Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Genetics and Peer Pressure: Twin Achilles Heels for Wine Critics

I like to drink wine. The fact that you’re here probably means that you do too. But, like many people, I find it frustrating to find wines I really like.

You probably know the problems:

The 100-point scales aren’t very helpful. You uncork an expensive wine rated 93 only to find it’s not much better than the bargain bottle rated 83. And maybe worse than that really cheap wine which no critic at all has reviewed. The 100-point scale deludes shoppers into believing in a level of accuracy and precision that does not exist.

Then there are the critics and judges. I’ve been one and I can tell you that every one I have ever met tries to do a good job.

But three factors work against their reviews being helpful to you

1. DNA -- Your palate is genetically your own. Everyone tastes the same things differently.
2. Herd mentality -- This is why the most highly rated (and expensive) wines tend to taste alike.
3. Gobbledygook – Descriptions of “flinty overtones of dried cranberries in a dusty tobacco pouch” are a good test of the wine writer’s vocabulary, but meaninglessly overwrought prose for the wine consumer.
4. Too any wines -- most wines never get reviewed. That includes some of the tastiest, best values.

These are the reasons that Mac McCarthy and I have started SavvyTaste -- with the able programming of Code Ninja William Perdue.

I'll talk more about numbers 3 and 4 in a future post. But in this one, I'd like to share a brief excerpt from one of the most remarkable books I have read this summer.

The book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, by Jonah Lehrer, is not a wine book. Lehrer, however, has written a captivating work, creating a literary, musical, artistic and culinary framework for neuroscience.

I loved every bit of the book, although I did love the chapters dealing with Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf somewhat less.

The book's relevance to wine comes in a fascinating chapter on taste and smell -- as told through the life of renowned chef Auguste Escoffier. I highly recommend this book.

The excerpted from that chapter, below, offers some relevant observations on the intractable problems faced by critics and the consumers who rely upon them.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist excerpts from pages 68-71:

"Our sense of smell is particularly vulnerable to ... outside influence.

"Since many odors differ only in their molecular details -- and we long ago traded away nasal acuity for better color vision -- the brain is often forced to decipher smells based upon non-olfactory information. Parmesan cheese and vomit, for example, are both full of butyric add, which has a pungent top note and a sweetish linger.

"As a result, blindfolded subjects in experiments will often confuse the two stimuli. In real life, however, such sensory mistakes are extremely rare. Common sense overrules our actual senses.

"What we taste is ultimately an idea, and that our sensations are strongly influenced by their context. But it’s our neurological reality. When we sense something, that sensation is immediately analyzed in terms of previous experiences Thus, what we think we are tasting is only partially about the matter in the mouth. Equally important is the sum of past experiences enclosed within the brain, for these memories are what frame the sensation.

"The most persuasive proof of this concept comes from the world of wine. In 2001. Frederic Brochet, of the university of Bordeaux, conducted two separate and very mischievous experiments. In the first test, Brochet invited fifty-seven 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 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 labeled as a fancy Grand Cru. The other bottle was labeled as an ordinary vin du table [ordinary table wine]. Despite the fact that they were 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 twelve said the cheap wine was.

"What these wine experiments illuminate is the omnipresence of subjectivity. 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 this-wine-is-red, or this wine is expensive.

"As a result, the wine experts sincerely believed that the white wine was red, and that the cheap wine was expensive. And while they were pitifully mistaken, the mistakes weren’t entirely their fault. Our human brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that prejudices feel like facts, opinions are 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. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their suggestions based on 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 fallibility of our senses — their susceptibility to our mental biases and beliefs — poses a special problem for neural reduction-ism. 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 upward.

"This is because what we experience is not what we sense, Rather, experience is what happens when sensations are interpreted by the subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories and idiosyncratic desires.

"But even if we could taste the wine as it is (without the distortions of scheming subjectivity) we would still all experience a different wine. Science has long known that our sensitivity to certain smells and tastes varies as much as 1,000 percent between individuals.

"On a cellular level, this is because the human olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that interprets information from the tongue and nose, is extremely plastic, free to arrange itself around the content of our individual experiences. Long after our other senses have settled down, our senses of taste and smell remain in total neural flux.

"Nature designed us this way: the olfactory bulb is full of new neurons. Fresh cells are constantly being born, and the survival of these cells depends upon their activity. Only cells that respond to the smells and tastes we are actually exposed to survive. Everything else withers away. The end result is that our brains begin to reflect what we eat."

By aggregating reviews of the same wine by scores or hundreds of people, we hope that SavvyTaste can paint a better taste picture for the community. We also hope to connect people who share the same taste preferences so they can rely upon each other.

Like any community endeavor, success for everyone depends upon some of us taking five minutes here and there to rate a wine.

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