In discussions of wine tasting, we don’t pay enough attention to only resource we really have to avoid excessive subjectivity—meta cognition. “Meta-cognition” refers to the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes. When professional wine tasters devote significant attention to becoming aware of their potential biases and consciously try to reduce their influence, they have a much better chance of rendering a more or less objective judgment.
The importance of meta-cognition is clear in the critiques of wine tasting such as the paper by David Sackris in the philosophy journal Erkenntnis. In a section entitled “Wine Knowledge as Prejudice” he writes:
That’s just the point—if you tell drinkers what to look for, they will find it: drinkers are primed by the information they receive. If they believe they are drinking a red wine, they will taste a red wine. If they believe that they may be drinking a white wine dyed red, they will look for it and attempt to set aside the influence of color. And if they believe they are drinking two different bottles of wine, they will describe them differently. By telling the drinker what it is they are experiencing, we are influencing that experience, and the more the drinker knows about, say, typical pinot noirs, the worse the problem will be.
To defend his view that wine knowledge harms wine tasting, Sackris cites several empirical studies in which the color of the wine was manipulated to deceive wine experts into giving false descriptions. In one study, wines were colored to appear as rosés. The wine experts rated them as sweeter tasting than the colorless control samples, while “wine novices who apparently did not know that rosé is typically sweet, rated the dyed sample no higher for sweetness than the control sample.”
I’m not sure what to make of this study. Since rosés are not typically sweet, I question whether these participants are really experts. But in any case these tasters were tripped up by a false belief. Some reflection on the assumption they were making would have led them to a more accurate description of the wines they were sampling.
But we should take all these studies, in which color is manipulated to fool test subjects, with a grain of salt. Wine experts are trained to use visual cues to rule out, or rate less plausible, certain conclusions about what they’re tasting. It isn’t obvious that we can draw firm conclusions from circumstances where deception is involved to circumstances where misleading information is not present. It’s not surprising that false beliefs lead to false conclusions. The flavors and aromas of wine are vague and often hard to detect. They are simply not pronounced enough to overcome the influence of false beliefs based on misleading visual information.
But more importantly, if tasters are deceived, their ability to employ meta-cognition to challenge their assumptions is compromised. In the notorious study by Brochet in which food coloring was used to make white wine appear red, the tasters never caught on to the fact they were drinking white wine because they didn’t know which belief or taste impression they should challenge. In other words, the bias was imposed on them. Thus, they had no reason to suspect they were judging based on false beliefs and so the possibility of meta-cognition was short-circuited. The moral of the story is always assume your beliefs or impressions are questionable.
But Sackris wants to argue that it’s cognition itself not whether the beliefs are true or false that distorts our ability to perceive. He gives the following example from Jancis Robinson:
…Robinson was asked to appear on a French television show and bring a bottle of wine. Other guests on the show included Emile Peynaud, a renowned wine researcher, and Michael Dovaz, a French wine writer. The host, Bernard Pivot was a ‘‘great wine lover’’ (Robinson 1997, p. 226). Robinson had just come back from Australia and brought a bottle of Penfold’s Grange, what Robinson herself calls a famous wine and is one that costs just as much as fine French wine (1997, p. 226). Her wine was to be decanted and served blind, but this didn’t happen. As a result: My fellow guests all knew in advance [that my wine]…came from somewhere as far beyond the pale as Australia. This makes a huge difference if you are a Frenchman tasting a wine for the first time. Their noses wrinkled in distaste before they even came within whiffing distance of the glass. It was dismissed outright as ‘‘a pharmacist’s wine’’ and I was a very silly little girl for having wasted their time with it (1997, p. 226). Here is a clear case of perception bias among three extremely experienced tasters who are no doubt a part of the wine community, using appropriate wine language and established wine practices—yet, because it was Australian, they ‘knew’ it could not be good, and from there their taste buds got their marching orders, and so it didn’t taste good. Yet this wine has come to be regarded as one of the fine wines of the world! It was the experts who couldn’t appreciate the wine because of their training.
Sackris concludes from this that extensive wine knowledge can get in the way of tasting what is in the glass by prejudicing the experiencer.
No doubt beliefs influence what we taste. If you antecedently think Aussie wines can’t be of high quality you are likely to miss the virtues of Penfolds. If you believe red wines don’t taste of citrus you will miss a the taste of orange peel in a Cabernet Franc. But here is the problem. Professional wine tasters ought not to hold such beliefs, at least not strongly. You may believe that French wines are inherently superior to Australian wine but it you’re not open to the fact there may be exceptions to that rule, you’re not a responsible wine taster. The problem is not cognition but a lack of meta-cognition. All of us have prejudices and preferences that shape our initial reactions to a wine. But a responsible, thoughtful taster is aware of those prejudices and will double check and triple check to make sure those prejudices don’t distort what they are tasting.
When blind tasting, the most important part of your practice is to constantly test your assumptions and actively search for features of the wine that contradict the conclusion you’re leaning toward. It is through constant critique that we get closer to the truth.