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What you know influences what you taste

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If I you were told that this was painted by a knockoff painter who specializes in fake Renaissance paintings, would you like it?

Raphael

Would you buy it? Would you hang it in your livingroom?

What if I told you that, actually, it was painted by Raphael—arguably the third most-famous Renaissance painter (after Leonardo and Michaelangelo)? Would knowing that change your perception, your feeling about it?

Would you be more exalted, more inspired, more impressed, more awed knowing it was an authentic Raphael masterpiece?

I suspect the answer is, Yes, you’d be more impressed knowing it’s a Raphael. But why? The painting itself, in either case, real or fraudulent, is exactly the same: same colors, same images, same glow. It clearly took talent to paint it: Whether it was Raphael, or the knockoff guy, is irrelevant in that respect. So why does knowing it’s a Raphael cause you to feel so differently about it?

This is a parallel to the question of great wines I’m so fascinated with. If I take a wine that is, by all critical consensus, a masterpiece—let’s say, 2010 Cheval Blanc, a Parker 100, Enthusiast 100, Spectator 98—and pour it for you from a brown paper bag, and I don’t give you any visual clue whatsoever concerning what I think about it (I am poker-faced, as it were), but just hand it to you and say, “What do you think?,” what do you think you’d say? Assuming you have a decent palate, you’d probably say, “Pretty good wine.” If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave. So 95 points is probably the best you’re going to be able to do, and I strongly suspect you’d be lower than that.

Instead of the double-blind thing, let’s say I give you a glass of the wine with a broad smile on my face—I’m clearly pleased—and say to you, “My friend, this is a masterpiece. Perfect scores from Parker and Enthusiast. Almost perfect from Spectator. Smell it; savor it; this is a wine you will remember for a long time.” I bet you’re going to agree with me (and with Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast) and be dazzled. (Yes, this presumes you can appreciate a great Bordeaux/St. Emilion. But of course you can; otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)

See, in this case the knowledge of the wine’s identity–with all the associations it conjures up—is silently working its magic on your brain, shifting your perceptions upward, inclining you to favor it—just as if I gave you a glass of wine I told you was Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably be inclined downward in perception. Same phenomenon with the painting and the wine.

This analogy settles, I think, the objective-subjective question we’re always dealing with: Is wine appreciation objective? Yes, in the sense that a professional should be able to identify its quality up to a very high level. In terms of point scores, I’d put that level—as I said above—at about 95 points. All very great wines are 95 point wines.

But to get above 95 points you have to let the subjective appreciator within you have free range. That is the best way, the most logical way to stretch that 95 points up to 98, 99, 100. You have to know the wine is Cheval Blanc, just as you have to know the painting is by Raphael, to really experience its greatness. For a large measure of that greatness has nothing to do with what’s in the glass; it was created, and exists, in your mind.

By the way, the reason this is important, and not just some bit of esoteric sophism, is because it relates directly to prices. If we accept the fact that you can potentially add hundreds of dollars to the price of a bottle of wine solely due to its psychological-subjective impact on the brain, then we have opened up a can of worms, or perhaps the better metaphor is that we have carved out a slippery slope. For those of us witnessing mudslides in this El Nino California—events that destroy homes—a slippery slope, unrestrained, can wreck utter havoc on the things that slide down it.

P.S. This post was inspired by an article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle about this painting, “Portrait of a Lady With a Unicorn,” said to be by Raphael.

  1. Steve;

    If you buy a diamond today, it will come with a certificate from the International Gemological Institute that certifies and verifies weight, clarity, color and cut. Two diamonds with exactly the same certificate will be exactly the same.

    But you can buy one from WalMart at $2500 and one from Tiffany for $5000.

    Which one would you buy? Which one would you present to the love of your life when you propose? Which one would YOU want to receive?

    That little blue box costs $2500

  2. Context like this is why it’s fruitless to try to create precision in wine recommendations. Beyond some very crude style boundaries, whether we like or dislike a wine is largely driven by what we expect.

  3. Everyone does have an opinion on most everything. I worked for a large airline in marketing and was intrigued by the science of focus groups. Even in the way (wording and tone) a question was ask by a moderator would skew results. A true blind tasting is: a blank room (no decor), unmarked bottles, identical glasses, identical closures, blank paper for notes and no briefing of participants. Even this sterile approach is fraught with ancillary issues that effect people individually (age, perceptions, prior experiences, time of day, environment et al). That is why there are so many makes and models of cars.
    Even group tastings are influenced by other participants we observe around us at the time.
    This is an interesting perspective that all winery tasting rooms should employee to influence perceptions; put “ringers” in amongst tasting room guests that express Wow! when tasting a wine.
    I will leave it that this. But books have been written on subliminal persuasion and influencing factors. You can fool some of the people… Herd mentality fosters wine magazines for sure.

  4. redmond barry says:

    I’m not drinking any freaking Merlot.

  5. There’s a film called “Mana–Beyond Belief” (available on Netflix). It is very relevent to this discussion. It is about this intersection of subjectivity and value assigned to things. One example cited is the painting Man With a Golden Helmet. It was believed to be painted by Rembrandt, and people lined up to see it in the rotunda of a museum in Berlin, similar to the lines at the Louvre to see Whistler’s Mother. Then it was discovered that it was the work of a student of Rembrandt, rather than the Master himself. It was moved to a back room, and the lines disappeared. Same great painting but it lost its mana.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    “If I really pressed you to give it a score, maybe you’d do 94 or a 95; psychologically, it’s almost impossible for someone tasting blind or, in this case, double-blind, to rate a wine higher than that, because, in the absence of knowledge of its identity, the risks of being too high (or too low for that matter) are simply too grave.”

    The only “risk” is to one’s ego by over- or under-praising (-rating) the wine. Not so “grave” a self-inflicted wound that one couldn’t recover from it.

    Recall this wine anecdote:

    When asked if he had ever confused Bordeaux with Burgundy, Harry Waugh replied, “Not since lunch.”

    Recall this Robert Parker observation:

    “Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.”

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Worth reading . . .

    From New York Times “Dining Out” Section
    (May 7, 2008, Page D1ff):

    “Wine’s Pleasures: Are They All In Your Head?”

    [Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/07/dining/07pour.html?pagewanted=print%5D

    By Eric Asimov
    “The Pour” Column

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Worth reading . . .

    From CNET News
    (January 14, 2008)

    “Study: $90 wine tastes better than the same wine at $10”

    Link: http://www.news.com/8301-13580_3-9849949-39.html%5D

    Posted by Stephen Shankland

  9. Bob Henry says:

    11:30 AM wine commenter Steve:

    The late Canadian wine writer Andrew Sharp wrote a wonderful consumer guide titled “Winetaster’s Secrets.”

    Link: http://www.amazon.com/Winetasters-Secrets-Andrew-Sharp/dp/1895629365

    Backgrounder on author: http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20000411.OBSHAR/BDAStory/BDA/deaths

    Quoting Robert Parker’s book review:

    “An extremely well written book with the most informative and perceptive chapters on wine tasting I have read. This is the finest book for both beginners and serious wine collectors about the actual tasting process — lively, definitive and candid.”

    Every time I open up my highly annotated and dog-eared copy, I learn (or recall) something new and important.

    Highly, highly recommended.

    ~~ Bob

  10. Interesting question:

    Which would you rather have – assuming identical price and product?

    The worst quality Picasso, Van Gogh, or Vermeer?

    The best quality work from an unknown artist in Arkansas?

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