I never said I was so smart
Jon Carroll writes a column in the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s never been one of my favorites, although some of my friends love him. His thing is tongue-in-cheek wit, with a twist of snark. Today, he opines on a topic that I, and other bloggers, have addressed in the past; but it’s always worth another go. The topic is (ta da!) “Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.”
Carroll reports on a 2001 study by a French scientist at the University of Bordeaux, Frederic Brochet, that has since been widely reported, as for example here. Among other things, Brochet dyed a white wine red, then presented it to “a group of experts” in both its red and white forms (in other words, it was the exact same wine), without telling them one of the red wines actually was white. What Brochet found, Carroll writes, is that “Every single one [of the experts], all 57, could not tell it was white.” Moreover, they “described the sorts of berries and grapes and tannins they could detect in the red wine just as if it really was red.”
Why am I not surprised? Could it happen to me? Yup. And it could happen to you, no matter how much of an expert you think you are. Carroll runs with Brochet’s study and suggests, as others have, that it proves there’s nothing at all to wine tasting and criticism, that it’s so inherently subjective as to be meaningless. We wine critics, he writes, are “gnashing [our] teeth…looking for contrary, non-anecdotal evidence” proving that tasting and reviewing really does have validity.
Well, this wine critic isn’t. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, expectation does play a role in wine. Why is that so hard for some people to understand?
Let me give an analogy. Take an expensive modern painting like this one,
which happens to be by a painter I like a lot, Raymond Saunders (he taught at California College of Arts & Crafts when I worked there). I don’t know how much it’s worth, but you can bet it’s easily five figures, maybe six for all I know.
Now here’s an image of a child’s finger painting
that’s probably not worth a dime (although the kid’s mom and dad probably have it up on their refrigerator door). Now, there are art experts out there, “dealers” and “critics,” who will tell you exactly why the Saunders painting is good art or bad art. They’ll even tell you if it’s good Saunders or bad Saunders. Does that mean they know what they’re talking about? Well, if they’re making a living at it, in a sense, it does; the proof that they know what they’re talking about is that people are willing to give them money to hear it. This doesn’t mean that the Saunders is better than the finger painting, and it doesn’t mean that if the critic were shown a real Saunders, but didn’t know it was a Saunders, might not criticize it as derivative. And it doesn’t mean that, if the critics thought that the finger painting were by Kandinsky, they might not proclaim it great art. All it means is that the dealers and critics have determined that Saunders (or Kandinsky) is an important artist, and when they know they are looking at a Saunders or a Kandinsky, they can say some pretty intelligent things about it.
Now let’s take it to wine. When I know some background about a wine, I feel I can say smarter things about it than when I know nothing about it. I once gave 100 points to a Shafer Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m pretty sure that if you sat me down at a blind tasting of 50 Cabernet Sauvignons and told me they were all from Paso Robles, and you stuck that Shafer in the middle, I wouldn’t give it 100 points, although I think I’d give it a pretty high score. In other words, expectation does play a role. When I rated the Shafer 100 points, I knew that the entire flight was Napa Cabernet. Are you shocked, shocked I’d say this? Don’t be.
It shouldn’t be that hard for a person of average intelligence to grasp that expectation does play a role in wine tasting. Wine tasting isn’t either-or, meaning it’s completely objective or completely subjective. It’s a little of both. Jon Carroll’s curmudgeonly self wants to pretend it’s one or the other, so he can poke a stick at critics, and that’s part of the columnist’s job, to set up straw dogs and then knock them down. But I suspect he’s smart enough not to believe his own cleverness.
So it’s not a case of critics pretending to be so smart, and then getting head-smacked and all embarrassed by being tricked by a Brochet. Any wine critic knows how easy it would be for that to happen. As for me, speaking as someone who reviews wine for a living, I do think my experience helps me to be a better judge of wine than a beginner. It would be pretty stupid if I said otherwise. But if you set out to hoodwink me, I don’t think you’d have all that hard of a time. Would that prove anything? I suppose it would, if your mind is pre-set to think it’s all about expectation, not reality. I don’t happen to believe that, so it wouldn’t prove anything to me, except that I’m human.