(Originally published in the Dayton City Paper, December 1, 2010)
Robert Parker, for those of you unfamiliar, is the single most polarizing figure in the wine world. His major contribution to society is the 100-point wine rating scale that you’ve probably seen on the shelf in your local wine and spirits store.
Most wine writers, including myself, don’t care much for Parker – somewhat out of professional jealousy, really, since he came up with a good idea before the rest of us. Largely, however, because it creates a paradigm by which wine can ostensibly be judged objectively,effectively rendering our flowery prose obsolete.
An objective rating does give people permission to try new wines without fear that they’re going to get a bad bottle. A novice wine drinker will assume that the 92-point bottle that they paid a boatload for will be 92-point quality, wherever and whenever it’s opened.
Parker scores his wines at tastings. Controlled settings. Controlled pours. Controlled access. Empires rise and fall on the swirl of Parker’s stemmed glass. But does where you’re drinking wine, who you’re drinking it with and why you’re drinking it in the first place make a difference? I wanted to investigate if these factors play any part in one’s perception of a certain wine.
Honestly, I’m all for the Parker corollary of not being intimidated by a wall of wine in a store because you have at least some idea of what to expect. But is one man’s rating scale universal? Is it even worthwhile to think that way? There’s just something about the notion of one man’s palate and judgment being universal that doesn’t sit well with me.
Studying wine perceptions
In 2008, a group of scientists from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University ran a fascinating study that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Why? Because it turned the notion of wine and objectivity on its ear.
In the study, a group of participants were given samples of five cabernet sauvignons and informed that the wines ranged in retail price from $5 to $90. The participants were given a functional MRI brain scan while they tried the wines to see what was going on in their cerebral cortexes.
So, what’s the kicker?
The wines were not what they appeared to be. There were only three distinct wines among the five samples. Two of them were not priced at their normal retail. One was higher and one was lower than actual. What did they find?
“The results showed that increasing the price of the wine increased the participants’ subjective report of the pleasantness of the flavor. However, the MRI scans also showed a higher level of oxygen-level-dependent activity in … the medial orbitofrontal cortex.”
Since I’m not a doctor, I asked Barry Southers, head MRI instructor at the University of Cincinnati’s Advanced Medical Imaging Technology program, for a translation:
“This means the medial orbitofrontal cortex, believed to be a pleasure center of the brain, had increased brain activity (or simply, increased oxygen in the blood going to that region of the brain) when the subjects believed the wine to be more expensive. Basically, they are saying if it is more expensive, people generally feel this is a better tasting wine because the brain believes it.”
In a separate test where the participants weren’t given the prices and were simply asked to go on flavor alone, the $5 wine was rated highest. So, scientifically, marketing affects price, price affects perception and our minds bend the results of those perceptions into a reality that may not be, you know, real.
Into my own hands: a blind tasting
I was so fascinated by this study that I decided to do my own version. I invited a dozen or so of my thirsty wine-drinking friends over and set up my own little test, sans the MRI scanner.
I set out five carafes of wine, labeled A through E. All of them were red blends from Washington State of similar construction – blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. I put them into two groups.
A and B were identical wines from Renegade Wine Thieves which retail for about $40. I told people that one wine was $15 and the other $40, but I didn’t say which was which. I put C, D, and E in a group. C and E were both a $25 wine called Script and Seal. D was a red blend from Hogue Cellars that you can snag for $8 in most Kroger stores. I said the three wines were $8, $15 and $35, but again, didn’t identify which was which.
I had my guests complete a short survey after tasting the wines. Thanks to some statistical assistance from the Sweet Partner in Crime (a quantitative researcher in criminology in her other life), I ran the data.
When I asked which was most expensive in the first pair, the group split almost evenly between A and B. People’s preferences correlated. 80% of the people who said A was more expensive said they preferred it. People clearly thought there was a difference in flavor – making comments that one wine was “smoother,” “fruitier” and “more complex” than the other.
Among the three-wine grouping, the wine most frequently listed as most expensive was D – which was actually the Hogue, the least expensive of the group. Looking at the identical wines, the findings were similar to the A/B choice. People who thought C was most expensive tended to prefer it, as with E. Interestingly, 100% of the people who listed E as their first or second choice identified C (the identical wine) as the least expensive.
So, what does all this mean? Fun with perception, semi-pseudoscience and an entertaining evening aside, all my partygoers know me well enough to figure that I was probably up to something, so that may have swayed their perceptions (one survey was left blank except for “Dude, they were all the same wine!”).
Much like the difference between Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light, the partygoers’ brains identified differences between identical tastes because I told them there were differences to be found. And, in most cases, people’s preferences tended to follow the wines that they thought were higher priced, and thus, higher quality. One person commented that she selected the wine she thought was most expensive because she liked it the least, which doesn’t change the substantive conclusion in the slightest (this person tends not to like “snooty” wines, so she figured the one she preferred most was the least expensive).
A change of scenery
Even though we have a scientific method for proving that perceptions are mutable, we don’t generally drink wine out of unlabeled carafes and we know what we’ve paid for a bottle we’re uncorking, more often than not.
So, what happens to the flavor and the perception if we “keep the wine constant” in different settings? I thought I’d find a decent bottle in a few different locales. I settled on Steltzner Claret, a red blend from Napa that you can score reasonably easily for around $18.
Thanks to the largesse of DCP’s dear publisher, I had the opportunity to dine at a Dayton institution, the Pine Club. As we nestled cozily into a corner table amidst the 50s décor, I felt a little like Don Draper – minus the skinny tie, multiple infidelities and ubiquitously acrid stench of Lucky Strikes.
When my bone-in filet arrived, I had a glass of Steltzner right by my side. As I made my way through the meal, the wine turned out to be an excellent, flexible pairing with everything from the perfectly-cooked steak, to the creamed spinach, to the rye salt sticks.
I realized I hadn’t paid much attention to the intricacies of the Steltzner during much of the evening. It was there and it was good, but it wasn’t the centerpiece of the meal. The Pine Club isn’t a place for lingering and tasting notes. It’s a place for boisterous conversation and the consumption of mass quantities of cow. At a dining establishment heavy on scenery and the indulging of various carnivorous fantasies – wine should be seen and not heard. It worked wonderfully.
As part of my “other life” when I’m not writing about wine, I had to attend a conference in Columbus. I eventually made it home after sitting in interstate traffic for a couple of hours. My wife was kind enough to put together dinner – roasted swordfish steaks with asparagus sautéed in butter, garlic and crystallized ginger.
Like a good wine writer, I tried to break down what I tasted in the wine. I thought the wine had more of a depth than I remembered from the Pine Club … I tasted more dark fruit. I asked myself, “Is that blackberry or currant?” Then I stopped and asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
Instead of the combo hustle/bustle of happy hour and an early dinner, there was quiet, there was swordfish and there was room to appreciate what I had in my glass. Yes, I was able to be more analytical, but since I had time to experience the various flavor pieces, they all stepped up and let themselves be known. The wine’s flavors were the same, but the atmosphere gave the wine a different vibe.
Merlot, he wrote…
So, as I sit here at my desk and tap out the last few lines of this little tale, remnants of a nice big glass of Steltzner sits not far from my left hand. I’ve been sipping on it while I’ve been writing this article. Drinking wine engages both taste and smell – the senses most closely tied to memory.
While I may not have my own functional MRI handy, I can guarantee that blood is rushing to memory centers in my brain. I can close my eyes and see the Pine Club’s wood paneling and hear the buzz from the bar. I can feel again how tired I was eating my swordfish and picture my wife’s sympathetic smile.
But the flavor of the wine itself as I’ve been writing? Couldn’t really tell you. I’ve just been drinking it while my attention was focused elsewhere. Stopping for a moment, I can tell you that it’s a medium-bodied blend that’s a less tannic alternative for a Napa wine. Nice full fruit with a chocolaty, coffee-filled finish. And it went really well with my evening’s dark chocolate after I finished this draft (by the way, Parker gave it an 87).
Breaking a wine into its component parts is a skill. There’s certainly a call for that sort of thing. I enjoy learning the differences between wines and being able to articulate how various flavors mesh. There’s a necessary limit, however. One can describe the wavelengths of light in a sunset as well, but why bother? A glass of wine is always as good as we believe it to be.