Drinking With Your Mind

Here comes the airplane!
Here comes the airplane!

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.

Free? I'll take two!
Free? I’ll take two!

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.

The wine tasted like crisp air, beautiful mountains, and fresh powder . . .
The wine tasted like crisp air, beautiful mountains, and fresh powder . . .

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's good wine? It's any wine you like, no matter it's price or what other people think of it.
What’s good wine? It’s any wine you like, no matter it’s price or what other people think of it.

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.

Missing the Points–Over and Over Again

Missing the Points–Over and Over Again

I’ve only written my first words in this entry, and I’m already ashamed of myself. Why? Because I’m providing coverage of something I despise: the 100 point wine scale. If only it would have the decency to die a swift and painful death I’d never have to talk about it again. I hate it, I don’t use it, and I have a strong feeling that people who do so are fundamentally different from me.

Unfortunately, certain people are hanging on to the scale tooth and nail, knees and toes. I’ve criticised it before, in long-form at my previous blog (read it, sometimes I can’t believe I can be that coherent) but I find that the urge is back. What started me off this time was Jamie Goode. He’s a very accomplished and articulate wine critic, and doesn’t like the 100 point scale either.

A Goode likeness

Jamie put up a video on the scale. He speaks about the obvious flaws: the way the score is influenced by the critic’s biases/current state, the implied precision of a finite scale (1 point in a hundred!), score inflation (88 points is abject failure), the unattainability of a 100 point score, the low effort a lazy system like this enforces, meanwhile it’s the default system, as bad as it is, score inflation (eventually all scores will be 99 or 100), etc.

Jamie goes on to ask if it could be changed, if  a consortium of wine writers could force a different system. The answer is probably not. Not because it wouldn’t be better, but because he’s missing the central flaw of the 100 point system, and its central appeal to people who market and sell wine–and who those people really are. More on this in a minute. 

Jamie and I are mostly in agreement. What really set me off was the response from the other side of the fence, specifically Tom Wark over at Fermentation blog. Tom is a PR guy/publicist for the wine industry, promoting and marketing wine, wearing many hats, all of them well. He does fine work in his field, but it has to be understood that while he rails against certain details of the system and modern winemaking and wine, he represents the status quo and defends it.

Tom is the pretty one on the left

Tom’s apologia is well-written, as usual. What he comes down to is this: the scale is shorthand, the imprecision is understood, and critics use it as an honest way of conveying important information in a soft field (subjective quality can’t be precisely qualified) and consumers who have the same mindset as Tom will find the scores useful, as they are well-intended.

Jamie may have missed the most important point, but Tom is subtly more wrong. Understandable, given his stance on the true usefulness of the 100 point scale. From a podcast episode of winebizradio.com

What’s unethical…when I call a magazine and say ‘I’ll give you $25,000 for a 93 point score,’ and they say ‘You’re on’ – that would be unethical. I’ve been in this business for 20 years and I’ve only bought coverage, uhm, once or twice. As a publicist my job is to get as much ‘right’ kind of exposure for my clients as I possibly can. If I thought I could buy a 95 point score from a reputable publication and be reasonably assured that no one would find out, I’d do it in a minute.

Let’s just soak in that for a minute. would it be possible to buy positive reviews from magazines without using the 100 point scale? Sure it would. Would it have the same portability, impact and downstream usefulness as a 95 point starburst sticker on your wine label? Not bloody likely. But Tom not only says he considers it an acceptable thing to do, he mentions having done it ‘once or twice’.

So here’s why the 100 point scale is a sick, rotten vestige of the bad old days of wine writing: it’s too easy for those in the wine buseiness to misuse it for gain.

I actually agree with Tom in some ways: it could be a useful if inaccurate and subjective way to describe wine in a shorthand that would benefit consumers. But as long as humans are human, it will be misused. Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale, wrote this about wine criticism:

Both the wine dealers and writers have a vested interest in maintaining their informational monopoly on the quality of wine.

Let’s go to the reigning champion on human economic behaviour. Adam Smith said

“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

Meeting together in this case means tacitly agreeing on the 100 point scale as the arbiter of taste in wine sales. As long as critics can use the scale without having to fully qualify what the scores actually mean, it’s not just useful shorthand, it’s a direct route to manipulating wine consumers.

Before anybody uproars that no decent or ethical wine critic could possibly countenance that, I suggest you go back and read Tom’s quote above. Not only does he countenance it, he acknowledges that it is done, and that he has done it on multiple occasions.

Lest anyone think that I’m personally spiteful towards Tom, I like the guy. He’s a warm, thoughtful and genuine fella, and every time I’ve met him, he’s been kind enough to share his time and insights with me. But he’s a businessman defending his commercial interests here. The 100 point scale is a proven sales tool and can instantly raise any winery to unthinkable cult heights in a single number, and any publicist who didn’t fight for a high number as hard as they could is a bad publicist.

This leaves us wine consumers in a state. Three decades ago when I used to slavishly follow the Wine Spectator for ratings, the scores were useful: they guided me through the bottles in my local liquor store and helped me find some treasures–some of which scored only 87 points. I’m not entirely certain that the scale was free of corruption back in those days, but I know what it’s like today, and I can’t use it.

The only advice I have is to do a bit of meta-analysis: I’m a big fan of structuralism and this is where it comes in handy for me. I’m not nearly smart enough or educated enough to enter into extended debate on De Saussure and his philosophy, but in interpreting wine criticism a reductive version of structuralism is useful and necessary. Nothing a critic says means anything until you understand the context of his interrelationship with the wine and the world. Once you know where the critic is coming from, and how his or her bread is buttered, you’re more-or-less immune to their bias. From there you can pick out useful nuggets of information from the dross of their less noble intent.

But better than tedious Derrida-ist analysis of wine critics and their writings, I think the best thing a consumer can do is to grab a couple of good books on the history and general interest of wine and start trying a few bottles in their price range. Get to know the folks in your local wine shop, find out what they like personally, and then filter their recommendations as you go.

You’ll discover not only great wines, but the knowledge of their greatness within yourself–not along some imaginary, arbitrary and false scale designed for deceit.