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Oxford study: esthetic judgments determined by what you think you know

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Let’s say you’re fairly educated about wine. (If you read my blog, you undoubtedly are.) I invite you over to my place for dinner and open a bottle of Lafite Rothschild. You’re suitably impressed. I decant it, then pour you a glass, telling you as the purple liquid drizzles into the glass that this is a very great Lafite, that if I scored it I would probably give it 100 points. After that buildup, you taste the wine. It’s a virtual guarantee you’re going to like it.

Now let’s say that a little while later, I offer you another glass of wine. Only this time, I tell you that it’s not very good–that I wanted you to see how my job consists, in large part, of tasting mediocre wine. Handing you the glass, I frown; you can tell by my facial expression that I’m sorry to make you drink something so bad. After that buildup, or maybe we should call it a build-down, it’s almost certain you won’t like the wine.

Now, what if I told you that both wines I gave you were the same wine? Would you be surprised? You shouldn’t be, especially if you’d come across this report about a new study out of Oxford University. Subjects inside a brain scanner were shown works of art, some of which were genuine Rembrandts and some of which were fakes. The subjects’ reactions to both pieces were identical, until they were told which pieces were fakes and which were real. In the former case (the “real” art), the revelation “raised activity in the part of the brain that deals with rewarding events, such as tasting pleasant food or winning a gamble.” In other words, the subject felt a form of pleasure. In the case of the latter (the “fake” art), “Being told a work is not by the master triggered a complex set of responses in areas of the brain involved in planning new strategies. Participants reported that when viewing a supposed fake, they tried to work out why the experts regarded it not to be genuine.” In other words, the subjects were troubled; confronted with a situation they could not fully understand, they were forced to improvise, to rationalize the discrepency.

The take home lesson of this little experiment at Oxford is a familiar one. People’s esthetic reactions to external stimuli are powerfully dependent on their expectations. They will look at a supposed Rembrandt portrait and, “knowing” that it was painted by the master, be suitably impressed. Indeed, this is why “people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting.” Something in the knowledge that the painting is original arouses intense pleasure. It’s not so much the art work itself as that awareness that people enjoy. On the other hand, if people “know” that a painting is fake, they will experience far different, more complex and less pleasurable thoughts and emotions–even if the painting is, in fact, real.

Pretty weird, huh? Back to my opening example of offering you the Lafite. It almost doesn’t matter whether or not the Lafite is real, or just some little Sonoma County Cabernet that costs $14. It’s irrelevant. What matters, according to the Oxford study, is what you think you know about it. That, in turn, depends on what I told you–and that, in turn, has a lot to do with how much you trust me, since I’m the “expert” in wine, and you’re not.

It follows from this that blind tasting is the only objective way to come to a conclusion about wine, but something else follows, also, that isn’t generally discussed in these types of conversations: wines of a similar variety and style are more alike than not, even when their scores vary. If I show you an apple and tell you it’s a grape, you won’t believe me, even if I had a Ph.D in fruit sciences and owned an orchard and a chain of produce stores. That’s because apples and grapes are so different that anyone can tell them apart. You cannot fool anyone that an apple is a grape, or vice versa.

But if you can fool a fairly reasonable person into believing that wine “a” is Lafite and wine “b” is mediocre, when they may be the same wine (or if the case may be the opposite, that the “mediocre” wine is Lafite and the “Lafite” is the $14 Cabernet), then those wines must be more alike than not. They cannot possibly be apples and grapes: it’s more a case of apples and apples.

But wait, you say. What if the subject of any of these experiments were a trained professional? A great taster, formidable in the intricacies of wine, renowned for identifying vintages and chateaux in blind tastings, revered for his knowledge? Could that person be fooled? Probably the chances are less, but they never approach zero. As long as a person is human, that person can be fooled, sometimes spectacularly so, as we have repeatedly seen in blind tastings. I know that nothing I’ve written here will add significantly to the conversation about how to taste wine. But every little conversation advances the cause down the playing field, and besides, it’s fun to talk about this stuff. It never gets boring.


My ten highest scoring wines of 2011

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No 100 point wines this year, but who cares? What a list this is. Diverse both type-wise and regionally. Four wines from Napa Valley, four from Sonoma County, one from Santa Barbara, and that North Coast bubbly from Schramsberg. A bunch of Cabernets, a Pinot Noir, a couple sparklers, even a dessert wine. I round the list out with the Qupe Syrah, at 97 points, because although I had 9 other 97 pointers, the Qupe was First Among Equals. All of these wines are fantastic, world class; they would easily hold their own against peers from any wine region on earth. All are ageable, I’d lay odds on the Von Strasser and Williams Selyem being still fine in 15 years. Maybe they’ll all be fine in 15 years. If I’m around in 15 years, maybe someone will be nice enough to treat me to a tasting of these magnificent nectars of the gods.

Venge 2008 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville. $125, 275 cases, 14.9%. Score: 99 points.

Stonestreet 2007 Rockfall Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley. $75, 212 cases, 14.5%. Score: 99 points.

Williams Selyem 2009 Precious Mountain Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast. $94, case production unknown, 14%. Score: 99 points.

Araujo 2007 Eisele Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $275, case production unknown, 14.8%. Score: 98 points.

Verité 2006 La Joie, Sonoma County. $300, 1,201 cases, 14.7%. Score: 98 points.

Von Strasser 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain. $125, 278 cases, 14.2%. Score: 98 points.

Dolce 2006 Semillon-Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $85/375 ml., 3,300 cases, 13.8%. Score: 98 points.

Schramsberg 2004 J. Schram Rosé, North Coast. $130, 1,000 cases, 12.7%. Score: 98 points.

Iron Horse 1997 Joy! Blanc de Blancs, Green Valley. $179/1.5L, 50 cases, 13%. Score: 97 points.

Qupe 2006 Bien Nacido Vineyard 25th Anniversary X Block, “The Good Nacido,” Santa Maria Valley. $100, 190 cases, 14.5% Score: 97 points.


Why the New York Times should use the 100-point system for wine

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The reason why Eric Asimov’s column last week in the N.Y. Times is so interesting is because it provides the perfect defense of a point scoring system–although that was inadvertant on Eric’s part, and he’d probably deny it even after reading this post.

Eric wrote about a tasting of New Zealand Pinot Noirs he found “underwhelming.” Also: “boring,” “lacking a sense of place,” “not engaging in that come-hither dance in which a glass of wine implicitly says, ‘Drink me, drink me’” and suffering from “a lack of definition [and] a sense of muddiness.”

The wines were not undrinkable, Eric notes. They simply did not express themselves “with clarity and precision.” Some were “not bad,” just “not exciting.” They were “pleasant,” but ultimately “disappointing” for wine lovers seeking “liveliness…framing and precision” in Pinot Noir.

Sounds to me like Eric went through a garden variety tasting of common wines, the kind people drink mindlessly every single day of the year, around the world, and always have, since the dawn of wine. All of us critics routinely drink these kinds of wines all the time. It’s part of our job. For every Lafite Eric tastes (or every Harlan I taste), there are five hundred ______s (fill in the blank) that have no definition, don’t sing come-hither, and are disappointing.

That this should go without saying in the life of a professional wine critic is obvious. So what was the point of Eric’s column? It was contained in the headline (which Eric may not have written. In Wine Enthusiast, I rarely write my own headlines. That’s what editors do.). The header was “In Wine, Friendliness Isn’t Always Enough,” “friendly” being a term (which I also use) to describe a sound, but lackluster, wine. Eric’s contention, if I read him correctly, was that it’s not good enough for a common wine to be merely common. It should, instead, be–what? Great? But common wines are by definition not great. They are common. They often bore. So what is the point of criticizing common wines for being common? There always have been common wines and there always will be, until the Sun swallows the Earth.

In the technical part of his column, Eric discusses the “structure” that Pinot Noir should have. It should “never be coarse.” A Pinot Noir should never “play to the crowd,” or be “easy to drink.”

Well, I’m not about to argue with that!

Eric is absolutely correct to point these things out about Pinot Noir or any wine. I just don’t understand why he would take highly coveted real estate in the world’s greatest newspaper to point out something so self-evident. It seems to me that, if Eric had a methodology for dealing with mediocre wines, he would not have to express his frustration in such a regal setting as the wine pages of the great Grey Lady herself.

There is such a methodology: point scores. I don’t have to get upset that a wine is simple, uncomplicated, unexciting or doesn’t beckon me to come hither. I simply give it 83 points (or whatever) and do my best, in the 40 or 50 words allotted to me, to explain myself. There’s another thing about the point system I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about, myself, until just now: It assumes that there’s a proper place for every wine under the sun: for great wines (97 and up), near great wines (94-97), etc., right down to acceptable wines and undrinkable ones. That’s what Wine Enthusiast’s point-score brackets are: like the allowable electron orbits described by Bohr, they assume that every wine has its proper place in the scheme of things. When the critic discovers which “orbit” to most properly assign any given wine, he is content with its place: there’s no need to fret that the wine is unexciting because, having discovered that the wine is 83 points, the critic knows that it’s exactly where it belongs; he has no cause to complain. (Of course, one can always knock a wine for being too expensive for its quality, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.)

As in any scheme of relativity, the existence of great wine not only assumes but demands the existence of a vast ocean of ordinary wine. Great wine is at the top of the pyramid, but there would not be a pyramid without a foundation of common, ordinary wines. It does no good to criticize common wines for being common; it’s like criticizing poor people for being poor, or uneducated people for not knowing who, for example, Nils Bohr was. One doesn’t need an extensive wine terminology to get the message across that a wine is common. One needs only a point system to communicate it clearly and distinctly. I highly recommend that Eric try using the 100-point system, or even a 20-point system, in the New York Times. It would make his job easier and also communicate better to the Times’ readers exactly what Eric is trying to say.


Quality vs. credulity: One way to make a wine coveted

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If you don’t think that wining and dining tastemakers isn’t one of the keys (if not the key) to boosting a winery’s reputation, then you don’t live in the real world.

I’ll get to examples in a moment, but first, let me explain what I just said. Take two wines that are equal in quality. Give one of them a huge budget to dazzle tastemakers (wine and food writers especially, but also sommeliers, merchants and so on). Let that budget be spent on fantastic tastings with unbelievably good food, held in fancy settings such as hotel ballrooms and four star restaurants. Even better if you can underwrite the attendees’ travel expenses, since wine and food writers aren’t exactly paid very well. As for the other wine–the one without the budget–let it depend on sending a sample out to the same tastemakers. Do you know which wine will be the cause celebre? I do, and it’s not the wine with the puny budget. They’re lucky if they can send a free corkscrew with the sample.

The fact is, dazzling tastemakers and influencers has been the way certain wineries and wine regions got famous to begin with, and it still is. When I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Tom Jordan, who created Jordan Winery, told me how he got tastemakers to pay attention. Quote: “Early on, I realized the challenge was, How are you going to get recognized?” What Tom did was to invite restaurateurs, somms, wine merchants, distributors and food and wine writers to the winery (which is one of the showplaces of California wine country) and wow them. “We had guest suites and guest houses and a superb kitchen operation, and we brought chefs in from France to cook,” Tom said, adding, “I knew the wine was never going to taste better than it would in that nice setting…”.

Now, I don’t mean to criticize what Tom did. He had learned well from the Bordelais, who have been plying influencers with goodies for centuries. This is simply how the game is played, and the fact that it works is proved by Jordan’s being one of the top winery brands on American restaurant wine lists, a feat it has replicated for many years.

Which brings us to–where else?–Asia, the El Dorado of today’s wine trade, the Lost City of Gold, only it is no longer a lost city but one that definitely has been discovered and is in the process of being exploited by those who can afford it. Read this article about how the cellarmaster at South Africa’s Rupert & Rothschild (yes, that Rothschild, on the Baron Edmund/Lafite side, meaning there’s a lot of money) flew to Bangkok to host a dinner. I’ll quote just a little from the article so you get a general idea of what you missed: “After a refreshing round of amuse bouche, the action kicked off with the first course: poached seafood, mussel tomato gelee, kaffir lime, dill and smoked herring pearls paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Baroness Nadine [Chardonnay]…Next up was seared Wagyu beef flank, mixed bean salad, rucola [sic] and red currant with raspberry, paired with 2008 Rupert & Rothschild Classique…” etc. etc.

Well, the guy who wrote this up was suitably impressed, for his descriptors were glowing (“perfect,” “classic,” “exciting”), and I bet anybody who read his account went away thinking, “Hmm, I sure would like to get my hands on those Rupert & Rothschild wines.” Which is the point, isn’t it? If you’re a little family winery, you’re not going to be able to wine and dine tastemakers in Bangkok (much less Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Singapore, and so on). So you’re probably never going to get on the Asian “A” list, even if you’re making spectacular wine. (It can happen, but it would take a minor miracle.)

So consider today’s posting another in my occasional debunkings of how famous wines get and stay famous. Sometimes it’s about the quality, but sometimes it’s about the credulity of the tastemakers who are gobbling all that smoked salmon and filet mignon and then telling people how fabulous everything was. (Say, I wonder what was in the swag bag at the Bangkok dinner?)


More analysis of the 100 point scoring system

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I sometimes come under fire from commenters on this blog when I say stuff like “Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time.” That’s from my blog a couple days ago, when I owned up to the truth that “obviously a point score is not meant to be taken as a mathematical certainty.” That wasn’t the first time I’ve said so, but whenever I do, the point-score doubters pile on.  Gregg Burke said my confession was “Kind of a problem wouldn’t you say?” David Honig said “if a wine can vary from 87 to 90, depending upon your mood, the temperature, what you had for breakfast, whether your dog threw up in the car, and whether you drink it before or after listening to Michelle Bachmann argue that the HPV vaccine causes retardation in young girls, then it is flawed.” Et cetera et cetera.

So, this being an extremely important issue, I want to explore it further. I am aware that some people will say “Steve is just writing about the 100 point system to increase his readership” but that isn’t true. My regular readers know that I write about whatever I’m thinking about that day, without regard to eyeballs.

I want to start by quoting Daniel Baron. He had been the winemaker at Dominus, and was at Silver Oak when he was interviewed in the wonderful 2004 book, The Winemaker’s Dance. (I haven’t researched where Daniel is now, but it doesn’t matter from the point of view of his quote.)

Daniel said: “You have to remember this when you think about judging wines. They’re alive and changing moment to moment; they have good days and bad; they show well in a particular glass or with particular food. Judging a wine at any particular moment in life is like giving a kid a letter grade based on his behavior in the supermarket.”

I’m not sure about that analogy concerning the kid in the supermarket. but other than that, Daniel’s message couldn’t be clearer. Read it again. It speaks for itself. This is the viewpoint of a professional winemaker, working at a top winery. He’s not trying to defend the 100 point system, or point scores in general, and he’s certainly not offering an apologia for critics. He’s just speaking a truth that, apparently, some critics of the 100 point system fail to understand.

Bottles do vary. Anybody who’s been in this business for more than two minutes knows that. There is an infinitude of reasons why bottles or, more exactly, bottle impressions vary, in addition to the ones Daniel listed, which I need not explain now, although I can if you want. This variation is why it is unlikely if not impossible that any particular review can stand the test of time, the way an empirical finding, such as a mathematical or chemical result, can.

So what is the conusmer’s touchstone of reality? I repeat what I said in my blog: “The more reliable the critic, the more trustworthy you may assume his reaction to be.” The consumer should not assume that any critic in the world–whether his last name is Parker or he has the letters M.W. following his name–is mathematically precise, or that his review is replicable across all times, spaces and conditions. That is utter nonsense. Instead, the consumer should react this way: “Okay. So-and-so rates such-and-such wine at [whatever] score, and then explains his score in the text. I trust so-and-so; therefore, if he felt that way when he tasted the wine, there’s a reasonable certainty that I will feel the same way when I taste it.”

That is not mathematical certainty. It’s not the same as saying, “Okay, my math teacher demonstrated on the blackboard that two plus two equals four. So when I add them, there’s a reasonable certainty I’ll arrive at the same conclusion.” No. Your math teacher is absolutely certain of his results, and he knows that he will arrive at the same result every time he does the calculation, for the rest of his life, and so will everyone else when they add the same numbers. Wine reviewing is not and cannot be like that. It is soft objectivity. A score, properly speaking, should be considered as guidance. And as with any guidance, it should be taken in a certain context.


Gary V. is right about the 100 point system

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“Yes,” Gary Vaynerchuk replied to Tom Wark yesterday, when Tom asked him “Is the 100-point wine rating scale a good thing?” on the Fermentation blog.

Finally something GeeVee and I can agree on! Yes, the 100 point scale is a good thing, and here’s why. If you see that a wine got 100 points from a reputable critic, it will get your attention. I don’t care who you are or what your views are on the 100 point system. It’s going to make you think about that wine. You will remember that wine. I still remember the first wine I ever heard about that Parker gave 100 points to. It was Groth Reserve, from (I think) 1985. I never even tasted that wine. But it was memorable.

Now, another critic who doesn’t use the 100 point system might give a wine his highest rating: 4 puffs, or 20 points, or 5 stars, or whatever. But you will not remember that wine because these things are not iconic enough to penetrate the mass of information we take in each day. But 100 points is. I can’t quite explain why, but there’s something so strong about 100 points that it just goes into the eyeball, hits the brain and lights up the mind like a pinball machine.

Now, if 100 points can have that impact on consciousness, I would argue so does every other number below 100 points. If you see 99 points, you’ll think, “Wow, that was almost 100 points.” You’ll wonder what it was that made the critic deduct that final point of perfection. You might find yourself reading the review to learn why. You might even Google the wine to see what other critics said about it. Same with 98 points, or 88 points, or whatever. Every point score, from a critic who uses the 100 point system, is measured against the 100 points the wine theoretically could have scored. When the reader sees the score, he or she automatically begins an internal evaluation process. It may not be fully conscious, but it occurs on some level: the 100 point system allows any wine to click into place on the quality spectrum, which is very easy for readers to comprehend.

People often ask me how I can justify any particular point score. Why 88, they’ll say. Why not 87, or 89? I’ve replied before that an 88 could easily be an 87 one day or an 89 the next day, maybe a 90 the day after that. I admit it. Bottles vary in temperament, the human body varies in its receptivity to aromas and tastes on a daily basis, etc. etc. This is why it’s important to remind readers that a score is a photograph of the critic’s reaction at a particular moment in time. The more reliable the critic, the more trustworthy you may assume his reaction to be. But obviously a point score is not meant to be taken as a mathematical certainty. This is what the haters of the 100 point system always fail to appreciate. They’re the ones who insist it purports to be a mathematical certainty–not the actual critics who use it. This is a straw man argument: opponents of the 100 point system claim something for it that not even its proponents do, in order to attack the thing claimed. It’s like one of my karate teachers, George, used to do. He’d go to a bar, get drunk, then walk up to some perfect stranger and accuse him of flirting with his girlfriend. In reality, the stranger hadn’t done anything, but George just loved pushing it to the point where he could beat the living daylights out of the poor shlep. This was a nasty, mean and probably insane thing for George to do (the truth is, George was a little crazy), but it’s like what the 100 point bashers do. They impute something to somebody that’s not true, and then they beat the guy up for it.

Anyway, Gary V. is right on when he says the 100 point system is a good thing. It is. It’s the best, most precise and comprehensible wine rating system ever invented. I add only that people should also read the accompanying text, not look only at the number.


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