More Psychology of Wine

Most psy­cho­logy stud­ies focus­ing on my good friend, wine, rely on apply­ing the sci­entif­ic meth­od to the tast­ing of dif­fer­ent wines, and this is done in one, rel­at­ively simple way: blind tast­ing.

Fin­ance blog­ger at Reu­ters, Felix Sal­mon, isn’t a fan of blind tast­ing, and after read­ing his emin­ently-quot­able piece on the sub­ject I tend to agree. The prob­lem, accord­ing to Sal­mon? We know that wine has a lot to do with con­text and, in tast­ing wine, objectiv­ity is over­val­ued.

This from Bob Mill­man:

It should be obvi­ous to any think­ing per­son that blind tast­ings neces­sar­ily favor–on a group vote basis–wines which offer imme­di­ate pleas­ure and grat­i­fic­a­tion. Left to their undir­ec­ted devices, the senses will almost always grav­it­ate to the obvi­ous and miss the subtle

and this from Sal­mon:

If you know exactly what it is that you’re tast­ing — a young first-growth wine, for example — then you can taste it in that light. Sim­il­arly, if you know that you’re look­ing at an Ad Rein­hardt paint­ing, you’ll be will­ing to spend a few minutes with it so that you can appre­ci­ate its sub­tleties. If you didn’t know it was a Rein­hardt, then you’d prob­ably just read it as a black mono­chrome and move on.

In that art­icle it is noted that pro­fes­sion­al wine taster Robert Park­er does not taste wine blind because of these issues, and in a later art­icle Sal­mon dis­cusses how at one event, when Park­er was per­suaded to taste blind a selec­tion of wines he had pre­vi­ously rated, he scored a once-reviled Bor­deaux as his favour­ite of the even­ing. The fol­low­ing quote from the piece looks at the futil­ity of (inher­ently sub­ject­ive) wine rat­ings:

Wine is not a fun­gible com­mod­ity, where one bottle is always the same as the next — quite the oppos­ite. But the fact that wine changes, from bottle to bottle and from month to month, rather defeats the pur­pose of [rank­ings and] magazines such as Wine Spec­tat­or.

The Front­al Cor­tex con­tin­ues by say­ing that “our sen­sa­tions require inter­pret­a­tion” and that “we parse their sug­ges­tions based upon whatever oth­er know­ledge we can sum­mon to the sur­face”.

This point was brought home when, in 2004, Gour­met looked at the grow­ing craze of Riedel wine glasses not­ing that what recept­acle is used to drink wine from really does have a massive influ­ence on how we per­ceive its taste and smell. This is mainly because,

Riedel and oth­er high-end glasses can make wine taste bet­ter. Because they’re pretty. Because they’re del­ic­ate. Because they’re expens­ive. Because you expect them to make the wine taste bet­ter.

Research­ers are now start­ing to look at this dir­ectly by run­ning exper­i­ments on how the haptic qual­it­ies (feel) of a drink­ing ves­sel affects our per­cep­tion of its con­tents.

Those who like to touch [high autotelics] are least influ­enced by touch in taste eval­u­ations. Indeed, in a taste test of the same min­er­al water from both a flimsy and a firm cup, it was low autotelics [those who don’t like to touch] who gave the most neg­at­ive eval­u­ations of the taste of the water in the flimsy cup.

The res­ults were sim­il­ar when par­ti­cipants were just told about the con­tain­ers in a writ­ten descrip­tion and did not actu­ally feel them: Low autotelics expressed a will­ing­ness to pay more for a firm bottle of water, while high autotelics did not.

So keep all this in mind if you’re a red wine fan when you next order fish: it’s now been shown that low-iron red wines are a per­fect com­ple­ment to some types of fish, so don’t let your pesky sub­con­scious get to the wine first.

As Lawrence Rosen­blum of Sens­ory Super­powers says, “you drink what you think”.

One thought on “More Psychology of Wine

  1. anon

    Well that just seems like an excuse and a bad one at that. It is true that the brain needs situ­ation­al advice to clas­si­fy events/things. How­ever with as much prac­tice as a wine taster should have he should be able to pick up subtle aromas in a wine without being told what kind of wine it is. Because if he cant, who can? Com­pare this to the situ­ation in music, where you can actu­ally judge a piece without con­text and there even is some­thing such as abso­lute pitch. (I dis­like the com­par­is­on with art, because art can just get weird and totally con­text dependet…)
    It is really great to like wine, but don’t fool your­self into think­ing that you’re really tast­ing inher­ent qual­it­ies of the wine; if you even need the wine to have the right col­or (some sci­ent­ist suc­ces­fully colored white wine red) to clas­si­fy it and oth­er stuff the sci­ent­ist have shown, then chances are that even with train­ing the sig­nal to noise ratio of the inher­ent quali­tites of wine defeat any chance of object­ive tast­ing. In my opin­ion you’re just fool­ing your­self when you think the wine tastes of some­thing par­tic­u­lar and really just pick­ing up the aqui­val­ent of white noise with your nose…

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