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Premier Cheap Crus or Plonk?

Blind tastings tell us more about people than wine!


22In 1976, Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant, organized a blind tasting of French and Californian wines. Spurrier was a Francophile and, like most wine experts at the time, didn’t expect the New World upstarts to compete with the premier crus from Bordeaux. He assembled a panel of 11 wine experts, and had them taste a variety of Cabernets and Chardonnays blind, rating each bottle on a 20-point scale. The results shocked the wine world. According to the judges, the best Cabernet at the tasting was a 1973 bottle from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. And when the tasting was repeated a few years later (some judges insisted that the French wines had been drunk too young), Stag’s Leap was once again declared the winner, followed by three other Californian Cabernets. These blind tastings, now widely known as the Judgment of Paris, helped to validate the Napa Valley vineyards.

    And now, in an even more surprising turn of events, another American wine region has performed far better than expected, in a blind tasting against the finest French Châteaus. Ready for the punch line? The wines were from New Jersey! The tasting was closely modeled on the 1976 event, featuring the same fancy Bordeaux vineyards, such as Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Haut-Brion. The Jersey entries included bottles from the Heritage and Unionville vineyards. The nine judges were French, Belgian, and American wine experts. (Although there were some worrying inconsistencies, the scores for that Mouton Rothschild, for example, ranged from 11 to 19.5.)

      So what can we learn from these tests? First, that tasting wine is really hard, even for experts, because the sensory differences between different bottles of fermented grape juice are so slight. And those subtle differences get even more muddled after a few sips. There is often wide disagreement about which wines are best. The perceptual ambiguity of wine helps explain why contextual influences, like the look of a label, or the price tag on the bottle, can profoundly influence expert judgment, quite often, subliminally.

       This was nicely demonstrated in a mischievous 2001 experiment led by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. In one test, Brochet gathered 24 wine experts, and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop some of the experts from describing the “red” in language typically used to describe red wines.

       Embarrassingly for them, one expert said that it was “jammy,” while another one enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Another test that Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a mid-range Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and even “faulty.”

      The results of blind tastings are even more distressing for non-experts. Which goes a long way to explaining why, in recent decades, the wine world has become an increasingly quantitative place, dependent on scores and statistics. It’s not surprising that so many people are insecure about their ability to assess wine. It’s well worth remembering, when it comes to wine, that the power of suggestion is incredibly strong, probably much more so than with any other food or beverage.

      Last year, a respected American psychologist, Richard Wiseman bought a wide variety of bottles at his local supermarket, and asked people to say which wine was more expensive. (All of the taste tests were conducted double blind.) According to Wiseman’s data, the 500 participants could only pick the more expensive wine 53% of the time, which is basically random chance. And they actually performed below chance when it came to picking red wines. Bordeaux fared the worst, with a significant majority of 61% picking the cheap plonk as the more expensive selection!

      These results raise an obvious question; if most people can’t tell the difference between Château Mouton Rothschild (costing hundreds of dollars), and a value brand like Heritage, then why do we splurge on famous name premier crus? It seems like waste of money. The answer returns us to the sensory limitations of the mind. If these blind tastings teach us anything, it’s that for the vast majority of drinkers, fine-tuned perceptual judgments are near to impossible. Instead, our expectations of the wine are often more important than what’s actually in the glass. When we take a sip, we don’t taste the wine first, and the cheapness or expensiveness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp. As a result, if we think a wine is cheap, then it will taste cheap. And vice versa, if we believe we are about to taste a fine wine. Whether we like it or not, our senses are vague, emotive and fickle. And our brain processes the information based upon whatever knowledge it can summon to the surface. It’s not that those newly cut French oak barrels, or carefully pruned south-facing organic vines don’t matter, it’s just that (because we are human) the logo on the bottle, and price tag, seem to matter more.

      So go ahead and buy some wine from New Jersey. But if you really want to maximize the pleasure of your guests, put a fancy French label on it. To the highly subjective drinker, those grapes will taste even better!

Peter James


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