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There they go again

17 comments

“They” being the anti-expert experts who want to convince us to trust their expertise in exposing “experts” as nothing more than a bunch of idiotic frauds who make a living pretending to be “experts” when, in fact, their expertise isn’t any greater than you, me, or the man behind that tree.

(This last is a reference to today’s bit of political trivia. It’s from the late, longtime Democratic Senator from Louisiana, Russell Long, who so memorably said, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree!” They’re still saying it in the august halls of the U.S. Congress.)

Back to the “expert” thing. This tirade against experts cites instances in which so-called “experts” got things wrong. Horribly, embarrassingly wrong, as in the instance cited in the headline: “Wine experts confused a $30 bottle with one worth $500.”

In our cynical, dubious, skeptical country, where the “experts” in finance, housing and other fields really did get everything wrong, there’s now a tendency to hate anyone who professes to have any expertise at all. This is a branch of the war on knowledge we see being waged by a certain span of the political/cultural spectrum. According to it, common sense is the only source of true knowledge; the more “book learning” one has, the less that person should be trusted (unless the book happens to be The Bible.)

Well, I’m not going to get all political here, but let’s examine the truth behind that startling “$30 bottle with one worth $500” headline, and then see if we can possibly get wine experts off the hook, despite them pulling such a boner.

The bizarre tasting occurred when a Frenchman, Frederic Brochet, put a middling Bordeaux into two bottles, one labeled cheaply and the other bearing a Grand Cru tier. When he presented the bottles to 57 “expert tasters,” they praised the Grand Cru and knocked the cheap bottle. (You can also read a version of this here.)

I first have to point out that the coverage of M. Brochet’s experiment that I’ve been able to find on the Internet is very spotty. It seems like there was an original article, and all subsequent ones borrowed from it, with the result that the conclusion is like a game of telephone, in which the original, authentic message gets hopelessly garbled by the end. For example, it’s not clear who Brochet’s “expert” wine tasters were, nor is it clear how many of the 57 “experts” screwed up. However, I’ll accept the premise that a bunch of tasters, who knew a thing or two about wine, were deceived.

There should be absolutely nothing alarming or scandalous about this. It shouldn’t even be surprising. If the point is to aver that “experts” can be wrong, then let us accept that as obvious, and move on. If the point is to ridicule the concept of expertise, then the authors of the various articles are going too far. There really is such a thing as expertise: in wine, in finance, in science. People with a resentment toward educated authority are really skating on very thin ice, because they put themselves in the position of being ideological Luddites, and yet when they are in serious need of expertise (for example, medical, or a good plumber, or expert firefighters, who were in short supply in Gov. Perry’s Texas during the recent wildfires due to budget cuts), suddenly their mistrust of experts disappears, proving the old adage: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

When it comes to wine expertise, some people know a whole lot more than most other people. They can make mistakes, especially when being subverted at the hands of a deceiver like M. Brochet (who seems analagous to Descartes’s evil spirit, which made him believe what was untrue). But in general, the average wine person looking for advice is wise to trust a wine expert with a proven track record.

Just because an unidentified group of “experts” got a tasting wrong doesn’t mean that every expert wine evaluation should be mistrusted. That is a very stupid, drastic conclusion to draw, the kind a thinking person should avoid. I believe in objective knowledge, in study and in expertise. I like to think I possess some wine expertise. I might or might not have been fooled had I participated in M. Brochet’s tasting. So what if I were? It would have meant nothing.

  1. While I believe I agree with the gist of what you are saying (the article and the tasting in question is a sham), I disagree with how you end the article. Do you mean any blind tasting results are invalid and meaningless, or just this specific one? Why would it mean nothing? What would mean something then? If being fooled in a blind tasting would mean nothing, then why would a critic telling me something they tasted is good mean anything? It seems rather convenient for the wine expert to pick and choose when the wine expert’s opinion carries weight and when it doesn’t.

    Otherwise, I am with you. This reeks of BS and confirmation bias. We don’t know who the 57 experts are, we don’t know which $30 bottle he switched out for the $500 bottle.

  2. the most frightening thing about this war on knowledge is that those who are not, in fact, experts, but who pose to be experts are really making matters even worse for those who have taken the time to become legit experts on a given topic. So, the idea of “expert” is being completely diluted. That is the growing issue, here. Not only does it then become more dangerous for the general public to put faith in expertise, or the idea of expertise, but it makes it much harder for the average person to decipher what is true from what is false. Unfortunately, it seems that at least in the US, the folks who stand for the “everyone is an expert” perspective tend to rile up believers much better than those who are truly experts. It’s a dangerous and unfortunate reality. But, I digress… back to wine.

  3. Just because you can’t find something on the Internet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or is purposefully garbled by subsequent messages! The article is titled, “Influence of the context on the perception of wine cognitive and methodological implications” (though the actual title is in French). It was published in the Journal International des Sciences de la Vigne et du Vin in Volume 33, Issue 4, pages 187-192 in 1999. Here is the abstract:

    The influence of the context on the perception of food is studied by having a group of 57 french oenology students tasting the same wine in two different packages (common table wine VDT and grand cru classe GCC). This context modification does not affect the stimulus itself but only the cognitive part of the perception. Results show that the packaging induces different judgments for the same wine. All the tasters give different marks for both wines and the GCC wine has significant (52/57) best records. Lexical analysis of wine tasting comments in both contexts reveals totally opposite describing behaviors of the tasters, most of the subjects looking for faults in the wine presented as VDT and seekink qualities in the GCC labeled wine. Subjects tend to adjust their sensory perceptions to the quality suggested by the label. From a sensory analysis point of view, our results emphasize the role of context in food perception. The perceived flavour of the wine is different when it is tasted in a different context. From a cognitive point of view, these data suggest that the conscious perceptive representation of the food contains information from different origins and that a subject is not able to selectively extract chemiosensory information from this global representation.

    I think that the documentary was skewing the results and purpose of this study for its own gain. The study showed what we all know, label bias exists for everyone. Even you, me, a group of enology students and Robert Parker, Jr.

    Don’t get me wrong Steve, I agree with you premise, just not for the points you make. Experts are not correct all the time. Yes, it is ok for experts to be wrong. Expertise in and of itself is valuable. The bigger picture that you missed, is that there is nothing wrong with enjoying a $30 bottle of wine more than a $500 bottle. Even with the labels hidden, some people (more than we’d think) would actually like the $30 bottle for what’s in the bottle and not the label!

    And second, who has heard of a $500 bottle of Nuits-Saint-George?

  4. James McCann says:

    Anti-intellectualism is not the property of either the political right or the left. Feminists and the anti-war protesters of the mid to late 60s are both examples of “left wing” anti-intellectuals.

    The interesting part of the study, which you seemed to agree with in an earlier posting, was that the descriptors change significantly when the price of the wine is known.

  5. I also agree with Rogersworthe and Colorado Wine. This might not prove that experts are invalid because they don’t have perfect palate memory, but it does prove they are just as open to human bias as anyone. This does make one question certain critics who consistently give very high marks of praise to a few producers that they happen to only taste in person with.

    I have long believed that these critics, if you told them you were going to put one of their “pet projects” in a group of 50+ similar wines and force them to publicly rate them, they would not do it for fear of giving their beloved producer less than glowing praise.

    So does this story make professionals less professional? No, but it does make them human.

  6. The interesting thing about this subject is not that every few years someone goes about proving again what we have all known from decades of sensory research – the importance of blind tasting. What is interesting is that recent research into the brain has shown that IDEAS trigger the dopamine pleasure pathway and that it isn’t that we are intellectually fooled by the Grand Cru. The IDEA that we are drinking a grand cru triggers the pleasure pathways of our brain and it actually tastes better. But this little experiment does speak a bit to expertise. Had this group of 57 been compared to 57 total novices, the novices, not knowing the difference between a Grand Cru and plonk, would not have experienced the triggering of the pleasure pathway. And the novices would have appeared to be the experts.

  7. Cartesian metaphysics aside, the story is not meaningless. It means that everybody, including wine experts, splatters their psychology onto the world around them. Like you just did with your response to some news article you saw on the web.
    You’re right, there is no surprise: “Subjects tend to adjust their sensory perceptions to the quality suggested by the label”.
    This story also means that even expert, exalted, expert wine experts must taste wines blind in order to competently evaluate wines.

  8. Steve – You point out one of the fundamental problems with the perception of wine criticism and that is you equate, or at least put in to the same category, scientific expertise and wine tasting expertise. Science and the pursuit of understanding the physical world we live in is about the most objective activity humans participate. That doesn’t mean scientists don’t make mistakes or that subjectivity sometime doesn’t creep in, but all in all it’s a pretty darn tight objective endeavor. On the other hand, wine tasting, wine appreciation, and wine criticism is far, far, far more subjective and this French study would indicate that, as do many other studies and anecdotal stories that you, I, and everyone else have heard about.

  9. It is an interesting experiment, whether it is true or not. I purchase wine at all different price points and every so often… Bizarrely I prefer the cheaper over the more awarded and more expensive.

  10. Michael Donohue says:

    I’m puzzled…having skimmed through most of this string and tolerating the use of Grand Cru for Bordeaux (it has more meaning in Burgundy),where the heck was there a mention of $500 Nuits St. Georges?

  11. Antonio Rangel’s experiment, using brain scans, at Cal Institute of Technology arrived at the same conclusion. Once told the price of the wine, the tasters, in the main, concluded that the more expensive wines tasted better than the “cheaper ones,” which were in reality the same wines. Members of the Stanford Wine Club, sans the brain scans, also preferred the more expensive wines. (Doesn’t all this somehow, Steve, relate to one of your earlier blogs on how to affect perception during promotional tastings at wineries?)

  12. Michael, the term Grand Cru Classé will appear on any Bordeaux that was ranked in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. It is also (over)used on the wines of Saint-Émilion.

    The $500 Nuits-Saint-Georges reference comes from the video to which Steve linked in his third paragraph.

  13. ok, here’s the perspective (via anecdote) of someone who sells and markets wines.

    When I was a distributor, I once had a wine importer come to me with a Chilean cabernet. It retailed for $15. I thought, and many people agreed, it was worth much more. But the stores couldn’t sell it. I brought it to a steakhouse and they bought it all. They poured it by the glass and couldn’t get enough of it. WHY? Because the retailers knew that a person buying a $15 bottle of cab is looking for something different they a person buying a $50 bottle. MEANWHILE, the steakhouse saw the quality, a viewed it as an opportunity to over delivers on a product.

    Perhaps when we judge a VDP, as are (or should be) using a different scale that that of a GC.

  14. Zack Seymour says:

    Not really sure if Mr. Brochet qualifies as a scientist or wine expert. In order to do a true scientific evaluation, you would need to do much more than serve it to the experts. Just by altering the time decanted and the temperature you can dramatically change the taste of a wine. If he wanted to even attempt to do a head to head comparison with any scientific validity he would have to do numerous tastings of two particular wines to completely maximize what most the flavor of both wines and make sure there was minimal bottle to bottle variability. Then serve each at it’s specific to a blinded group and the number of tasters would have to be large, very large, 100+ large.

    Then there is the concept of what is $$$ wine. It is easy to spend a lot of $$$ on middling wine, especially in a bad vintage or in a poorly treated bottle. And then there are descerning palates, which could well be better than some folks that have undergone training. Just the other week we had a tasting of drastically over oaked pinots in Sonoma. The winemaker has been in some good cellars and a degree from UC-Davis, but that doesn’t necessarily refine your palate. It’s the track record not the degree that makes the reliable taster.

  15. Scott’s observation about the difference between expertise based on knowledge and “expertise” based on sensory experience deserves to be underscored. The wine expert will no doubt have accumulated a great amount of information about aspects of grape growing, wine making and ways to taste. Theirs is as much an intellectual pleasure as it is a senuous pleasure.

    But the enjoyment of wine, like musical enjoyment, is strictly a sensuous pleasure. As I’ve noted here before, I need know nothing about how Bach wrote his sonatas, relying on and enhancing the techniques of his time, to be thrilled by them.

    Admittedly, a connoisseur may find a fuller, deeper pleasure in the stimulation of her senses, but that doesn’t seem to be a good example of expertise. The wine enthusiast or critic may also have a fuller experience, but can s/he represent what pleasure the less experienced wine drinker receives from sipping wine? If anything the wine expert may well get a different set of pleasures from a wine and therefore, perhaps, should not advise what the mere consumer should appreciate in a wine, or what wines deserve higher rankings for those, say, in the middle of the bell curve.

  16. “A taste for truth at any cost is a passion which spares nothing.”
    Albert Camus

    Scientists and even wine experts usually TRY to transcend bias, and with the help of reason and common consensus, often do: “By their fruits you shall know them.”
    Steve, you are like the social lubricant, unleashing the beatific berry bearings of the wheels of our affected minds; MAYBE the 1976 French-wine tasting proved that flavor rules over complexity. I like both, but the one must follow the other (and for the “lowly poor” cost) in the “real-world”.
    It would seem that “your” commenter’s thoughts make yours more interesting.

  17. Gregg Burke says:

    That tasting of experts was made up of enology students. Not enologist, not professors, students. How are they qualified to be experts? The whole thing follows a pattern of anti intellectual sentiment that has been flying around for a while. I think it is the pomposity of some so called experts that drive people crazy. Maybe it is because of my punk rock background that I believe it is important to question authority, but experts need to be taken to task by the public and other experts. For no other reason than to always encourage experts to keep learning. I think of Richard Feynman who was a genius by all accounts but was always a student and always learning. We in the wine business have to always keep learning, just to keep up with the dynamic environment we work in everyday. The one thing I think is important is that it points out that all people are susceptible to preconceived notions. That is why blind tasting is so very important. But don’t worry Steve no one doubts your expertise…well may be some people, but we still love ya.

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  1. A Worthwhile Canadian Initiative? The CBC Takes a Swipe at Wine Experts | Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist - [...] said, some of the reaction to the Freed/Brochet stunt has been overwrought. So a few wine geeks were made …

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