By Dan Berger
When you sit down to taste a glass of wine, one of the first things you do is to make an instant judgment as to whether you like it. And the more you know about the wine, the easier it is to make that judgment.
Say someone hands you a glass of white wine and asks, “What do you think about this?” Chances are your first thought is: what sort of a trick is this person playing on me? Is this a $100 bottle of French Burgundy? Or is it a $3.99 bottle this guy thinks is a great buy?
This test (which happens all the time to wine writers) immediately brings into play the motivations of the person serving you the wine. Is he or she a trickster, prone to pranks? Is this a person who is always looking for bargains, or one who takes pride in buying only super-quality wines and serving them blind?
So begins an instant analysis of the situation — a look at the person serving the wine, and all previous contact you have had with this person. It all comes into play. It is the context that provides you with a clue as to the real nature of the wine, which helps you say whether you like it or not.
Context provides the colors that flesh out the experience and make a good wine great, much the way oil paints expand a pencil drawing into a masterpiece, or the way a full orchestra expands the sketched notes on a sheet of paper into the multi-faceted magic we call music.
It’s been said that in a blind tasting of wine, one look at the label is worth 10 years of tasting experience. But even just a clue can help. If you know a friend is passionate about Brunello, and you are served a tart red wine, lacking any other clues you might guess that’s what it is.
Without any hints whatever, you might like or dislike a wine on rather visceral level. But when you know something about a wine, you can give additional support to your judgment about it.
Often I find a varietal wine that I like even though it doesn’t offer any of the varietal character I expect. These are rarely great wines, but they are satisfying to consume if you forget what varietal it is supposed to be.
It is for reasons related to context that I looked askance not long ago at a supposedly scientific study that purported to show that wine experts don’t know much more than the average person about wine.
In a report out of London, the study asked wine experts to identify certain aspects of wines about which they knew absolutely nothing. Lacking a context, many experts would be stumped.
Based solely on the article I read, this “scientific” study seemed to be a joke, and any good journalist ought to be able to shoot holes in it paragraph by paragraph.
Here are just a few of the holes:
“ ‘The truth is that you cannot define taste objectively,’ said Frédéric Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux whose study won an award from the Amorim wine academy in France.”
Taste can be quantified. Is Brochet saying people can’t tell salt water from sweetened water, and grade subtleties in between? What about detecting the difference between the aromas of peach, pear, and lemon? Moreover, what is the Amorim Academy? Amorim is a cork manufacturer. Did Amorim pay Brochet to do this study? If so, what is this “award” all about? And what sort of “researcher” is Brochet?
The article continued: “The opinions of the so-called connoisseurs are no better and perhaps worse than that of the occasional drinker, he said.” An opinion is just that, neither right nor wrong. And sensory judgments are based on skill levels. Some people have a better sense memory than others.
More from the article: “The greater the expertise, the greater the cultural baggage that prevents you from perceiving the actual taste in your mouth.”
Totally wrong. The greater the expertise, the more sensitive is the palate to subtle nuances. You can train people to taste more acutely.
“Brochet carried out two studies. In the first, he invited 54 of Bordeaux’s eminent wine experts to sample different bottles, including a white wine to which he had added a flavourless substance giving it a red colour. Not a single expert noticed. ‘It is a well-known psychological phenomenon — you taste what you are expecting to taste,’ Brochet said. ‘They were expecting to taste a red wine, and so they did.’ ”
The trick here is that the tasters were fooled into believing that the liquid was red. Had they been blindfolded instead and not told whether the sample was white or red, I’m sure most would have scored a lot better.
Moreover, the article never mentions whether the wines in this test were particularly identifiable or even palatable before they were doctored. What if the wines the experts were asked to analyze were truly awful, lacking in any distinctive varietal character, or in fact misleading in their varietal character?
“In the second test, 57 experts tasted the same average bottle of Bordeaux wine on two occasions. The first time it was labeled as a high-prestige Grand Cru, and the second time it was labeled as a cheap vin de table. When they thought it was a Grand Cru, the experts described it as agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded. When they thought it was a vin de table, they said it was weak, short, light, flat, faulty and with a sting. Forty said the wine was good when they thought it was expensive, but only 12 when it was cheap.”
This aspect of the test may be the most valid, and yet I’m unnerved by so obvious a fallacy as the way this “scientific” test was conducted, by asking the tasters to describe the wine.
Did the evaluator stage classic triangular tests? (Probably not.) Or a T-Test for statistical accuracy? Did he ask the judges to score the wines? Was the “high quality” wine poured first or second, or was the test done randomly, some tasters getting the “Grand Cru” first and others second? Were the wines tasted in a side-by-side test? What was the standard deviation in the tasters’ evaluations of the wines?
Obviously I have a lot of problems with this whole story.