It’s an old saying in the restaurant industry that diners eat with their eyes first. I always thought this would make spicy food vastly less appealing, but I learned that it’s a metaphor for how perception informs reality: if you think something is going to taste good, it’s going to taste good to you. Seems clear enough, but here’s the kicker: apparently we actually drink with our preconceived notions and our expectations.
In a 2003 study by Dr. Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, diners were given free glasses of wine with their meal. Some were told it was a French wine, others were told it was a local (North Dakota) bottle. It was, in fact, Two-Buck Chuck in both cases. But the people who were shown a French label ate more dinner, and rated the food higher. Those who thought they were getting ND wine ate less and rated the meal ‘average’. Same wine, same food, different perception.
This really struck me, because over the years I’ve had a lot of calls from retailers asking for help finding a particular kind of wine for a customer. Typically they’ve had a bottle of wine on a vacation, or in a great restaurant somewhere, and they’re looking for a wine kit closest to it in flavour and aroma. I have to suppress feelings of despair at these calls, not because we don’t have something that’s stylistically close to the wine (we might even have a kit that’s nearly identical, or can be made so with a little tweaking) but because it isn’t the wine that they want to replicate. It’s the experience.
It’s even worse when the retailer starts off with, ‘They just got back from Switzerland . . .’. Typically the people were sitting on a patio on Lake Geneva, or in a ski lodge in Gstaad, and they had a wonderful white wine called ‘Fendant’. Fendant is the Swiss name for Chasselas, a grape with long history and short flavour. It’s slightly citrusy and the best examples hint at grassiness, but mostly it’s really, really neutral (hah, Swiss wines taste neutral, who would’a thought?) which is to say, bland.
But the folks were in the mountains, in a wonderfully well-organised, clean country, enjoying the fresh air and perhaps some wonderful cheeses, at peace with themselves in the center of a grand and magnificent setting. They could have been drinking lighter fluid and would have enjoyed the bouquet and ordered a second bottle. Many times people will bring a bottle home and when they open it, find it very disappointing. This is the origin of the phrase, ‘It doesn’t travel well’ . That actually means, ‘I couldn’t bring the setting and the experience home along with the wine.’
What to do? Nothing, really. There isn’t anything wrong with letting a whole experience wash over you, having it enhance your perceptions. One of the most incredibly delicious bottles of wine I ever had was a bottle of Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon. While there’s nothing wrong with that wine, I recall it as being utter ambrosia. But then, I was falling in love at the time, and the sky was bluer, the air was fresher, and I was the person I always wished I could be at that moment.
We can all take a bit of wisdom away from experience versus actuality: it’s always good to be mindful of what we eat and drink of itself, and to be present at every moment of our lives. As the sage once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
I couldn’t agree more.