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The power of persuasion

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We were at a winetasting. Burgundy. I’d earlier met a woman farmer from down in Santa Barbara who’d bought some land in Santa Rita Hills she planted to Pinot Noir. We hit it off, and agreed to sit next to each other at the tasting. Each table had about ten people.

“I want to sit next to you,” she said, “so I can learn about wine.” She’s just getting into the business (she’s already successfully growing other crops) and was none too sure of her level of wine knowledge.

“I don’t know how much I have to teach you about Burgundy,” I said, “but I’ll try.”

In front of us were about 8 glasses of wine, from different vintages and regions within Burgundy. When I got to #7, I immediately sensed that something was amiss. TCA? I swirled, sniffed again. I couldn’t be entirely sure, but there was something frankly moldy. Not funk, or barnyard, or sweaty saddle: not brett. Something wet-cardboardy. It wasn’t overpowering, but was present in just enough quantity to make the wine off-putting to me, and I said so to the lady.

Now, at the same table was a very famous wine person, well-known in top circles for his or her wine knowledge. The identity of this person is completely irrelevant, for the cautionary tale I’m about to tell could have happened to anyone–most certainly it could happen to me.

Some of us had asked this person (let’s call him or her “Pat,” after the genderless person on Saturday Night Live) to give us color commentary on the wines as we went through them. That was not Pat’s official role. Pat was there simply as a guest, same as me. But Pat gladly agreed to talk about the wines. Pat told us about vintages, about regional characteristics, and about what he/she found in each wine. It was gratifying to learn that my impressions very closely agreed with Pat’s throughout the first 4 or 5 wines.

“I can’t wait for Pat to get to #7,” I said to my neighbor. I had a feeling it would be a controversial wine.

Finally Pat got to #7. “I really like this wine,” Pat said, swirling and tasting it again, speaking about about terroir and acidity and spiciness.

I could feel the lady kind of looking at me. She didn’t say anything, but you can sense when someone is thinking how can two different people whom she both has been led to believe are experts come to entirely different conclusions about the same wine.

When Pat was finished talking, I raised my hand and said, “I actually think it’s a little corked. Not as much now as 45 minutes ago,” when we had first sat down at the table. With all that breathing in the glass, the offensive smell I’d first detected had ameliorated. But it was still there.

“I thought it was corked, too,” said another guy at the table.

All eyes turned to Pat, who sniffed, swirled, tasted, and then repeated the pattern. And then Pat said, “You know, come to think of it, you’re right. I think maybe it’s a little corked.” Pat didn’t use the word “corked.” He or she used a French term, and then explained how that precise term actually was different from TCA, but that aromatically, it pretty much amounted to the same thing: a technical flaw.

I leaned over and said to the woman, “I told you I didn’t know how much I could teach you about Burgundy. But you have just learned something very valuable about human nature.”

  1. Last year I was at a wine event and something similar happened. I was eating a dish of red cabbage, walnuts and balsamic vinegar and a main ingredient that I could not quite place. “What is this?” I said aloud to the others at the table. “Is this beef?”

    “No!” declared a woman at the table. “It’s pork.”

    “Really? The flavor is most unusual for pork.” I said.

    It was hard to really see the mysterious protein as it was completely coated in the balsamic and cabbage, and I wasn’t 100% convinced it was pork, but the woman was so adamant that it was.

    I kept tasting it and puzzling over it.

    “Are you sure this is pork?” I asked one more time. And the lady shot me an exasperated look and said. “Honey, I’m telling you this is pork. I make this recipe all the time. It’s PORK!” And then she got up and left in a huff. So I took her word for it that it was pork and gobbled up the rest of it.

    Then later, I asked the chef about the recipe and most of all to find out where he purchased the pork. For it was exceptional indeed.

    The Chef looked at me like I was nuts and said “That was duck.”

    And as soon as he said “duck” it was like a flash of insight. Of course it was duck!! But I’d gone against my instincts and stopped trying to determine what it was when the lady at the table insisted it was pork.

    I worried I might have a deficient fat receptor in my palate and made a note to myself to seek out the duck experience more often. (For research purposes of course.) But more troubling was the fact I let someone else’s opinion override my own sensibilities. I learned how the power of suggestion can sometimes carry you off track. My take-away from it all was– Trust my own palate first!

  2. James McCann says:

    TCA is very tricky, as each of us detects it at different concentrations. I am cursed in that I detect it at a very low threshold, and often find wines undrinkable that others love. (AKA The Laube Effect)

    As for the main point of the story, the power of suggestion is very strong when it comes to our senses. I am not sure it is always the case that people bend to other’s will, as opposed to the brain overiding the nose and saying “yeah, it’s black cherry.”

  3. Marcy, great story. Thanks.

  4. Much like James above I am highly sensitive to TCA and half the time a fellow wine buyer at the shop calls me over to smell a wine they are being tasted on it’s not to share their lovely find, it’s to see if the damned thing if corked. Super fun for me that. Had a similar thing happen to me at a cheese tasting of all things. I also buy the cheese for our store and was at a Spanish cheese event when I was handed a sliver of “Sheep’s milk cheese”. Put the thing in my mouth and the second it hit my tongue my eyes got wide and I turned so I could spit it out into the napkin I was holding. “You don’t like it?” the supplier asked, “Um, tastes like goat cheese to me” I replied…I hate goat cheese. “Nope it’s 100% Sheep’s milk” he responded complete with the, “Whatever lady” look. I was baffled, asked twice if he was sure and once given the, “It’s my job to be sure” I left making a joke about checking the fence for holes and a phantom randy goat. Got to the end of the event and was talking with the importer who asked what I liked and didn’t and after gushing on all the cheeses but one she said, “Oh you didn’t like the blended one, the one with both Sheep’s and Goat’s milk”…..guess I was the only one that noticed or said anything.

  5. Excellent anecdote, Steve. One of the first things people who assess wine professionally (in any capacity) should learn is that different people have different thresholds of perception for the various constituents of a wine’s flavor. Therefore their taste experience is bound to be different too. The inability to appreciate this causes endless miscommunication and argument in the trade and media.

    Footnote to Marcy on duck and pork: I’ve noticed that carnitas and duck confit are easily confused, when chopped up and used as an ingredient in other dishes such as salads or pseudo-cassoulet.

  6. I wish everyone would stop talking about duck and pork it makes me hungry!

    I agree that everyone senses TCA differently, but a professional palate should be well trained to assess it quickly. My guess is Pat didn’t pick up on it for some reason and then was embarrassed. Everyone has an off day. Or, Pat is one of those people who actually likes those “flavors” and the corked funk was undetectable because it blended in. I’m just hoping the expert wasn’t who I think it is or I’d be worried to have Pat open a bottle at a table for me.

  7. This also has something to say about the danger of relying exclusively on the tasting talents of perceived experts. I still have not been able to overcome/accept the “positive” aspects of Brett that “Pat” extolled in various Southern Rhone reds.

  8. Mr. Barras–

    You have basically pointed out the problem of relying on one palate. No one gets it right all the time. Aside from varying levels of sensitivity to various concerns like Brett, VA, TCA and other funks, there is the issue that each of us has our preferences. Sam Dugan, whose brilliant instructions have led me to many very good grower Champagnes, and I disgree when it comes to richer wines. Dan Berger and Robert Parker are so divergent in their preferences that I think I might pay to hear them argue with each other.

    But, I presume that you are not suggesting that expert opinion is worthless or even no more valuable than the opinion of the man down the street. Wine appreciation is like appreciation of all kinds of topics. The more we know, the more likely we are to understand expected standards whether we are talking about wine, food, art or the handling characteristics of autos. Indeed, the more we taste and study and learn, the more we know about our own palates. And ultimately, our own palates must be the final arbiters for the wines we choose to drink. In that regard, I do agree with you down the line.

  9. I agree with everything Charlie said. The point I tried to make in my post is the role of suggestibility in wine evaluations. If a single critic is doing the reviewing alone, then no problem. The problems can arise in group sessions. A dominating type can influence the others; someone unsure of herself may doubt her own palate if challenged; the embarrassment factor can come into play. This is the main reason why I don’t like or trust group ratings. Someone can turn 180 degrees under the pressure of the group.

  10. Steve, I would argue, however, that there is a vast difference between consensus evaluation and panels that inform a final decision. There is no one perfect palate, and a well-composed group led by a moderator who brings out views and ultimately has the responsibility to be the informed correspondent can lead to more information being available and ultimately quite consistent information across hundreds of reviews.

    It is why, for example, I prefer my political discussions to have several voices, not one. It is why I look at the reviews of several critics when I am thinking about going to the theater. It is why I prefer Consumer Reports views on cars to Car and Driver.

  11. Charlie, I dunno. I’ve been in some big group wine judging events and it’s pretty ugly from the inside.

  12. Charlie,

    Was not implying that an “expert” (I actually prefer the term “experienced”) opinion is worthless at all. And the “man down the street” is only as capable as his experience level, not to mention his/her ability to articulate what is felt.

    I agree fully with your last several sentences — particularly that we must be the final arbiters of our palate preferences. And that’s why Steve was right on to comment on the wine being corked or otherwise amiss.

  13. I’ll leave assessments of group judging to people who have done it (like Charlie and Steve). But Charlie puts his finger on why it’s interesting and educational to taste and discuss wine in a group. The differences between people can be illuminating.

  14. Christian, I enjoy tasting with others and I love picking the brains of people about what they think. It doesn’t matter if it’s an MW or somebody who knows very little about wine. I learn from everyone. But for me, the best way to review a wine is for a single critic to do it. That way, that critic’s readers can understand his palate. How can you understand the “palate” of dozens of [semi-anonymous] people who participate in a gigantic competition like the SF Chronicle’s? To me, those awards mean absolutely nothing (with all due respect to the hard work that the staff there and especially Jon Bonne put into it).

  15. As to Charlie’s point about cars and his preference for Consumer Reports vs. Car & Driver — Charlie, do you not appreciate the value of having *both* viewpoints in hand when reading about a new model? CR is more the clinical side of evaluation and C&D is the enthusiast side of evaluation (along with a greater sense of fun!).

    That’s why I try to bring both sides (clinical and enthusiast) to the table when I’m presenting wines for consideration to wholesale buyers (to a lesser extent with retail/consumers, depending on their level of comfort with the clinical side). Grapes, percentages, cooperage, soil types and all the rest of the info that some wine geeks live for, while also leavening the info with the fun side — perhaps a story about the winemaker, the family, etc.

    Granted, it take some tailoring and adjustment to individual tastes — but isn’t that what we’re talking about? Gather as much info and input as possible, blend it with your own evaluation and make a decision. Sometimes, though, the fun side wins out over the intellectual!

  16. Steve, am I confused. You say that “the best way to review a wine is for a single critic to do it,” yet you bash wineries for using a single critic (either Parker or Laube).

    I would then assume that you would prefer many “single critics” for consumers to choose one, or a few, to read after “readers can understand his [or her] palate.” Wouldn’t this approach be more in line with the rise of the diverse views/experiences of Joe Blow bloggers, which you also have made recent comments about?

    I am perhaps blurring the line of the distinction between the review of a single wine(your point in this post) vs. reviewing of wines in general (a corollary to this post and past posts). If so, I don’t mean to be accusatory. I would like you to clarify your view of what I see might be a contradiction in your statements (though it may not be as no one else seems to see your comments in this light). Cheers.

  17. Dear Colorado, I don’t see a contradiction. I think a single critic makes for a more coherent review than a committee. I think wineries that rely on 1 or 2 dependable critics are making a long-term mistake. And I think that the great wine critics of the future will arise from today’s Joe Blow bloggers. Hope that clears things up!

  18. That’s what I figured. Thanks.

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