Everytime I walk into a wine store, and see that collage of numerical stickers (This Chianti is a 91! This Pinot Grigio is an 88!), the neuroscientist in me wants to tear them all down an go on a long rant about unconscious biases. The idea that the human olfactory system can reliably decipher the difference between a wine worth 90 points and a wine worth 89 points is patently ridiculous. And yet the trend shows no signs of abating.
“On many levels [rating wines on a numerical scale] is nonsensical,” Joshua Greene, the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits, said. He has been using the 100-point system to judge wines in his magazine for about a dozen years.
Mr. Greene’s ratings, especially when he awards a 90 or higher, often figure prominently in newspaper advertisements and promotional materials. Still, he said of the 100-point scoring system, “I don’t think it’s a very valuable piece of information.” To Mr. Greene, The Number is an unfortunate remnant of a time long past, when America was only starting to appreciate wines sold in something other than a green glass jug — akin to a set of training wheels that should have been removed years ago.
Yet Mr. Greene continues to use the 100-point system because he believes that he has no choice; to do otherwise is to court potential financial disaster.
The rest of the article is full of similar quotes by wine critics. My one complaint about the article is that it failed to discuss two of my favorite experiments in wine tasting. They were done by Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux. In the first test, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine.
The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded,” while the vin du table was “weak, short, light, flat and faulty”. Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.
What these wine experiments illuminate is the omnipresence of subjectivity. When we take a sip of wine, we don’t taste the wine first, and the cheapness or redness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisred, or thiswineisexpensive. As a result, the wine “experts” sincerely believed that the white wine was red, and that the cheap wine was expensive. And while they were pitifully mistaken, their mistakes weren’t entirely their fault. Our brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that our prejudices feel like facts, our opinions indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a grand cru, then we will taste a grand cru. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their suggestions based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface. As Brochet himself notes, our expectations of what the wine will taste like “can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.”
This doesn’t mean that Gallo Hearty Burgundy is equivalent to a Romanee-Conti. It just means that we should be skeptical of any attempt to impose objective scales onto our subjective senses, especially when we are trying to quantify something as romantically elusive as the taste of wine.
[Self-Promoting P.S.: I discuss these experiments some more in my book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, which will be out next year.]