed to a red wine.
In my posts on tea, I raised the possibility that although people could not tell differences in wine and tea when subjected to double-blind tests, perhaps simply being aware that they were drinking expensive and rare beverages that were highly esteemed by experts might actually make them taste better. In other words, knowledge influenced their taste buds. It turns out that there is some support for this idea.
A Journal of Wine Economics study of 6,000 blind tastings found that, when they didn’t know what they were drinking, most non-expert wine drinkers actually preferred inexpensive wine over the pricier kind.
Based on that, we all should just go for the palate- and budget-friendly Two-Buck Chuck and be happy, right? Not so fast, Storchmann cautions, citing a 2008 study (published in PNAS) that wired subjects up to fMRI scanners while they were tasting wines that they were told cost different amounts.
In the experiment, subjects said they preferred what was presented as a $90 wine over that presented as a $10 wine, even when what the researchers poured them was actually from the exact same bottle. Moreover, the drinkers’ brain scans showed that they weren’t bluffing about what they felt: The medial orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with pleasure, showed higher activity when the subjects drank the wines they had been led to believe were expensive.
In other words, the satisfaction we get from consuming something we perceive as fancy is totally real. “You see this all the time at wine tastings,” Storchmann says. “Once you tell people this wine costs a thousand bucks, all of a sudden you hear ‘oh yeah, it tastes of rose petals’ and all this crazy stuff. If you believe that it is really good and tastes of leather, then it will be really good and taste of leather.”
As economists, Storchmann and his colleagues are in a position to disrupt all of that by subjecting received wine wisdom to rigorous statistical analysis, and often the results are telling. In a pair of Journal of Wine Economics investigations, California winemaker Robert Hodgson found that expert judges at prestigious wine competitions gave different scores to the same wines that they tasted on different occasions, and that earning a coveted “gold” designation at one competition didn’t significantly raise a wine’s chances of receiving a the same at another at another.
The findings called into question both the sensitivity of judges’ palates and the existence of any meaningful consensus about what quality wine tastes like; in reality, it seemed, the medals might as well have been handed out at random. (Be that as it may, winemakers might feel they have no choice but to pay to enter these competitions for the chance of earning gold and, by extension, the right to charge a premium for the award-winning product.)
Detecting and finding the right vocabulary may be within everyone’s grasp. But when it comes to ranking wines, Hutchinson shares Robert Hodgson’s concerns.
“There’s a lot of nonsense and emperor’s new clothes in the wine world,” Hutchinson says. “I have had a number of wines costing hundreds of pounds that have disappointed me – and a number costing between £5 and £10 which have been absolutely surprising.”
It may be that we take our cues from our visual senses and that influences the other senses. Back to Brochet’s test with color:
“The wine’s color appears to provide significant sensory information, which misleads the subjects’ ability to judge flavor,” Brochet wrote of the results.
“The observed phenomenon is a real perceptual illusion,” he added. “The subjects smell the wine, make the conscious act of odor determination and verbalize their olfactory perception by using odor descriptors. However, the sensory and cognitive processes were mostly based on the wine color.”
Brochet also noted that, in general, descriptions of smell are almost entirely based on what we see.
“The fact that there are no specific terms to describe odors supports the idea of a defective association between odor and language. Odors take the name of the objects that have these odors.”
Winemaker Hodgson, who had noticed that whether his wines won medals at competitions seemed to depend as much on chance as anything else, has been trying to find ways to objectively judge the discriminating power of judges.
Meanwhile the blind tasting contests go on. Robert Hodgson is determined to improve the quality of judging. He has developed a test that will determine whether a judge’s assessment of a blind-tasted glass in a medal competition is better than chance. The research will be presented at a conference in Cape Town this year. But the early findings are not promising.
“So far I’ve yet to find someone who passes,” he says.
Legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington once provided a rule for discriminating between good music and bad music. He said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” A similar rule for wines, tea, and any other thing that depends on palate could be to forget about trying to describe and rank them based on so-called objective factors, and simply go by the rule, “If it tastes good, it is good.”
So whether you enjoy tea plain or with milk and sugar added, it does not matter and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And if there is a wine you enjoy, forget about what it costs, how it is described, its origins, and what the experts say about it. It is good.
UPDATE: Adam Conover gives his usual humorous take on wine snobbery, supporting what this post says.