Destinations Magazine

Wine Tasting and All That Jazz: It’s All in Your Head.

By Johntalbott

I have spoken and written (too much I fear) about the relationship between and among the cost of wine or lack thereof and their quality, on my strategies on ordering wine, on the ineptness of wine “experts”on waiters/sommeliers/etc who know better than you, what you want and on wine-tasting vocabulary nonsense.

And, a couple of weeks ago, (yes, I know, I use too many commas and semi-colons per the “experts”),  I participated in a “blind” wine-taste-off, widely reported in the press, well, at least among readers of one blog, Paris Update, of red and white wines.  The author/instigator of this game, intended to show how foolish folks like me are, David Jaggard, prankster that he is/was, said he had read “a study…. published in the respected scientific journal "Wine Snob Excoriator Quarterly”, a journal Jaggard must have founded, funded and faggadaboud because it’s left no traces on Google Scholar, PubMed or the Library of Congress. 

In any case, Jaggard’s little deception aside, said study purported to show that when “wine experts were blindfolded, given samples of various room-temperature wines and asked to state whether they were white or red…..the vast majority of them got it right about 50 percent of the time.”  Actually, to my scientific mind, that sounded possible, no, I’m lying, it sounded probable. 

I once participated in a famous, widely-reported (to my family at least) study, on an American Airlines’ First Class flight from Chicago to New York (yes, I used to have people pay for me to fly First Class) where the 5 flight attendants in First Class and the passengers, actually one passenger, meself, tasted at room-temperature without ice and “blind”, various sodas (Coke, Pepsi, un-Cola’s, etc), ginger ales and other Bloomberg-toxic sugar-bomb destructors-of-enamel not to mention waist-lines.  And it was true, it was hard to differentiate them.

Out there I think I hear one of my kids screaming “Get to the point Dad.”


So, Jaggard, you’ll remember him, the evil provocateur out to show the wine poserati, that the Emperor had no clothes, puts 7 “experts” in a locked room with cheapo Business Class eye-shades; P.S. one poured the wine but “forgot” to number them, besides which, how could she pour without peeking?


Generally we performed rather well, correctly differentiating room temperature red from room temperature white despite the rascal’s attempt to fool us by throwing in a (illegal, under his rules) room temperature rosé which was the equivalent of the strategy used by peak athletes like Lance Armstrong and Roger Clemens to blow away their competitors.   I, for instance, got all but one right, which, at least in my statistics class, would far overcome Jaggard’s quotation of 50%, which is basically like the toss of a coin.


Fast forward two weeks.  Tonight, I’m sitting tranquilly in my Montmartre artiste garret reading “The New York Review of Books” review “The Secret of Good Taste”, a review of Gordon Shepherd’s recent book “Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters” and read that:

“in a famous experiment from 2001, wine tasters used very different terms to describe the flavor of a red wine as opposed to a white wine. The experimenters then colored the white wine with a tasteless red dye. When the tasters were then asked to describe the result, a panel of fifty-four undergraduates enrolled in the Faculty of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux—all of whom had much experience in tasting wine—described the artificially colored wine using the same terms they had previously used to describe the true red wine.

Apart from what this tells us about the role that visual stimuli can play in influencing our perceptions of flavor, the experiment also has implications for our use of language in describing, or characterizing, our experience of flavor. As the group of experimenters put it in a separate paper in the journal Brain and Language:

‘All wine descriptive language is in fact organized around wine types…. What a wine taster does in front of a wine is not an analysis of its separate sensory properties but a comparison of all the cognitive associations he or she has from the wine (color, initial aroma, and taste) with the impressions he or she has already experienced when tasting other wines.’”

Well, there you go.  Just like I said.  Or did I?

1. It’s all smell and sight not just taste (which is why colds/etc. render foods and wine bland),
2. It’s all comparison with the familiar (like the man who has never seen water, the lake is an ocean),
3. There are a lot of male cow pies out there, and
4. Does it really matter?  (You win David Jaggard).

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