First, the well known stories and then my own personal experience with being embarrassed by thinking I had a great palate for wine judging. Anyone who has poked fun at wine snobs over the years knows about and frequently mentions one of several studies that have embarrassed even the most seasoned wine professionals.
There is the 2001 study where a University of Bordeaux professor took the same bottles of white wine, added red food coloring to half of them, and served it as two different varietals to 54 wine experts. The overwhelming majority of experts not only rated both wines quite differently and but genuinely believed them to be different varietals. Apparently, the study caused a bit of a shitstorm in the wine expert world.
Or the one where top wine experts were blindfolded and served the exact same three wines, over and over again. Each time they would not only rate the same wines differently, but sometimes dramatic swings from an 87 to a 95 on the same wine, just moments apart (**87 to 95 is a huge deal for wineries and their marketing). The study also did a meta-analysis of the scores of these same judges across multiple public competitions and discovered a complete lack of consistency in their ratings.
Or the fun experiment where the same U. of Bordeaux professor from the 2001 study, bought a bunch of bottles of the same middle of the road Bordeaux and poured it into two different bottles. One saying Grand Cru and the other Vin De Table (table wine). Guess which one the experts described as “complex” “balanced” and “rounded” and which one was described as “weak” “flat” and “faulty”? Again, same exact wine, but the experts’ perceptions have once again gotten in the way of their ability to judge.
Even knowing all of this, I still thought I could tell the difference between a “good” wine and all the rest. That is, until I was invited to a giant dinner party full of trickery.
A friend invited over a large group of people for a night of amazing food, interesting conversation, a smorgasbord wine selections… the whole gamut of general wine snobbery in one experience.
What made this party different though, was in order to get your wine tasting, you had to pick from six different bottles lined up in columns of two, with a label of A or B in front of each column. A and B were visually identical as they sat in their bottles. They were already opened and when more was needed, someone would emerge from behind the kitchen door with another already opened bottle.
The labels were still on, so you could examine each bottle’s description, region, varietal, etc… They also appeared to be in order of least expensive to most, from a $7 bottle to a $300 bottle at the top. Whomever picked the lineup did a great job of picking unfamiliar choices from around the world so most guests had never heard of them.
Additionally, you were required to take a card with each tasting to record ratings of different aspects of the wine’s character. Before being allowed to get the next tasting, you had to turn in your scores and grab another rating card.
As about 100 guests began to plow through tasting after tasting, a pile of hundreds of rating cards began to form. Conversations sprung up all over the room where you could overhear ridiculous things like “I’m getting hints of unripened banana…” and “Are you picking up leather and burnt lemon zest as well?”. This continued for about 90 minutes until the last bottle was empty and the pile of rating cards were whisked off to a back room for calculating.
We had all known from the moment we saw the whole A / B lineup that this was going to be some sort of experiment on us. That the most likely trickery would be that he poured the cheap wine into the expensive bottle and vice versa and maybe he poured the same wine into multiple brands.
No, no, no… That would have been too easy and too obvious. He had bigger plans in mind. We all severely underestimated how far he would go for his love of statistics, experimenting, proving people wrong, and flexing his wine knowhow.
Because he messed with us in multiple ways, combined with the fact that I had been drinking all night, I might get certain aspects slightly wrong, so bear with me.
- First, he did the obvious just to further prove those same previous studies. He poured the cheapest wine in the most expensive bottle and vice versa, except to guard against us compensating for that with our cleverness, he only did it for row A of the cheap wine and row B of the expensive wine. Thus, when he tallied the scores at the end of the night, we had all rated the $7 wine we tasted from the expensive row, dramatically higher than the expensive wine he poured into cheap row’s A column. Just to add further insult, we had all also rated column A and B for both the most expensive and cheapest wines nearly the same. Sigh… He managed to fool 100+ wine snobs with a study that we were all already aware of for a decade, even when we were thought we were guarding against it by being extra cautious in our ratings of those two particular brands. His point was that cost is a ludicrous way to determine wine quality and for us to stop wasting our money.
- Next, he explained that he had done something unthinkable in the wine world. Something that got audible gasps from members of the room. He had put poured the cheapest wine into a blender for 20 seconds, patiently waited for the foam to settle, and poured them back into bottles right before serving. Everything we had tasted in the both column A and B of the second most expensive column was the $7 bottle of wine, blended, and poured in the $200 bottles. We actually rated it higher than both the real $300 bottle and the unblended $7 bottle in the most expensive column. His point was that aeration is a magical thing and can make cheap wine taste good, maybe even great.
- Finally, he explained that two of the other columns had the exact same wine in both row A and B. Nothing else, no tricks, nothing magical. Our scores however were all over the chart and the general lack of consistency made it obvious that we as a group had no clue what our palate was telling us. Additionally, he told us that the last remaining column was simply the same wine, but A was blended and B wasn’t. We rated A significantly higher than B, some even writing in the notes that they knew it was a trick and was clearly a different brand. His point was that we should embrace the fact that our palates are terrible at judging subtle (or even obvious) differences in wine.
His final comments were simple. Drink what you think tastes good. Don’t drink wine you don’t think tastes good, even if it’s highly rated or expensive. Lastly, if you love the way wine tastes when you serve it a certain way, blend your freakin wine, drink your red wine cold, or whatever the hell else makes you happy. Just enjoy yourself, nothing else matters.
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