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Do people like certain wines because certain critics tell them they should?

19 comments

This question’s been in my mind for a long time. I think that when people are confused about what they should or shouldn’t do or like, in this information-overloaded, sensorily-saturated culture, they look to the authority of others to tell them. You want to go to the movies on Friday night, but there are 18 flicks playing at the theatres in your city. How to decide? Go to Rotten Tomatoes. If Roger Ebert, whom you trust, tells you J. Edgar’s pretty damned good, that may decide the case for you–and I would argue you’re more likely to like it because you know Roger does.

This is a subdivision of the old “argument from authority” hypothesis. Briefly, it states that, if people think that ___ [an authority on something] is usually correct, then if he pronounces on a specific topic in his area of expertise, he’s correct. We see this all the time in matters ranging from politics to religion to esthetics. It’s a fundament of human nature to turn to shamans or soothsayers to make sense of the chaos of existence.

Imagine if you will a wine tasting. One hundred people have gathered in a hotel ballroom, after paying good money for the privilege of being taken through a guided tasting by a famous wine critic (or F.W.C. for short). Eight glasses, each containing a different wine, are arranged on the table in front of them. The moderator, who will later introduce the F.W.C., first tells the audience to quietly experience the wines, making notes if they wish. Perhaps the audience doesn’t know what the wines are, or, if they do, they do not know what the F.W.C. thinks of them. So they eye the wines, swirling and sniffing, taking little tastes and, hopefully, spitting in dump buckets. You look around and see them concentrating. That guy over there, he’s got his eyes closed as he sloshes the wine. That lady is licking her lips as she writes, probably figuring out what adjectives to use. You, yourself, go back to each wine a second time, maybe a third, depending on how much time you have. You make detailed, thoughtful notes. Wine number three is stupendous, rich and velvety and fruity. Wine number five is tannic and shut down. Wine number one seems rather tart. And so on.

Then the moderator says time’s up for tasting; the F.W.C. is about to say what she thinks. You’re in awe of this celebrity. She’s as famous, in the little world of wine writing, as Bono is in rock and roll. Everybody else in the room feels the same way; otherwise they wouldn’t have paid to be there. A hush falls. The F.W.C. makes a little throat clearing sound, audible through the sound system. Then she thanks everyone for being there, maybe making a self-deprecating remark to let you know she doesn’t take herself too seriously even if you do. Then it’s game on.

F.W.C. starts with wine number one, the one you thought was rather tart. She loves it! She says it’s a grand cru quality wine. She waxes on about the pedigree of the vineyard, the talent of the winemaker who happens to use biodynamic methods, how verticals of the wine prove that it is stupendous after 15 or even 20 years in a good vintage–and this vintage happens to be the greatest in the region in decades! You slouch a little in your seat, dejected. You hadn’t thought much of the wine. But the F.W.C. did. She must be correct, because she’s the F.W.C. and you’re just, well, the guy who would have liked to have the F.W.C. verify each of your opinions, but of course, it never happens that way. So there’s this place in your brain that flares up whenever this happens–a place of self-doubt. You realize how meaningless your own opinions are in such matters, and that casts a pall of dubiousness over all your other impressions of the remaining wines. If the F.W.C. actually happens to agree in large measure with you on, say, wine number three, you’re ecstatic. But in this world where your expectations are so often thwarted, she says that wine number three is a simple villages-style wine, nowhere near as great as any of the others.

This is how the argument from authority works. The F.W.C. cannot be wrong. You can. Therefore, you must be wrong, and she’s right.

I’ve seen this phenomenon many times in my own guided tastings. I’m not saying I’m a F.W.C. but if I’m the one up there at the front of the room, facing an audience that’s looking at and listening to me, then I’m the one who’s invested with authority. And so often, when I say I selected a certain wine to include in the tasting because I think it’s fabulous and a value and one that might ordinarily get overlooked, I see heads nodding in agreement with me, and then the hands go up and people start saying how much they like the wine, and how much does it cost, and where can they get it, and what’s the alcohol, and what kind of barrels was it aged in, and I know that the wine has been a hit. And I go away wondering, once again, if the people liked the wine because they thought they should based on my assessment, or if they liked it because it really is as good as I thought.

I don’t suppose there’s any way to answer that question.

  1. The same question has surely been asked in every realm where the guidance of critics is followed by a public which believes itself less knowledgeable.

    Especially contemporary art…

  2. Steve,
    as I read your latest essay I began to “listen” as it were to the Merovingian, maybe reading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, but no matter, as advertizing links faces and celebrities to sell everything, not to mention MSM’s self-appointed role as social architects, so shall it be with wine; that silly human-nature. I like and repeat the phrase: “Drink what you like and not what your told.”
    That having been said, Roger Ebert (MSM again) is not my only guide to movies, I consult several movie reviewers, and as with wine it’s usually ex post facto.

  3. Hi Steve

    Fantastic point of view. I totally agree with you on this matter. This is the same thing I bring up when I teach waiters: you have the authority card, please use it so your guests will have a good time. The waiter claims the wine is perfect with the food, and then it is.

    All the best from Denmark
    Frederik Kreutzer

  4. Don’t think this is much of an argument. Psych studies have shown a tendency to make things meet your expectations, so if FWC thinks its a great wine this will inform your expectations then you, or at least a significant number of people, will try to congruous with their review. Others are simply contrarians and others independent thinkers that may not go along, and I believe these types have more resistance or suspect of evaluations and may not go along but all of us are probably subject to this tendency on some level.

    Personally I don’t look at the descriptors when I buy wine. I look at the score, particularly if it’s cheap wine and then +/- 3 pts to give me a ball park and then compare the notes to avoid too much expectation, flavor profiles, and of course not waste $$$. Expensive wine (which I call >$30) I almost exclusively have to taste first, which makes mailing lists difficult, but I make a few rare exceptions for my favorite winemakers or certain types of wine with universally high scores. Simply can’t trust critics (especially with Pinot) to match my tastes to try a $50 wine.

  5. Most wines taste good and the chances that a FWC would pick a wine that tasted bad are pretty slim. So the marginal difference between a wine that is preferred by the FWC and the others tasted is pretty small. When you consider that a placebo is nearly as effective as a NSAID in pain relief, the positive influence of the critic’s choice is comparatively small in the brain of an member of the audience. Most make the leap in acceptance.

    The real question comes up later for the audience member. After buying a case of that wine, and opening a bottle several months later has the critic’s influence diminished and the reality of their own preference set in?

  6. Morton, great question! I think if someone buys a 100 point Parker wine for $400, they’re going to be so emotionally and intellectually locked into it that they wouldn’t dare to doubt that they love it. If you give it to them blind, they might not be so enamored.

  7. I would guess that most people who spend $400 for a 100 point wine are never going to drink it, so they probably won’t ever know if they agree with the critic.

  8. “I don’t suppose there’s any way to answer that question.”

    Of course there is, but to do it, you risk destroying the very idea of the FWC. How? Here are a few different ways.

    1. Don’t get up in front of the crowd. Don’t make introductory remarks, or present yourself as an expert. If the tasting is supposed to be “WITH the FWC,” sit with everybody else. Taste the wine at the same time. Take your notes at the same time. Participate in the conversation instead of leading it. Ask people “what do you think?” before telling them what you think.

    2. If you must pontificate, start by telling them the truth. Nobody is right, but perhaps somebody is right for you. Sure, a good critic can tell you if a wine is well made or flawed, but she can’t tell you what you will like. If she tries, she’s telling what you SHOULD like, and the snobbery takes off from there. Start by telling them, “I might be the FWC, but there is at least as good a chance that gentlemen sitting next to you has a palate that matches yours as that mine does. So let’s not talk about what’s ‘good.’ Let’s talk about what we like. Maybe you’ll make a new wine friend in the process.” Shouldn’t a tasting, even one with an FWC, be about the wine and the people?

    3. If you really want to know the answer to the question, test it. Send in a ringer. Wear a Groucho mustache and sit with the proles for a while. Or pronounce something terrible that you think is wonderful. Will some people follow suit? Of course. Why? Well, at least in part you are enabling it by presenting yourself as the FWC.

  9. Dear Steve: As always, insightful, informed commentary; thank you. I maintain that as students we are almost never taught to discriminate: I like Bach, and here’s why; I prefer Monet, and here’s why. I had an excellent education (50s/60s) in top-flight schools where I had to think and write seriously, but almost never was asked to defend an aesthetic judgement. No wonder we reach for an “expert” for guidance in a field so complex (and delightfully so) as wine; we have not been trained to trust our own judgement. Cordially, Jan Wells

  10. Chuck Hayward says:

    One would probably say, “You better hope so,” or there would be a lot less blogs to read….

    Insert mega-ultra-famous Bob Johnson cartoon for the late Pacific Wine Company here:

    “Geez, this wine is repulsive”

    “The Wine Advisor gave it a 96″

    “I’ll take a case”

  11. Chuck: Exactly!

  12. David H., good advice! Except I dunno about the Groucho mustache.

  13. No.

    I’d intended to type a longer response, actually, but “no” really sums it up so I’ll stick with that. :)

  14. “I had an excellent education (50s/60s) in top-flight schools where I had to think and write seriously, but almost never was asked to defend an aesthetic judgement”

    Ah – one of the benefits of an Oxford education, chaps!

  15. The answer is obvious but the implications are daunting. Too many ill-informed individuals wield authority further confusing an already intimidated public. People need to be given more tools to trust their own palates, not wait for pronouncements from on high.
    http://bigeasywines.blogspot.com/2011/11/power-of-experts.html

  16. Randy Caparoso says:

    The subject of wine being the way it is, anyone can be an “FWC” of sorts. They’re called “gatekeepers.” You find them in stores, restaurants and hotels of good repute everywhere you go: wine buyers, sommeliers, even waiters or sales people who are identified immediately by customers or guests as authorities on the subject; which is why in the business it is commonly known that “you can sell anything to anyone,” as long as you’ve established your integrity and credibility.

    After over 30 years in the restaurant trade, this is why I am puzzled by the notion that wine critics (or “FWS”) holds any real sway in any given “moment of truth,” when a wine is being recommended and sold. In restaurants we obviously don’t put numerical scores or quote wine critics on our wine lists, as is commonly done on retail store shelves. We sell and serve the wines we believe in, not what someone else has told us to believe in; and when this is done well, guests have a tendency to respond positively.

    In retail stores that like to do their own selecting and create their own POS material sans quotes or scores from popular wine critics, it’s obviously been proven that you can sell just as much wine without any “help” from well known wine critics. In the Bay Area, for instance, Ferry Plaza and Kermit Lynch obviously don’t need FWCs — just two of many, many more stores like this.

    If anything, FWCs are like well known film critics: yes, people read them, but obviously they don’t pay *that* much attention to them or their ratings. This explains why critically panned films like Immortals, Dumb and Dumber, and Chucky can be box office smashes. People don’t need film critics to tell them what they like.

    Unlike films, however, Americans don’t grow up drinking, thinking, knowing wine, and so their grasp of wine quality is inherently more infantile in the beginning, and it takes a while for the everyday consumer to come to grips with his/her own taste. But eventually they do, and after that — as we know in the market — it really doesn’t matter what an FWC says: they’ll go by their own instincts, while also starting to trust the gatekeepers at hand.

  17. I must be an over-confident ass since I trust my own palate. When the FWC shares her thoughts about what she tastes and any history about the vintner, great…but it’s meaningless to me whether she “likes” it.

    Anyone who buys a 100 pt wine for $400 without being able to taste it first, the risk is on their shoulders. I don’t get why they’d think they’ll like the wine any more than they would like someone else’s expensive decorating taste? It’s okay to buy a wine based on a recommendation to see if you like it of course.

  18. Though your readers have moved on, I just saw this post. Since you brought up Rotten Tomatoes of course I have to comment. I would go to Rotten Tomatoes to learn ‘the wisdom of the crowd’, both the pros and the ams. If I wanted to know what Roger Ebert thought I would go his site. Ideally one selects a movie when the critics and those who pay to see a film are above 70% and close together. So the Tomatometer showed that Puss n Boots merited ‘Fresh’ (thumbs up) from 77 critics and Rotten (thumbs down) from 17 for a composite score of 82% “Certified Fresh”. 79% of 25,414 audience liked it. The Descendents has even higher numbers. Wouldn’t game theory recommend following the crowd?

  19. Unfortunately, they do. Working as a Somm I always ask customers what kind of wine they like in order to give them something that will enjoy, and more often than not I hear, “I like Napa Cabs”. When I ask which ones, I hear frequently, it doesn’t matter as long as it is from Napa.

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