The rules of the wine tasting were simple. Twenty five of the best wines under twelve dollars were nominated by independent wine stores in the Boston area. The Globe then assembled a panel of wine professionals to select their top picks in the red and white category. All of the wines were tasted blind.
The result is a beguiling list of delicious plonk. But I was most interested in just how little overlap there was between the different critics. In fact, only one wine – the 2006 Willm Alsace Pinot Blanc from France – managed to make the list of every critic. Most of the wines were personal favorites, and appeared on only one of the lists.
So much for objectivity. But results like this shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s such a cool experiment that it’s worth repeating. In 2001, Frederic Brochet, of the University of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. 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 experiments neatly demonstrate is that the taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of our inputs, and cannot be solved in a bottom-up fashion. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our simplest sensations and extrapolating upwards. When we taste a wine, we aren’t simply tasting the wine. This is because what we experience is not what we sense. Rather, experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires. As the philosopher Donald Davidson argued, it is ultimately impossible to distinguish between a subjective contribution to knowledge that comes from our selves (what he calls our “scheme”) and an objective contribution that comes from the outside world (“the content”). Instead, in Davidson’s influential epistemology, the “organizing system and something waiting to be organized” are hopelessly interdependent. Without our subjectivity we could never decipher our sensations, and without our sensations we would have nothing to be subjective about. In other words, we shouldn’t be surprised that different people like different bottles of cheap wine.
PS. A lot of this material appears in my book, so check it out if you want to learn more about Escoffier, olfaction, umami and subjectivity.