Via Felix Salmon comes this amusing anecdote about Robert Parker’s blind tasting of 2005 Bordeaux, which he has declared the best vintage since 1982. Parker has previously rated all of these wines, and even given them exact point scores, so his public blind taste test was an interesting natural experiment: would Parker’s new scores correlate with his 2007 scores? How many of these wines would he be able to identify?
The answers were humbling. (In Parker’s defense, these wines are still very young and very tannic.) Parker confused merlot-based Bordeaux with cabernet-heavy blends; his favorite wine of the tasting turned out to be the lowest rated rate in his 2007 tasting of Bordeaux. Here’s Dr. Vino:
A final issue is about points and the nature of blind tasting, a capricious undertaking if there ever were one. Although Parker did not rate the wines yesterday, his top wine of the evening (Le Gay) was the lowest rated in the lineup from his most recent published reviews… For all the precision that a point score implies, it is not dynamic, changing with the wines as they change in the bottle nor does it capture performance from one tasting to the next.
I certainly don’t mean to diminish the impressive talent (and astonishing vinicultural knowledge) of Robert Parker. But I think his inability to reliably and consistently rate bottles of Bordeaux illustrates a larger problem with wine tastings, which is rooted in the sensory limitations of the human brain. I’ve blogged before about the mischievous experiments of Frederick Brochet – he’s shown that wine experts can be tricked by red food coloring into confusing red and white wines – but the moral is simple: our sensations require interpretation.
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, or that Lafite was actually Troplong-Mondot. Such mistakes are inevitable: 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. And if we’re tasting 15 young and tannic wines, then we shouldn’t expert our poor olfactory cortex to be able to reliably assign an exact point score to the spoiled grape juice in our mouth. 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.”
The underlying assumption behind such point scores is that the taste of a wine is merely the sum of our inputs. But that’s wrong: we can’t quantify a wine by trying to listen to our tongue. 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. Before you can taste the wine you have to judge it.