Why We Can't Tell Good Wine From Bad

The Misconception: Wine is a complicated elixir, full of subtle flavours only an expert can truly distinguish, and experienced tasters are impervious to deception. The Truth: Wine experts and consumers can be fooled by altering their expectations.

You scan the aisles in the bottle shop looking for a good wine. It's a little overwhelming with all those varieties. You look to your left and see bottles for under $10; to your right you see bottles for $60. You think back to all the times you've seen people tasting wine in movies, holding it up to the light and commenting on tannins and barrels and soil quality — the most expensive wine has to be the better one, right?

You Are Not So Smart, But That's Okay

Well, you are not so smart. But, don't fret — neither are all those connoisseurs who swish fermented grape juice around and spit it back out. Wine tasting is a big deal to a lot of people. It can even be a professional career. It goes back thousands of years, but the modern version with all the terminology like notes, tears, integration and connectedness goes back a few hundred. Wine tasters will mention all sorts of things they can taste in a fine wine as if they were a human spectrograph with the ability to sense the molecular makeup of their beverage. Research shows, however, this perception can be hijacked, fooled, and might just be completely wrong.

In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux. In one experiment, he got 54 oenology (the study of wine tasting and wine making) undergraduates together and had them taste one glass of red wine and one glass of white wine. He had them describe each wine in as much detail as their expertise would allow. What he didn't tell them was both were the same wine. He just dyed the white one red. In the other experiment, he asked the experts to rate two different bottles of red wine. One was very expensive, the other was cheap. Again, he tricked them. This time he had put the cheap wine in both bottles. So what were the results?

The tasters in the first experiment, the one with the dyed wine, described the sorts of berries and grapes and tannins they could detect in the red wine just as if it really was red. Every single one, all 54, could not tell it was white. In the second experiment, the one with the switched labels, the subjects went on and on about the cheap wine in the expensive bottle. They called it complex and rounded. They called the same wine in the cheap bottle weak and flat.

Another experiment at Cal-Tech pitted five bottles of wine against each other. They ranged in price from $5 to $90. Similarly, the experimenters put cheap wine in the expensive bottles — but this time they put the tasters in a brain scanner. While tasting the wine, the same parts of the brain would light up in the machine every time, but with the wine the tasters thought was expensive, one particular region of the brain became more active. Another study had tasters rate cheese eaten with two different wines. One they were told was from California, the other from North Dakota. The same wine was in both bottles. The tasters rated the cheese they ate with the California wine as being better quality, and they ate more of it.

The Beast Of Expectation

So is the fancy world of wine tasting all pretentious bunk? Not exactly. The wine tasters in the experiments above were being influenced by the nasty beast of expectation. A wine expert's objectivity and powers of taste under normal circumstance might be amazing, but Brochet's manipulations of the environment misled his subjects enough to dampen their acumen. An expert's own expectation can act like Kryptonite on their superpowers. Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The build up to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses. In psychology, true objectivity is pretty much considered to be impossible. Memories, emotions, conditioning, and all sorts of other mental flotsam taint every new experience you gain.

In addition to all this, your expectations powerfully influence the final vote in your head over what you believe to be reality. So, when tasting a wine, or watching a movie, or going on a date, or listening to a new stereo through $300 audio cables — some of what you experience comes from within and some comes from without. Expensive wine is like anything else that is expensive, the expectation it will taste better actually makes it taste better.

In one Dutch study, participants were put in a room with posters proclaiming the awesomeness of high-definition, and were told they would be watching a new high-definition program. Afterward, the subjects said they found the sharper, more colourful television to be a superior experience to standard programming. What they didn't know was they were actually watching a standard-definition image. The expectation of seeing a better quality image led them to believe they had. Recent research shows about 18 per cent of people who own high definition televisions are still watching standard-definition programming on the set, but they think they are getting a better picture.

In the early '80s, Pepsi ran a marketing campaign where they touted the success of their product over Coca-Cola in blind taste tests. They called this the Pepsi Challenge. Psychologists had already determined you choose your favourite products often not by their inherent value, but because the marketing campaigns and logos and such have cast a spell over you called brand awareness. You start to identify yourself with one marketing campaign over another.

That's what happened in the all the taste tests up until the Pepsi Challenge. People liked Coca-Cola's advertising more than Pepsi's, so even though they tasted pretty much the same, when they saw that bright red can with a white ribbon people chose Coke. So for the Pepsi Challenge, they removed the logos. At first, the researchers thought they should put some sort of label on the glasses. So, they went with M and Q. People said they liked Pepsi, labelled M, better than Coke, labelled Q. Irritated by this, Coca-Cola did their own study and put Coke in both glasses. Again, M won the contest. It turned out it wasn't the soda; people just liked the letter M better than the letter Q.

You look for cues from our environment whenever you find things you like. These clues help you to get back to the good stuff by recognising the cues that got you the reward last time. For the testers, the two products tasted pretty much the same. So, forced to make a choice, they moved to another set of cues to make their decision — which letter was more pleasant. Apparently, M is better than Q, and in other research people tend to pick A instead of B and 1 instead of 2. Branding works the same way. Vodka, for instance, has no flavour. So advertisers can't sell you on how great it tastes. Instead, they hijack your natural affinity for visual shortcuts by pummelling your brain with advertising. When you are standing in front of all those vodka bottles in the liquor store, the brands hope their marketing campaign has built enough expectation in your consciousness to lead you to their product.

In blind taste tests, long-time smokers can't tell their brand from any of the competitors and wine connoisseurs have a hard time telling $200 bottles from $20 ones. When presented microwaved food from the frozen food section in the setting of a fine restaurant, most people never notice. Taste is subjective, which is another way of saying you are not so smart when it comes to choosing one product over another. All things equal, you refer back to the advertising or the packaging or conformity with your friends and family. Presentation is everything.

Restaurants depend on this. Actually, just about every retailer depends on this. Presentation, price, good marketing, great service — it all leads to an expectation of quality. The actual experience at the end of all this is less important. As long as it isn't total crap, your experience will match up with your expectations. A series of bad reviews will make the movie worse, and a heap of positive buzz can sway you the other direction. You rarely watch films in a social vacuum with no input at all from critics and peers and advertisements. Your expectations are the horse, and your experience is the cart. You get this backwards all the time because you are not so smart.

This post is excerpted from You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself.

David McRaney is a journalist interested in psychology, technology and the Internet. He works as the director of new media for a broadcast television company in Mississippi.


Comments

    I have my doubts about some of this stuff. If you try to trick anyone with Shiraz any any white, they'd spot it straight away - because they are very distinct. If it was something like Grenache (aka dyed water), then that could easily be substituted for a white. I don't think I'm being conned because I don't care about "hints of chocolate", nor the label, nor the price - only the after taste.
    A friend of mine was also bragging about his new TV (50in) a few years ago. I told him it looked standard def. when he got upset, I found out that station only broadcast SD signals at that time. Again, I have my doubts. I had been used to watching HD through the computer, so I knew what to expect.
    I don't think this is one of your better articles. People who are easily influenced (suggestible) may fall for these gags, but if you're truly knowledgable and are willing to stand your ground, I'd suggest it's a different matter.

      Well, it's an article about how expectation colours experience, so for that it's a pretty good overview of the subject. It's just that the headline isn't for this article.

      With that headline, I would've liked to see some tests where they weren't gaming the testers - in a double blind test, could the wine experts tell the Grange from the goon juice? Could the every day person? That's what the article title suggests is being asked.

      Many years of studies have shown that everyone is susceptible to cognitive biases, so it's likely that you're just fooling yourself about being hard to fool, which would actually make you easier to fool, being less cautious.

    Fooling a bunch of Undergrads in no way correlates to fooling a bunch of Professional Tasters.

    The reference to 'good' and 'bad' wines in the headline creates misleading expectations of its own. Any oenologist worth his grapes will tell you that 'good' or 'bad' is a consideration of price, purpose, and individual taste.

    On a technical level there are flawed or faulty wines, which are scientifically identifiable (due to the interference of yeast, fungi, or other factors during the winemaking practice), and any taster will be able to pick these up, once they've been trained what to identify.

    Also, I'm sceptical about any process that would turn red wine into white having no affect on the flavour, particularly if it's an unfiltered red.

    There's quite a bit of research behind this. The cookbook Modernist Cuisine has a large chapter dedicated to wine and wine tasting that goes in to a lot of depth on this topic and is well referenced.

    Another interesting note in that book regarding wine is using a bar blender to take the harsh, tannin edge off of young wines. 30-60 seconds of aeration and it's a whole new bottle! I do this all the time with cheaper wines now. I'm definitely no wine taster but even I can tell the difference!

    Here's a video, http://modernistcuisine.com/2012/02/maxime-demonstrates-hyperdecantation/ Not sure why they call it hyperdecantation but it's still awesome.

      Because decanting is the process of aerating wine to 'loosen' it up, and this does it much faster. Just out of interest, how powerful is a bar blender? I certainly wouldn't shake a wine while decanting it, so I probably wouldn't do anything more vigorous than that either.

    People liked Coca-Cola’s advertising more than Pepsi’s, so even though they tasted pretty much the same, when they saw that bright red can with a white ribbon people chose Coke.

    Pepsi has a distinctly different taste to Coke. Anyone who says they are "pretty much the same" is delusional. I'm in no way a cola drink aficionado, but I can tell the difference between the two just by the smell of them, let alone the taste.

    But it's not just Coke vs Pepsi. Even different varieties of the same brand taste different, despite what their marketing campaigns would have you believe. Coke Zero or Diet Coke tastes different to regular Coke, as does Pepsi Max or Pepsi Diet over regular Pepsi.

    Vodka, for instance, has no flavour.

    Vodka does have a flavour. It may not be a very strong flavour, but it has a flavour nonetheless. If you blindfolded someone and gave them a glass of vodka, they would instantly know they are drinking vodka.

    Last edited 20/03/13 10:17 am

      There is interesting commentary on the Coke vs Pepsi debate in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink". Lots of other interesting writing / studies on taste and expectation in there too.

    When no misleading expectations are set up, I think most people can tell the difference between wines, and it does correlate fairly well with price. A group of my colleagues and I ran a blind wine tasting evening once where we had 30 bottles of Australian Shiraz wines (i.e. controlling for variety) at different price points. The cheapest was goon at about $4 a litre, and the most expensive was a $50 bottle. We wrapped brown paper around each label so the bottles looked identical, and numbered them 1-30, using a random number generator to decide which bottle got which number. (It's true that people's perception of taste might have been influenced by their favourite numbers, of course).

    Then each person got to taste each wine, and write down a rating for it, plus a guess at it's approximate price. At the end of the evening, we collated the ratings and saw whether anyone had them all right. No one had it exactly, but the rankings of the bottles relative to each other were almost totally correlated with price. The $50 bottle did worse than the next one down (a $30 bottle) in almost everyone's rating, and there was a $12 bottle that many people ranked first (and that sold out locally the next day as everyone rushed out to buy multiple cases of it. Within six months, that wine was being sold for $25 a bottle, so I don't think it was just us who thought it was awesome.) But otherwise the bottles tended to be ranked in order.

    What amazed me most is how similar everyone's rankings were, even though we had people present who claimed to only ever drink $8 wines and to be unable to taste differences, and other people who were total wine snobs. And no, we didn't let people see each other's ratings or talk about the wines until the end of the evening, so they probably didn't influence each other.

      Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention - I wasn't drinking that day, so I ranked all the wines just going by what they smelled like. And my ranking was also very similar to that of the tasters, and very much correlated with price.

    I don't think you guys are taking away the important information from this article. Tell your guests your wine is special and expensive and they will believe it. The power of the mind to trick your taste buds into thinking a $20 bottle will taste like a $200 bottle makes the comparison of a $20 to $200 irreverent.

    Penn & Teller Bullshit. Great show, and did an episode titled "The Best" which focuses on this very topic. Give it a watch, highly amusing to watch so called food and wine experts talk up the merits of a $5 red when told it was imported from a small French town.

    Valid points, but it's going too far to say that we can't tell good wine from bad. When someone pours me a glass of wine at a dinner party, I've rarely looked at the label ahead of time. I can still pick the varietal based on taste and body, quality/age based on acidity and bouquet, etc. With some wines I can even pick the climate (a sauv blanc from a cooler climate will be fruitier, one from a warmer climate will be woodier). Some more expensive wines have very unique tastes (I'll always remember Krug), and a lot of the better wines have an aged oaky smell to them. That said, I've never tasted a wine and thought "oh that has subtle hints of blackberry". Maybe that's just me, but I think there's what we experience, and what we imagine we experience.

    I guess this explains the Cult of Mac then!

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