Blind Taste

by wjw on July 2, 2013

I like a good glass of wine now and again.  I tend to buy moderately-priced wines, neither cheap nor dear.  And I’m finding support for my position in dozens of tests that seem to show that the art and science of wine tasting is, for the most part, utter delusion.

2008 paper in The Journal of Wine Economics, for example, found that when consumers are unaware of a wine’s price, they “on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less [than cheap ones].” Experts do not fare much better. The study could not conclude that experts preferred more expensive wine: “In sum, we find a non-negative relationship between price and overall rating for experts. Due to the poor statistical significance of the price coefficient for experts, it remains an open question whether this coefficient is in fact positive.”

In another experiment, critics tasted one red wine and one white wine. They described the red in language typical of reds and the white in language typical of whites. The problem? Both were identical white wines; the “red” had been tinted with food coloring. 

When your taste experts can be fooled by food coloring, I’d say you can safely disregard anything they might care to say.

What this means is you get to train your own palate, find out what you like, buy that and drink it.  If you want to impress your friends when you serve them, just memorize the back label: “I think you will find hints of nutmeg and clove, as well as more than a soupçon of macerated strawberry.”  And you can always praise the “long oak finish,” because every damn wine in the world claims to have one.

These are your taste buds we’re talking about.  Taste buds aren’t impressed by price or pedigree, they’re impressed by taste.  And it’s not like your tastes can’t change— over time, you might be able to discern and enjoy complexities hat were invisible to you at first go— but the first rule is to please yourself.

And may I just add that I’m really happy that there is such a thing in the world as the Journal of Wine Economics?

DorjePismo July 4, 2013 at 3:03 am

Total Wine is a nifty place to browse for obscure Europeans with no pretentions whatever to any length of oak finish.

DensityDuck July 7, 2013 at 9:08 am

Cheap wine tastes good, if all you’re looking for is a winey flavor. People who say that cheap wine is inherently awful are wrong.

But good wine *does* taste better, if you’re used to tasting it. It’s like the difference between pale ale, lager, and Coors Lite. If you’ve never drunk beer before, they all taste pretty much the same, although the ale is vaguely bitter.

And nobody on the face of the planet would take you seriously if you said that there was no reason to buy an IPA because Coors Lite tasted just the same and was a lot cheaper.

But on the other hand, sometimes you just want quantity, or a background to other events. And that’s what Coors Lite (and cheap wine) are for.

Steve Stirling July 10, 2013 at 5:49 am

I once drank some Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1917, -without knowing what it was-.

And it tasted very, very, very good. Jan, who doesn’t like wine at all, thought it was very, very good.

-Then- I went to find out what it was, because I was surprised it was so good in that context (SF convention dinner for the pros).

Peter Shor July 16, 2013 at 10:38 pm

I can taste the “long oak finish”, and I hate it. Whenever I get a chance, I ask for non-oaked or only mildly-oaked wines, and they generally taste much better to me than the over-oaked ones. So I’m pretty sure that there’s something real to the oak flavor.

wjw July 17, 2013 at 12:07 am

The oak adds vanillin, so maybe you think the wine tastes too much like ice cream?

It’s also porous enough to let oxygen migrate in and out, which is supposed to be a good thing.

But the best thing about wine is that you get to drink the stuff you like, so it’s good that you know what to ask for.

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