Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

Wine’s Pleasures

Posted by dlende on May 10, 2008

This past week Eric Asimov’s Wine’s Pleasures: Are They All in Your Head? reigned as the number one emailed article at the New York Times. It’s #3 as I write this, and is quite simply a superb article, wrapping so much into 1700 words. Makes me a little jealous, since it’s a great model for what we do here, both in content and style.

Here’s Asimov’s opening hook, “The mind of the wine consumer is a woolly place, packed with odd and arcane information fascinating to few. Like the pants pocket of a 7-year-old boy, it’s full of bits of string, bottle caps and shiny rocks collected while making the daily rounds of wine shops, restaurants, periodicals and the wine-soaked back alleys of the Internet.”

Asimov then takes on recent reports of wine that reduced it to expectations and over-rated prices—the “normal people like the cheap stuff in blind taste tastes” kind of thing. “In press accounts of two studies on wine psychology, consumers have been portrayed as dupes and twits, subject to the manipulations of marketers, critics and charlatan producers who have cloaked wine in mystique and sham sophistication in hopes of better separating the public from its money.”

Asimov proceeds to do something unusual for most journalists, he digs deeper into the actual data. And what does he find? Significant variation. Sure, novices do like the cheap champagne, but the experts prefer the Dom Perignon. So there is no such thing as the “average oenophile.”

Asimov then brings in some brain imaging and brain science to discuss the higher price=perceived better taste phenomenon. Is it just something about wine? Or a placebo effect? After all, higher priced drugs work better than lower priced drugs, even if they are pharmacologically exactly alike. Professor Dan Ariely declares, “It’s not just about wine, it’s about everything! If you expect not to get something as good, lo and behold, it’s not as good. We think of it as an objective reality. We don’t see how much is created by our mind.”

What sets Asimov even further apart is he doesn’t accept Ariely’s behavioral economics alone—it’s not all the mind. Why, he asks, are wine drinkers still the punchline in the US? Here he turns to culture. “The answer rests, I think, both in the insecure and uncomfortable attitudes that Americans hold toward wine and in the difficulty of bringing some sort of objective and universal criteria to the fleeting and obscure realms of aroma, taste and texture.”

In other words, if we don’t know, a higher price must be better, especially given the rise of “impenetrable winespeak.” To counter that, Americans also use wine scores as an additional criterion alongside price. “To hack through it all, consumers embrace scores, an easy shorthand that unfortunately requires that every wine be judged on the same seemingly objective scale, regardless of the subjective nature of taste. Anybody can understand that a wine rated 90 beats an 89, right?”

And here Asimov makes one last shift, wrapping up his article with a discussion of wine-in-context and the importance of experience. It’s as if he wrote the piece for Neuroanthropology! Here’s a final excerpt:

Yet the rating system has bred an attitude toward wine that ignores context, which is perhaps more important a consideration to the enjoyment of wine than anything else. The proverbial little red wine, so delicious in a Tuscan village with your sweetie, never tastes the same back home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the big California cabernet, which you enjoyed so much with your work buddies at a steakhouse, ties tucked between buttons, doesn’t have that triumphant lift with a bowl of spaghetti.

This is one problem with trying to judge wine in the sort of clinical vacuum sought by studies like the one in “The Wine Trials.” In the end, I don’t think you can ever eliminate context… Tyler Colman, a wine writer and blogger (drvino.com), [says] “The mood and the food and the context really matters. It’s the neglected pairing.” Just as understanding when to dress up and when to dress down is intuitive for many people, so, too, does it become instinctive over time for wine lovers to know which is the proper bottle to open. But that requires experience of many different wines.

So here’s to lifting a cup, whether it is cheap or expensive, good or bad. Go get some experience in context! And don’t forget your variation, mind and brain processes, and cultural patterns along with that.

3 Responses to “Wine’s Pleasures”

  1. Paul Mason said

    Have you ever had a Vendange Tardive? Oh my lord! At 44euro the bottle, the wine is well worth the cost! The grapes are picked only after they have started fermenting on the branch, so the sugar content is high and boy oh boy, the taste is good! Thank goodness it’s so expensive! If it was affordable, a trip home from the Alsacian wine-route might be a little more difficult than usual!

    Some oenophiles vehemently speak out against the Vendange Tardive, a sweet white wine that is highly palatable. Some claim that it no longer tastes like a wine and despite the alcohol content should be classified as fruit juice. Ho ho! They are obviously exaggerating to make their point. Nonetheless, these exaggerations emphasize a desire to idealise an entrained palate. Sweet Alsacian wines like the Gewürztraminer and Vendange Tardive can be enjoyed by the least oenologically experienced, notably myself. However, to truly appreciate a riesling, a cremant or a Pinot Gris (an excellent wine to accompany the largest variety of meals in my opinion), requires a level of experience and knowledge that can only come through familiarity and experience. By layering their enjoyment with a sculpted use of the colourful termininology of tannins, tartaric acids and terroirs, the skilled oenologist hopes to demonstrate that they are indeed skilled. The rest of us will nod in agreement, unless we have developed a subtle ability to reveal our ignorance in a somewhat honourable and/or comical fashion. The jargon itself is tied to social identity, power relationships and self-image as well as a variety of other factors that have influenced us to start appreciating drinks which to children can be found to be quite disgusting (children do tend to be more honest, but they also have less developed olfaction and taste-buds if I’m not incorrect).

    I am quite partial to sweet wines, but indeed I have noticed the severe effect of context on my personal enjoyment of any fine glass of red or white. Given the right social environment and a nice plate of yummy nibblies, wine does seem to actually taste better! I rarely drink at home, but as soon as I’m back with my friends in France who take great care to match the dish with the wine, bottoms up!

  2. Paul Mason said

    Having said all that, I have to admit that the Belgium Brasseries and Alsatian Blonde Beers do have more of a drawing-card for me!

  3. Paul Mason said

    p.s. I meant to write “even at 44Euro a bottle”

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