The Mind Plays Tricks

liesLast week I participated in a blind tasting, the sort of blind tasting that all somms fear, where you’re tricked into falling flat on your face.

We were tasting wines in flights of three all of the same varietal, and we were informed of the varietal, region, and producer but did not know the order in which the wines were poured. This is a relatively easy blind tasting task, or should have been. For the third flight we were (allegedly) tasting quality Merlot or Merlot-based blends from Bordeaux, Colorado and Virginia.  But, alas, the pourer made a mistake and slipped a Syrah from Northern Rhone and a Southern-Rhone style blend from California into the line-up so only one wine was Merlot.

None of the gathering, which included several trained wine tasters and experienced wine lovers, noticed that two of the wines were not Merlot. (I correctly identified the Virginia Merlot but failed to identify the imposters.)

I do not mention this to call attention to blind-tasting miscues which are so frequent as to be unremarkable. This episode illustrates how essential top-down, cognitive processing is in determining what you taste. Because we were told the wines were Merlot no one noticed the meaty, black pepper, herbal,  or balsamic flavor notes typical of Rhone-style wines. The absence of plum or chocolate, typical of Merlot were chalked up to the wines being atypical.

In other words, what you taste depends on what you know. (I suppose one could argue we tasted the Rhone characteristics but didn’t attend to them but the result is the same)

This situation is structurally very similar to the renowned experiments carried out by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux.  Brochet served wine science students two glasses of identical white wine except that one wine was dyed red. The students overwhelmingly described the red-appearing beverage using descriptors characteristic of red wines. This study was widely reported in the press as demonstrating that wine tasting is BS. But of course that is not what it shows at all. Like the experience with my tasting group last week, these experiments show that what we know (or think we know) will significantly determine what we taste. Blind tasters are taught to use decision-trees in which features are excluded based on what you know. When there is deception involved those decision trees inevitably lead you to the wrong inference.

Importantly, subsequent studies performed by Burnham and Skilleas and reported in The Aesthetics of Wine confirm the dependence of taste on cognition. They gave tasters a wine and asked them to determine whether it was a red wine or a white wine dyed red. The tasters overwhelmingly correctly identified the wine. When the possibility of deception is made explicit, tasters are not fooled by visual information. Again, what you believe determines what you taste.

The important implication here is not to exonerate our tasting group from an egregious error but to point out that the appreciation of wine benefits greatly from wine knowledge. If you don’t know what to look for in a wine, you probably won’t find it.

Oh, and as a side note, in that flight which included a highly respected, very expensive Syrah from Northern Rhone and a wine of similar reputation from California, the Virginia wine, Rendezvous from RdV Vineyards, was preferred by most members of the group.

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