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I never said I was so smart

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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.

  1. The question was asked of Harry Waugh, the great English winewriter and critic “When was the last time you mistook a Burgundy for a Bordeaux”?

    His answer, perhaps tongue in cheek, but instructive nonetheless, “At lunch”.

    The “gotcha” approach to journalism exhibited by John Carroll misses the point. Carroll does not care, of course. He has discovered a ten-year old experiment, a little bit belatedly, but he has seen it and said to himself, “Self, you can use this aged experimen to sell some newspapers”.

    The next time someone attacks wine blogging, be sure to refer him to John Carroll. Snarky minds think alike.

  2. Here’s to the humans! :-)

  3. As usual, a very thoughtful, and frank, posting. Bravo for admitting that there is a subjective aspect to wine tasting, even by pros. I’m sure I’ve read things by other wine critics who tried to minimize, if not totally deny, the subjective factor in their own reviewing.

  4. No mistaking that thing for a Kandinsky, the colors are to “dirty” and the subject lacks depth. :-)

  5. Having set up a few tasting experiments in my day, I can tell you that if I put out four wines – a white, the same white dyed red, a red and the same red decolorized – TOLD the expert panel what the four wines were, and told them the goal was to properly identify which was which, they would be able to do so at a rate greater than chance. Probably substantially greater. Point is, the Brochet experiment was designed to give a negative result. Joe’s got it right: “[h]ere’s to the humans…” – our senses can be fooled. It’s true for all of us – critics included.

  6. The big boys in the wine industry are no fools. That’s why they pump Mega Purple into every dilute cheap wine and blend Syrah (or even PetS) into Pinot. It’s a lot easier to make a dark wine that appeals aesthetically than it is to make a genuinely good wine.

    As far as, “any wine critic knows how easy it would be for that to happen,” I think this is assuming too much. There are certain wine critics whose egos are too large to allow for any degree of subjectivity or influence in tasting. That’s why these critics don’t feel the need to taste blind or avoid conflicts of interest in the industry. They think their million dollar palates are above the fray. They aren’t.

    I’m not sure how I feel about Napa being gifted points just for being Napa. If you know that the Napa name causes you to increase your scores, why not put ringers in the flights from Paso, Sonoma and/or Lake County? Not just your Blackstone grocery store stuff, but serious wines. A few points is big money (89 vs. 91, is close-out discount vs. full price sell-out). It’s no wonder people complain Napa is a poor value and over-rated. The (hypothetical) $25 Justin Paso Cab that got an 88 is just as good as the $40 90 point average Napa Cab that got a 2 point Napa boost and thought it could charge $10 or $15 extra.

  7. Also, the point about complex vs. simple is wine is almost entirely a question of external influence. Whether one finds more or less aromas and flavors is generally a question of how hard one looks. A fine wine is simple if you just chug it down without sniffing, a cheap wine is complex if you swirl it to coax out the details. Price cues us on whether to swirl it or pound it.

    And then it’s a question of connotation. A hint of petrol would be viewed as complexing, while rubber doused in crude oil would be a flaw. I’ll say the latter if I want to bash a wine and the former if I want to praise the wine.

  8. Presuming wine is not art, but a real business, if one takes into account only two variable costs, grapes and barrels, it is easy to perceive the (objective) difference between a Napa Cab, from prime vineyard land, and a Central Valley generic varietal.
    Suppose you’re buying grapes from a vineyard that one hectare of land is priced at US$ 300,000, and yields 3 tons/ha. Assuming the winegrower/land-owner is a sensible entrepreneur and expects to amortize the capital invested in the vineyard in 8 years (with a hypothetical 5% annual borrowing interest rate), one hectare of land will cost him US$ 46,417 annually, and one ton of grapes will be priced at US$ 15,472. The impact of this single variable cost is of US$ 17.86 per wine bottle.
    If you decide to age your wine in 100% new French barrels, the cost per bottle will increase US$ 2.50; adding up to US$ 20.36 per bottle, based solely on these two variable costs.
    When you do the same math for a Central Valley wine that: the hectare of vineyard land sells for US$ 15,000; the yield is 20 tons/ha; and ages in stainless steel, the cost per bottle (based exclusively on these two costs) falls to US$ 0.29.
    Still, one can reason that wine made from prime Napa vineyard land, with a minuscule yield and aged in all new French oak is not a 100% quality guarantee; and I agree with that. But, like Quantum Mechanics, the example above has a wave function that determines a real probability, based on a probability distribution (i.e., the probability of obtaining possible outcomes from measuring an observable), that one will obtain a high-quality-product. And while I acknowledge there is the same kind of “uncertainty principle” and “wave-particle duality” to wine evaluation, that only collapses when the observer/wine reviewer/wine drinker does his job, we should not forget that semi-conductors, magnetic resonance, lasers, … (i.e., all electronic devices) are based precisely on these (quantum-mechanical statistics) probabilistic concepts that I’ve just cited.
    Lastly, although I accept that Central Valley wine made from over-cropped grapes may appeal to a few palates, the probability that it will become great wine is null.

  9. I’m not sure Brochet’s study proved anything except that the primary difference between red wine and white wine is the color…which most of us knew anyway. White wines have tannin, berry aromas and have the composition of the grape it came from, just like reds. Sure many red wines have more tannin that whites, but not necessarily. The judges were not fooled, they got it right, they were tasting a red wine.

    I prefer the finger painting, but I’m sure I could be convinced that I liked the other one if someone had made up a great story about it. Particularly if that story (and me repeating it) would reflect well on my sophistication and taste. I love the similarity in marketing of both wine and art. They both involve creating a story that allows charging a huge markup over the cost of the materials and labor. A story that actually makes the work of art or the wine more attractive and pleasing to the consumer, particularly if part of the story is how expensive it is.

  10. There is no such thing as a Napa bonus unless a critic is being dishonest–possibly only in the mind. Taste blind. Mix in wines from many locales. Retaste as much as possible.

    I cannot speak for all critics, but I utterly reject the assertion made by Greg above that Napa Cab costs more because it gets some kind of imagined boost. Napa gets nothing. It deserves nothing.

    Napa Cabs earn or do not earn their ratings. And if they are rated higher on average than Paso Cabs, the reason for that just might be that Napa Cabs are, on average, better than Paso Cabs.

    As for cost of production arguments, those only count at the margins. If you have a higher cost of production and you cannot produce the quality needed to justify that price, you will suffer at some point. May be not in all market settings, but in some. And by the way, you may pay more for your Napa location and sell more because more people go to Napa than go to Paso.

    And if a Justin Cab gets 88 points at $25, that is a good price/quality ratio. An 88-point Napa Cab at $40, of which there are many, is not the better buy. It may, however, have a marketing advantatge. It should not have a point advantage or a quality disadvantage.

  11. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Steve,

    I think it is almost like anything else, practice makes perfect. I don’t mean that you are perfect, I mean you know what you are talking about. Is wine reviewing subjective and objective; I think you would be less of a wine reviewer if you did not have both of those factors in the equation when writing a review. Do folks want baseline and honest descriptions before purchasing a wine; they sure do or they would not read reviews. Do your readers trust your reviews; sure they do; so what is the point?

  12. Lorrie, the point, I think, is that people want wine writers like Parker to be gods. They cannot be, and they should admit it.

  13. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Steve,

    I got the point; and maybe they will never admit it. My point was the truth. No wine writer or person is absolute; we as wine lovers should understand that. The “big name wine people” will “always” feel they have their stature in the wine world, and they probably will. They will always have people who will discount wine experts like you and others. Does it stop you from being who you are and your job; I don’t think so!

  14. I think Morton called it. The reviewers got it right. As anyone in the food service industry knows sight is a very powerful sense. When that plate of food is placed in front of you your mind is already telling you how it is going to taste and if it is good or not just by its appearance. When the wine came out red it was sending all of the signals for a red wine. Our senses work together not in isolation. Even If your sense of taste is saying wow this Merlot almost has a buttery chardonnay character with some citrus notes. Guess what you are still going to say it’s a merlot. Not gee I think that’s a chardonnay in disguise.

    A more appropriate test would be done blindfolded. Therefore based solely on sense of taste and smell. Using dyes is just trickery and overall bad science.

  15. steve stevens says:

    To be blunt, Carrol’s article is either disingenuous or dumb. The question itself only sets up the hoax. Are people’s opinions about something different if their expectations for that thing are also different? As a few of you already pointed out, “Duh. Of course.”

    If you tell people they’re getting Thing A and then give them Thing B disguised as Thing A, of course their opinions will be affected. This doesn’t call into question the skill or knowledge of the people being fooled but rather the integrity and the motives of the people doing the fooling.

    And the question isn’t a question at all. It’s a deception. It assumes things to be true that anyone who’s spent a few months in the wine business knows not to be true: that experienced tasters are impervious to deception.

    Carrol should stick to writing about what he knows but from this article, it’s not at all clear what that actually is.

  16. Kat Kinsman, a New York food writer, sometimes puts a bag-in-box wine among those she is serving without telling the tasters. As a way to show that you get what you expect, I think this is a great idea. The more blind tastings I attend, the more sure I am that your senses are strongly influenced by your expectations. And the higher your profile as a critic, the more your expectations may get raised by the quality of the wines you are invited to taste.

  17. Steve, well, Carroll got a column out of it!

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