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Why wines tend to taste alike (if we're honest about it)

Wine glasses
Photo by Martha Garcés
Even experts have trouble distinguishing between cheap and expensive wines in blind tastings.

When I was staying in a village in Cornwall, England, earlier this year, I was invited to the monthly meeting of the local wine club, where, after the prompt dispatching of a few business matters, we spent an enjoyable and increasingly avuncular 90 minutes blind-tasting and rating 15 bottles of wine.

I don’t recall which wine won, but I do remember that none of the top five was among those with the biggest price tags. I also remember that our individual rankings of the wines varied widely.

We were greatly amused.

So I read with a smile of recognition science writer Jonah Lehrer’s article this week in the New Yorker about why wine tasting is so difficult, even for experts.

It’s because, he says, “the sensory differences between different bottles of rotten grape juice are so slight” and because (let’s face it) “the differences get even more muddled after a few sips.”

Lehrer provides example after example of blind-tasting events and tests in which experts and amateurs alike failed to identify the most valuable wines — or even to distinguish a white wine from a red.

In one test, for example, the “red” wine was actually white wine tinted with red food coloring. That, however, “didn’t stop the experts from describing the ‘red’ wine in language typically used to describe red wines,” writes Lehrer. “One expert praised its ‘jamminess,’ while another enjoyed its ‘crushed red fruit.’”

Ouch.

So, asks Lehrer, “if most people can’t tell the difference between Chateau Mouton Rothschild (retail: $725 ) and Heritage BDX ($35 from the winery), then why do we splurge on premiers crus?”

The answer, he says,

returns us to the sensory limitations of the mind. If these blind testings teach us anything, it’s that for the vast majority of experts and amateurs fine-grained perceptual judgments are impossible. Instead, as [University of Bordeaux psychologist and winegrower Frederic] Brochet points out, our expectations of the wine are often more important than what’s actually in the glass. When we take a sip of wine, we don’t taste the wine first, and the cheapness or expensiveness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisMoutonRothschild, or thiswineisfromSouthJersey. As a result, if we think a wine is cheap, then it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a premier cru, then we will taste a premier cru. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their inputs based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface. It’s not that those new French oak barrels or carefully pruned vines don’t matter — it’s that the logo on the bottle and price tag often matter more.

The ambiance of where we are when we’re drinking the wine matters, too. A 2009 German study found, for example, that we rate wines higher when the ambient light of the room is red or blue rather than green or white. And we’re willing to pay more for the wine that’s offered us in such settings, too.

I can’t remember what color the light was in that cozy room in the Cornish community hall. But there was a lot of laughter. And through the window I could see a full moon and hear the waves crashing gently on the nearby beach.

All the wine tasted good to me that night.

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Comments (2)

Expectations and environment matter

Many years ago, when I was an avid consumer of soft drinks – of the sort that I now avoid, and that health experts (and dentists) insist are ruining the health of our children – I cost a colleague a $5 bet in a similar sort of challenge. The bet was that I could not tell the difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola in 10 consecutive blindfolded taste tests. I was allowed – even encouraged – to “cleanse the palate” with plain water between each of the tastings, and I did so.

Alas, as a Pepsi enthusiast, I was disappointed to find that I was only able to distinguish it from Coke 9 times out of 10 over the course of about 45 minutes. My colleague was not happy about losing the $5, as he thought he had a sure thing.

Frankly, as a general teetotaler, I find Susan’s article’s result to be not very surprising. Wine and beer have always struck me as acquired tastes, and, it’s true, I never acquired them. It matters not to me whether the wine I’m being asked to sample by a friend is $12 a bottle or $212 a bottle. It’s all expensive vinegar as far as I’m concerned, and I heartily endorse the “rotten grapes” description.

I’ve sampled half a dozen brands of beer, both mass-marketed and craft-brewed, and find the tastes different in some ways, but uniformly awful overall. The same (for me) for wine. Yes, I can sometimes detect the “fruitiness” or “hints of wood smoke” or other characteristics that wine-lovers rhapsodize about, but in the end, it still tastes awful, just awful with notes of “fruitiness” and “wood smoke.”

Now, if I'm going to have to suffer through nursing several ounces of swill in order to be polite, yes, I'd prefer to do that in some exotic and comfortable location – if not at a 5-star hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, at least at a nice restaurant, where the food can often successfully mask the taste of the wine – but while the environment will likely make the experience more pleasant, the wine itself will still taste like expensive vinegar.

Hogwash!

I have been served expensive wine, some really good, some not so good. I never spend much on wine myself, but there is a big difference in taste and quality even among "cheap" wines. Americans get too precious about wine drinking, and there is a lot of snobbery, I agree with that, but those who say it all tastes the same must have dulled taste buds. Ahem, could it be all that soda pop?