The Frontal Cortex

Robert Parker

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Hero
    October 20, 2009

    What about when your judging cannabis? LOL I finished your book last week my friend..very well written! I’m excited to read your next work when it comes out! Good luck!

  2. #2 faustroll
    October 20, 2009

    This is perfectly entertaining nonsense of course. It fails Davidsonian coherence.

    Using the example of Wine tasting: there is no correspondence between a blind taste test and the tasting of wine as an experience in a community of wine tasters with a labeled and bottled wine. There is also no way to determine just why a wine tastes different on different occasions.

    As much depends upon the taster and his mental set as upon the object that is tasted. In no way does it follow that you have to judge something before you taste it. Nor do we need taste thiswineisred or thiswineisexpensive. In fact, those are strictly not tastes.

    I would in fact attribute the variation in ability to taste more to the vagaries of sensory capacity in any individual who is in the act of tasting multiple wines on any given day than on prejudgment . In fact, one can control for prejudgment by placing blindfolds on judges and we I would wager would still get wildly varying outputs.

    Furthermore, you are making mincemeat of Davidson here in my humble opinion. I don’t see enough of Davidson’s hard work on behalf of objectivity here, nor is there mention of the varying ability to filter out judgment.

    I’ve never read you before, so perhaps I am misjudging you here, but I’d like to see more of an appreciation for nuance and for Davidson as well. Thanks for the effort and thanks to felix for tweeting about wine so much.

    I’ll take a relatively cheap wine that tastes ok myself, thanks.

  3. #3 kingfausto
    October 20, 2009

    Jeez, faustroll. Seems you yourself have judged before you’ve tasted.
    Jonah is saying that our understanding of sensation is largely regulated by subjective personal experience – that looks pretty much synonymous with what you’re saying. Obviously you highly respect Davidson and jumped at the opportunity to defend him against a fleeting citation, but your zeal has blinded you to the details + meaning of Jonah’s post (for instance, the very somalier that Jonah describes was already blindfolded – your own post clearly neglects this fact).
    Though sensation is subjective, we gotta at least try to compensate for that subjectivity through attentive + disciplined reading.

  4. #4 Zoasterboy
    October 20, 2009

    faustroll is a troll.

    A fine scholar of a troll. I think faustroll is at such a high plane of intelligence that his logic center exists in another dimension beyond that of us common følk.

  5. #5 Ric
    October 21, 2009

    You are being overly charitable here. What this seems to show to me is that his original ratings were primarily influenced by expectation and what amounts to whim.

  6. #6 S. Cupame
    October 21, 2009

    Why does wine inspire this kind of nonsense? People spend lots of money on steak, but they say, “Mmm, delicious.” Not “Minerally, earthy, with a hint of bloodiness. Needs salt. I give it an 89.”

    If you actually thinks wine ratings represent objective reality, I’ve got a Napa Cab I’d like to sell you. And anyone who doesn’t understand that we taste with our brains and not with our mouths hasn’t been paying attention. Here’s a piece published 5 years ago (get it before they take the site down):

    http://www.gourmet.com/magazine/2000s/2004/08/shattered_myths

    I think you’re guilty of faux naivete (and making something complicated out of something obvious). You’re arguing against a “fact” that you already know is false. The point of points isn’t to rank every wine in numerical order. It’s a gimmick designed to give people the confidence to spend their money. It works because we are easily influenced. We’re predisposed to like what the “expert” has recommended, and so we go back to the expert and buy his advice.

    If I said, “This wine is full-bodied with soft tannins” would that be enough for you to spend $50? What if I said, “A fruit bomb! Luscious mouthfeel with ripe plum, exotic tropical fruits, scents of violet and mocha” et cetera? The first is about as far as I think a person can go objectively. Structure and weight, in my experience, are fairly objective. Specific tastes are definitely not, and are greatly affected by what you’ve tasted before and of course by time. Wine changes drastically when exposed to oxygen–one of its great features, in my opinion. To be “accurate” a tasting note would have to be a running commentary. And it would only be valid for that specific bottle at that particular moment. I’m sure there’s some influential epistemology that can explain that.

  7. #7 A.K.
    October 21, 2009

    The world of contemporary art inspires similar nonsense. A pair of Christopher Buchel’s dirty socks have been made available for 20,000 euros at the Frieze art fair. I’d like to think that the artist is making a statement about money, politics and warped aesthetic judgment in the upper reaches of art market, but I am not so sure. As with wine, I suppose a point system could be developed to rate artists’ socks, should the idea gain traction. Would you pay even more for Damien Hirst’s socks, based on name alone, or would odour enter into the decision?

  8. #8 jb
    October 21, 2009

    Jonah is appearing at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore tonight Wednesday Oct. 21 at 6pm. His topic “From Marshmallows To Metacognition”. Go to http://www.theWalters.org to register. Thanks for returning to Baltimore Jonah!

  9. #9 Julie Simon Lakehomer
    October 21, 2009

    This is a fascinating article. It reminds me of how tricky memory is, and also of Timothy D Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves, about how much of what we think and do is influenced by what Wilson calls the “adaptive unconscious.”

  10. #10 royniles
    October 21, 2009

    “Our brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that our prejudices feel like facts, our opinions indistinguishable from the actual sensation.”

    “Instead, in Davidson’s influential epistemology, the “organizing system and something waiting to be organized” are hopelessly interdependent.”

    A quibble perhaps, but “indistinguishable” is perhaps the wrong word to use here, as while prejudices feel like facts to some degree, they are suspiciously unlike facts when that degree is subject to closer examination. We wouldn’t have survived without the capacity to make that discriminative distinction.
    The systems are interdependent, but certainly not hopelessly so. And Davidson, as far as I can determine, didn’t mean to infer otherwise.

  11. #11 Noka
    October 21, 2009

    I don’t care what anyone says. I think you’re a genius! Though this post was less convincing than a public lecture of yours that I attended, I’ll stand by my support of your mental prowess.

  12. #12 Donna B.
    October 22, 2009

    Though I like drinking wine, I’m quite happy with a decent one in both taste and price. I should note that I’ve never lived in a wine-producing area, so my trials are somewhat limited.

    But… where beef is concerned, I am much more discerning. Since I can’t (because of surgery) eat a large amount of beef, I’m very concerned with eating only the best. For me, there’s nothing worse than a tough, gristle-laden piece of meat.

    When you are buying a wine, you have a label and price to judge. When you are buying meat, you have a grade and appearance to judge. It’s much easier to learn to judge a good steak than a good wine.

  13. #13 Meryl
    October 22, 2009

    Meerlust Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon (South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch), anyone?

    Unforgettable wine, unforgettable little town@stellenbosch, unforgettable folks.

    A bottle with promise of undying love, unending romance, unceasing fondness. Oh yeah.

    It requires no analysis, it has to be experienced holistically. Otherwise why bother?

    Try analysing First Loves, and the possibilities break into pieces of plausible irrationality.

    That’s just me.

    Enjoy enjoy enjoy
    meryl

  14. #14 hat_eater
    October 23, 2009

    It is one of the rare situations when ignorance truly is bliss. I don’t know much about wines but I know that the price often doesn’t predict the taste. So I can objectively tell if I like it or not. The total subjectivity of this judgment doesn’t bother me in the slightest. That’s all that counts for me, after all. :)

  15. #15 David Schildknecht
    October 23, 2009

    Thanks for your stimulating observations, with which I demur.

    The inability to entirely separate scheme from content – or, as Davidson also was wont to put it, the absence of “uninterpreted content” – doesn’t mean the absence of anything against which to test our hypotheses or posits. There are instances where it would be hard to deny we have bumped up against something that’s naturally given. (For instance, Brochet hasn’t tried – and would, I suspect be unable – to convince tasters that the wine in their glass was unfermented fruit juice, or was not wet.) The question is how can we build on this relative bedrock – or, at least, widespread inter-subjective agreement – and in what ways as well as to what extent does it inform complex judgments of taste that are without question highly-susceptible to the expectations and beliefs we bring to them?

    I’ve read and heard many attempts by both proponents and detractors to lay bare what you call “the underlying assumptions behind point scores,” none of which in my experience presuppose a “summing of inputs,” in the sense you seem to imagine. Some of the many accounts of wine rating systems do presuppose numerical weighting of specific characteristics, but – having a valence – these alleged characteristics of wine are inevitably and unabashedly judgmental. You wouldn’t, for instance, assign points to a wine for engendering an impression of acidity, sweetness, the taste of peaches, or any other purportedly discrete sensation, but rather for engendering “pleasant,” “well-integrated,” or “appropriate sensations.” (What it’s perhaps too highfalutin to call a rating “system” could also be devised based solely on the ordering of preferences, or in many other ways, about any of which one must honestly ask how much epistemic load they should be thought capable of bearing.)

    All of the above aside, there are a great many reasons specific to wine why it is difficult to replicate one’s ratings, re-identify wines, or recognize vintages, but it can be done by wine professionals, if not with consistent success, certainly far too often to suppose that chance or preconception dictates – much less that any adequate epistemological or psychological theory vitiates – the results. On the contrary, the ability to correctly recognize a wine or its vintage (as well as the habit of assigning valences to vinous characteristics) stands as much in need of scientific explanation and adequate conceptualization as the fact that even experienced tasters often fail to do so.

    (I assign scores to wines as part of my own work for Robert Parker.)

  16. #16 Gadfly
    October 24, 2009

    If experience is so subjective, then why would would just about every single person who actually works on perception professionally (I do) objectively agree upon reading your post that they have just experienced utter nonsense?

  17. #17 sherifffruitfly
    October 24, 2009

    Shorter: The snooty wine snobs have no clothes.

  18. #18 sherifffruitfly
    October 24, 2009

    @ #15:

    Your attempt to supplement wine-snootiness with philosophical-snootiness actually results in a bigger fail that just wine-snootiness selbständig.

  19. #19 JR
    October 25, 2009

    I work in wine sales and I’m here to tell you that one man’s Rothschild is another man’s Gallo. 9 out of 10 people on a blind tasting of an Petrus would think it was utter crap because they wouldn’t know what to “Taste for” – in other words, unfamiliarity breeds contempt. My favorite is when people try Cabernet Franc who have never tried the grape before. The almost complete lack of tannins shocks them, but in a surprising way.. “what do you mean there is a wine with no tannins?! ALL red wine has tannin…” I always go off my first impressions when tasting a wine; the first things I notice; not how does it compare to other wines I’ve had before. That comes later.

  20. #20 no
    November 29, 2009

    One interesting thing I’ve been thinking about is how wine tasting requires strategy, even theory. It’s a kind of criticism — duh. Just as a film critic has impressions and makes synthetic judgments that are grounded on a technical vocabulary of shots and edits, a wine critic has a technical framework on which to ground impressions. That doesn’t mean that these impressions are reliably repeatable: they’re not, even for the film critic who can slow things down.

    Populism like 18′s is appealing, but I think ultimately short-sighted. Just because the enterprise of understanding our world is ultimately hamstrung by our physiological limitations, does not mean that it is meaningless or useless. This kind of populism is also hilarious when paired with his/her diction.

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