Ξ January 5th, 2010 | → 7 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews, Wine & Politics |
The Wine Trials 2010, by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Hershkowitsch (along with scores of others), is a curious book. At once rigorous and slippery, honest and evasive, it is precisely because of it’s structural ambiguity that it is a good place to initiate a discussion of what might be called the informal cultural anthropology of wine. And the discussion may most properly begin among small groups of wine enthusiasts tasting blind. This is the book’s great strength.
Robin Goldstein, whom I’ve never met, is perhaps best known for an interesting experiment (some folks used harsher language) he performed in 2008 involving the Wine Spectator’s (WS) ‘Award of Excellence’ program, the details about which this space has written. He created an entirely fictional restaurant on the internet, composed a wine list of WS ‘under-performers’, paid his $250 entrance fee and, voila!, the Award of Excellence was his. Equally importantly for Mr. Goldstein’s purposes (and ours) was the solicitation for advertisement space. Full details may be found on his website, Blind Taste. It was an amusing coup.
The Wine Trials 2010 takes elements of this project forward. First of all, it is important to stress that the tone of the book is a kind of hopeful skepticism, a forceful, yet playful insistence that though the consumer’s conscious freedom to taste is muted by three distinct cultural obstacles, they might yet escape through the practice of blind tasting. (And, of course, with the help of the wine recommendations in this book!) This is a book for adults interested in the ‘big picture’. It is meant to provoke thought. But that it also interferes with thought I hope to make clear.
The first of the three obstacles is the wine press, generalized under the titles Parker’s Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. The second obstacle is the ‘placebo effect’, a universal feature of the human condition. The third obstacle, an equally universal feature, is cultural training whereby everyone is introduced from infancy into a specific gustatory regime. I shall briefly examine each in turn.
The Wine Press How is it that a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvée Brut sparkler from Washington State is consistently preferred in blind tastings to a $150 Dom Pérignon? Or a $9 Beringer Founders’ Estate Cab to its close relative, the $120 Beringer Private Reserve Cab? Or a $6 Vinho Verde from Portugal to Cakebread’s $40 Chardonnay? Precisely because they were tasted blind. And the reverse, choosing the more expensive wine in the full light of day? In part, this is because of the distortions the wine press. Through well-publicized tastings by established critics, advertisement and a battery of lifestyle-enhancement triggers, the consumer comes to believe a higher price is correlated to quality. To see is to believe. Of course nothing could be further from the truth, the book argues. And it tries to show the reader why.
The Wine Trials 2010 tells us that four hundred and fifty “widely available” wines were initially selected, all under $15. As distinct from last year’s edition, this time around “We have accepted nominations from professionals in many different areas of the wine industry, from producers to sommeliers, importers to retailers.” It was from this pool that after multiple blind tastings among dozens and dozens of contributors, one hundred and fifty wines made the cut. Part Two of the book is an alphabetical compilation, with details and notes, of these wines. Now, what is surprising is that every one of the 150 wines “outscored much more expensive bottles in our brown-bag tasting.” It is surprising because of what the reader never learns :
1) The identity of the “more expensive bottles”. Indeed, very few expensive wines are mentioned in the book. Apart from the Dom Pérignon, Beringer and Cakebread, the only other wines touched on are Veuve Clicquot and a Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour. Were there others? What was the price spread? Were $20 bottles included? We just don’t know.
2 Neither is a definition of “expensive” provided. Is it $18, $25? (The least expensive of the wines mentioned comes in at $40.)
3) Lastly, though the Wine Spectator comes rightly under considerable fire for their very questionable methodology, readers are not informed whether the “expensive” wines were ever given especially high scores in that magazine.
These are important methodological faults of The Wine Trials 2010, in my view. Of course, the book’s principle argument is that value may be found at lower price points. I heartily agree. No one would argue otherwise, not in the real world. But I do not believe their case is properly made absent a full disclosure of the expensive wines’ identities, how the expensive were selected and how widely did the authors select. We do know that all wines had to be “widely available”. But that is the sole criterion, as near as I can tell.
The placebo effect The Wine Trials 2010 discusses very important developments in the field of Neuroscience concerning how it is that to believe something is true in fact physically alters one’s perception. The authors provide a fine, though limited bibliography for further reading. Recounting various historical and current experiments in which test subjects, from the sophisticated to the novice, were creatively mislead (shall we say), the book amply demonstrates the very real phenomenon of the placebo effect. In these experiments wine experts come to believe the same wine in different bottles, one expensive, one cheap, actually taste different; casual drinkers, when mis-informed that they are drinking a cheap wine said to be expensive, prefer the ‘expensive’, by significant statistical margins. New experiments are being formulated as I write, so rich is the field.
Perception and expectation do alter taste. About that there is no question. Mr. Goldstein calls this framing of experience “The taste of money”. This we know occurs. And it is a far deeper phenomenon than the casual drinker might be willing to admit. Or the authors themselves. Indeed, the clinical trials of new drugs are routinely abandoned because the pharmaceutical company is unable to show a statistically meaningful improvement in a patient over a placebo in blind trials.
Further, there is a large body of brilliant research on differing experiences of pain when a subject’s expectations are wildly distinct. Take, for example, a soldier shot on the battlefield. He is offered pain medication, but he refuses it, deferring to his fallen fellows. Why? With allowances made for specific details, it is because he knows he is going home; he knows he will see his kids and wife; he knows he will receive a hero’s welcome; he knows he will receive on-going medical care. He was wounded defending a cause. Clinical experience clearly shows the experience of pain will be attenuated.
Now contrast that series of expectations to the victim of a random shooting on the street. This poor soul has no expectation of proper, complete care; he does not know whether his employer will keep his job for him and whether, as a consequence, he will be able to pay the rent; or how he will provide for his family. He is the anonymous victim of a random crime. There is no ’cause’, just the brutal reality of the street. Again, clinical experience reveals a different experience of pain.
I’ve gone on this tangent because I think the authors of The Wine Trials 2010 grossly overstate the simplicity of consumers rising above ‘the placebo effect’. They provide what I would call a ’soft’ case. The research they cite, however methodologically flawed, still remains compelling. It is simply that neuroscience and anthropology, the hard research, provides stronger evidence of the persistence and durability of ‘the placebo effect’ than the authors appear to believe.
Cultural Training The Wine Trials 2010 offers some very valuable insight into modern wines, what they call a ‘globalized’ style. Recognizing the jeopardy much of the world’s wine diversity is in, they point to a plausible suspect. Robert Parker? No. For Parker is only the bearer of a cultural marker, a gustatory preference. The real culprit is sugar. From the book,
[...] the culprit for the style convergence might not be Parker himself, or his followers themselves; it might be the taste for sugar that he, and they, all acquired in childhood–a taste that an increasing percentage of the world’s children are now also acquiring. [....] Should we call Yellow Tail not ‘Parkerized,’ but rather ‘globalized’”?
I think there is something to this. And one might look no further than The Wine Trials 2010 list of wines itself for evidence of this increasingly important cultural factor. Sure enough, of the 150 wines selected a full 42 ‘Heavy New World reds’ (their category) made the cut in their blind tastings! Nearly a third, and by far the largest single grouping. Of course, they might argue that this is because the decisive factor for inclusion into the original 450 wines was that they be “widely” available. And Heavy New World red does not necessarily mean ‘globalized’. But it, nevertheless, begs the question. No discussion of this statistically significant result is entertained in the book.
And this takes us to a more difficult question about the value, you could even call it the philosophy, of blind tasting. Mr. Goldstein cites a lively discussion shared on Eric Asimov’s NY Times wine blog, The Pour, about the subject. Among the many topics touched on, Asimov insisted that “blind tastings eliminate knowledge and context that can be significant in judging a wine. [....] It is an almost anti-intellectual position. Obviously what’s in the glass matters. But the more knowledge you can bring to a wine, the better your understanding of that wine will be.”
In The Wine Trials 2010 Mr. Goldstein responds in a very curious, though similar, way. He writes, “Our descriptions do not rely solely on blind tasting notes. Without a doubt, a lot of the fun of wine is in all the stuff that’s not in the glass.” [emphasis in the original]
Now, I have not read all the original source material framing this exchange, but I will say that both gentlemen seem to agree that Knowledge, with a capital K, is extraneous to what’s in the glass. I couldn’t disagree more; for knowledge comes in many different forms. I would argue that viticultural and winemaking practice have a direct bearing on what’s in the glass. Whether biodynamic, organic, conventional, whether terroir-driven, practice and soil informs the wine. It is one thing to recognize it, it is quite another to claim, as Mr. Goldstein certainly does, that knowledge, this time with a small k, does not inform a wine.
Mr. Goldstein is equally dismissive of the notion that wine is meant to be consumed with food. Who would argue with what half the wine-drinking world holds to self-evident? Well, he erases entire libraries and cultures when he writes,
“It is true that information about your experience of a wine in the absence of food, or in a sequence of other wines, will not be perfectly relevant to a reader’s future experience of that same wine over a relaxing meal. But information about how the wine’s fruit character and tannins reacted with your next-door neighbor’s demi-glace might well be even less relevant”
Try telling that to a Spaniard! I guarantee that uttering such a thing will not get you invited into his family’s house.
It is almost as if he is claiming ‘knowledge’ of/about wine is limited to price, the eccentricities of the winemaker, label and prestige, only those elements that fall under the umbrella of wine marketing and ‘the placebo effect’. An astute student of socioeconomic folly does not make one a wine critic. Neither does he claim to be, to be sure. And as to that, it is a curious effect of this book that it leaves this reader with the impression that Mr. Goldstein does not himself drink wine. There is little passion for wine on the page. Intelligence, yes. I think he might be principally a creature of the behavioral sciences, perforce hamstrung by the multiple ways his freedom may be hijacked by subterranean cultural forces at work on us all. Or, perhaps, a touch of how the gynecologist might reflect upon the prospect of having sex. He’s just seen too much!
But I like the book, even though my point of view cannot find a home there. It is stuffed with ideas, too many to fairly discuss in a modest review. It forcefully puts forward a point of view, a series of challenges to a large part of the wine industry which deserve, no, demand to be heard. I like the book well enough to give Mr. Goldstein the last word.
“The aim of The Wine Trials–aside from seeking out good, widely available values under $15–is to question the institutional structures that govern the industry, to encourage people to learn their own palates through the exercise of tasting blind instead of trusting the numerical scores that Parker and the magazines assign. It is the economic power of these institutional structures that damages not only the wallet of the everyday consumer, but also the chances for a small, interesting, good-value producer–even one that makes a wine costing more than $15–to succeed on the store shelf or on the restaurant wine list.”
Please also see the spirited debate over at 1 Wine Dude’s site.