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Friday, January 18, 2008

Is The Brain Taste Worst Enemy ?

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine sent me an email with an article about how certain cerebral information can (and almost always will) impair your taste judgment.
The article, written by Kathryn Westcott, can be found on the BBC website.
The piece explains in some noteworthy depth that scientific studies have proven tasters' judgment to be influenced by numerous unrelated factors about a wine, not the least of which is the bottle's price tag.
Back in November, I wrote a post about how corruptible and flaky the palate can be, and this study of the California Institute of Technology confirmed a great many of my suspicions. Those suspicions were further legitimized by a musing from the uber-taster, his eminence Robert Parker, when he stated:

"I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment".
"The emotion of the moment," huh? Well then, I suppose my question is this: why do people still listen to wine experts, if the pinnacle of taste has more to do with our feelings than our palates? Perhaps we should be asking our shrinks instead.
In all seriousness: I'd like to first say that a price tag's influence on judgment of quality is no surprise. It is a byproduct of capitalism that occurs not just with wine and food, but with most of the goods we buy. Studies show that brands are better recognized when they are associated with higher prices. Secondly, the test was carried with 21 volunteers, but the group's mean level of experience was not known. And, as a car expert can determine the value of a car by inspecting its various parts and assessing its general condition, or a watch expert is capable of telling a fake timepiece from a real one, a wine expert will look for certain information coming from the wine itself when rating it. An average consumer or buyer of cars, watches or wines might not have those capabilities.
I was recently invited to a tasting with a blind format. I sat on a panel with much more experienced palates than my own, and collectively, the comments and ratings of the wines were so precise as to put them in a price category; one wine in particular, I recall was very good, all-around, and at the same time, we said that probably was among the less expensive of the bottles at the tasting. And, as a matter of fact, it was the cheapest one.
In addition to experience, the format of the tasting should also be examined. I can say (from experience) that there are many ways to taste, depending on the goal of the tasting. Blind format is good for honing the palate and removing biases of appellation and label.
If my goal is to evaluate the aging potential of a wine, I open a bottle and try it several times over a few days, and the wine's vital statistics (vintage, house, and price) are just used for reference. But as a merchant, if I'm tasting to buy a wine I like to have information, included the price, in order to weigh the price-quality ratio. From that standpoint, a wine could be uncommonly good if costs $6, but middling or average if it goes for $12.
So it is true, taste is often challenged by information, and it plays a large role in making decisions about what to buy. But the "experts," if I may be so bold, have different tools, experiences, and methods to taste a wine - memories of flavors and textures, and historical, geographic, climatic and geological instincts that will help provide an accurate and more precise judgment.
Buona Bevuta a Tutti

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