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.