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”.

1 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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