In Defense of Wine Knowledge

New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov raised some hackles in this September 20th article

“Beer consumers are a far more confident lot than wine consumers. They’re at ease with beer, mostly because they’ve had a solid grounding in their subject, unlike wine consumers who’ve been brainwashed into believing they must be educated or taught how to “appreciate” wine before they can enjoy it.”

Matt Kramer, in the Wine Spectator Online, took exception to Azimov’s claim wondering why wine drinkers feel they must apologize for their intellectual approach.

Wine lovers have nothing to apologize for. You don’t see music lovers apologizing for suggesting that perhaps you might better understand a concert or even a song if you spend a little time learning about music. You sure as hell don’t see art lovers apologizing for the seeming incomprehensibility of so much of contemporary art. If we don’t get it, we’re unashamedly told, the fault is ours for not bringing enough context to what we’re viewing.

Asimov claims that beer drinkers gain all the knowledge they need by knocking back brews with little education about what’s in the glass. But Azimov’s observation implicitly contains the explanation for why beer drinkers glibly guzzle while wine drinkers studiously sip. If beer drinkers can fully appreciate beer with little study or thought, it must be because beer is less complex than wine.

Truth be told, I know beer drinkers whose approach to beer is every bit as intellectual as the most committed wine nerd, just as there are wine lovers who don’t know Napa from Naples. I will leave judgments about the relative complexity of beer and wine to those who know beer better than I.

But Azimov’s rant ignores the empirical data that suggests that what we taste is in part dependent on how we think. Tastes are cognitively penetrable.

The properties a wine appears to have will depend on how it is categorized and that requires knowledge of varietals and wine regions. Someone familiar with pinots from California’s Santa Lucia Highlands—intense, concentrated, and alcoholic—will likely think many Oregon pinots austere and thin. But when compared to some of the lighter offerings from Burgundy, the Oregon pinot will not be thin at all.

Wine science writer Jamie Goode describes an experiment conducted by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College:

In this test Pepsi was pitted against Coke blind, with subjects not knowing which was which. They invariably preferred the taste of Pepsi, but this wasn’t reflected in their buying decisions. Montague wanted to know why. So he re-enacted the Pepsi challenge with volunteers. The difference was that this time their brain activity was being scanned by an MRI machine. On average, Pepsi produced a stronger response in the ventral putamen, a region thought to process reward. In people who preferred Pepsi, the putamen was five times as active when they drunk Pepsi than it was in Coke-preferring subjects drinking Coke.

In a clever twist, Montague repeated the experiments, this time telling subjects what they were drinking. Remarkably, most of them now preferred Coke. The brain activity also changed, with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region that shapes high-level cognitive powers. The subjects were allowing what they knew about Coke – its brand image – to shape their preferences.

The implications for winetasting are clear. When we don’t taste blind, our preferences are liable to be shaped by pre-existing information we have about the wine. Try as hard as we might to be objective, this isn’t possible. What we know about wine will mould how we perceive the wine, and will even shape how much we enjoy a particular bottle. [Here is a similar experiment using wine]

If this data is right, beer drinkers need to stop swilling long enough to find a library or fire up the laptop.


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