Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Fooled By A Blind Tasting?

"If you want to enjoy wine more, the trick is to learn more about wine."
--Paul Bloom

Does more knowledge about wine enhance the pleasure you derive from it? On the other hand, can you truly enjoy a wine you know almost nothing about?

The "pleasure theory" of Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, is based on a number of studies of which many of us may already be familiar. We have heard of how wine lovers have been fooled into raving about a $90 bottle of wine, which actually turns out to be a $10 bottle. The alleged price of the wine affected their perception of the wine. We have heard of blind taste test studies where people preferred much cheaper wines rather than far more expensive ones. Paul Bloom has gathered together many of these studies and assembled his theory of the essentialist, arguing that everyone is an essentialist at heart.

An essentialist cares about the history and origins of an item, and that plays a significant part in their pleasure of that item. It applies to many different items, as well as our relationships with other people. For example, it applies to wine, with people gaining much more pleasure from their knowledge of the origins of a wine. It is partially why people seem to enjoy a more expensive wine, or one from a celebrated producer or region. In some respects, people enjoy a wine more when it possesses a great story. Yet this is a double edged sword as well and we can be deceived.

Bloom has stated, "Like I said, part of your response to wine is based on its chemical properties But how you experience it will always be affected by your beliefs about what you are drinking. Now this opens you up to being fooled. Given that we’re creatures who respond to the history of things, we can be exploited. You could be lied to about the price of wine, you could be lied to about where your sweater came from, you could be lied to about whether your painting is an original or a forgery, and so on. This is the bad news."

Adam of Wine Zag decided to put Bloom's theory to the test with a blind tasting which would compare seven pairs of wine. He pitted seven wines from 90+ Cellars against seven others that he chose, trying to roughly match up the type and price of the wines. He was certainly not going for a scientific test, but more of a fun comparison which might provide some basic insight into Bloom's pleasure theory.

90+ Cellars purchases excess wine from wineries all over the world and rebottles it under their own label, selling it for less than its original purchase price. They do not reveal the true name of the producers, though they provide other information about the wine, including the wine region, grapes, vintage and a few other details. A consumer thus will find much information about the wine, though certain items will elude them. So you get part of a story but not the whole one.

The question becomes, does that lack of the identity of the producer detract from the pleasurable experience of the wine? Adam had never previously purchased any wines from 90+ Cellars because he didn't know the name of the producers. That information was very important to him. He wanted to see how the 90+ Cellar wines would stand up to a group of known wines in a blind tasting.

About twenty of us attended the tasting at the Boston Wine School, with eighteen people voting for their favorite wines in the pairings. According to Bloom's theory, if it were not a blind tasting, then the 90+ Cellars wines should have shown poorly against the wines from known producers. The added information about the producers should have enhanced our pleasure of those wines. In a blind tasting though, Bloom's theory should lead to a different result, where the 90+ Cellar wines would hold their own against all comers.

In the end, the results were very close between the 90+ Cellars and the known wines, and I think it is safe to say that the 90+ Cellar wines held their own. The known wines won in 4 of the 7 pairings, though the voting was generally close. Personally, I selected the 90+ Cellar wines in 4 of the 7 matches. The big surprise for all was that the top wine of the evening, voted by 15 of the 18 tasters (including myself), was from 90+ Cellars, the 2009 Rosso Maremma Toscana Lot 70 ($26). This was the only overwhelming vote of the evening so that is a wine you might want to seek out. The second place wine, with 3 votes, was the 2008 Sean Thackrey Andromeda Pinot Noir, another excellent wine.

Our blind tasting essentially met the expectations of Bloom's theory, that without the information about wine we normally seek out, 90+ Cellars showed well against the other wines. They are wines you may very well enjoy, if you give them a chance. Even after the results of this blind taste test though, I am not sure all of the attendees at the tasting would purchase a 90+ Cellars wine. It may be difficult for some to overcome their perception that knowing the producer provides additional pleasure from the wine even if in a blind taste test, they could not perceive a difference.

I don't have a problem purchasing 90+ Cellars wines, probably because I have tasted a fair amount of them and found that many are very good value wines. Though I enjoy wines with a good story, I don't like the 90+ Cellar wines any less because I don't know the true producer. Adam, who has never before purchased a 90+ Cellars wine, stated that he would definitely be purchasing the 2009 Rosso Maremma Toscana Lot 70. So this blind tasting changed his mind in some respect.

Though I may find some credence in Bloom's theory of the essentialist, I think that people are not essentialists in all their purchasing decisions. I think it might depend more on the specific items in question, and how much that person values those items. For example, at the wine store where I work, we get a diverse mix of customers. Many of them care very little about the origins and history of the wines they purchase. First and foremost for them is price, and then second it all has to do with taste. The 90+ Cellar wines sell very well at our store and I think primarily because they offer a good value, even if their story is not complete.

It might be more dedicated wine lovers who have more difficulty accepting 90+ Cellar wines because they lack the identity of the producer. It is they who are more likely to be more passionate about the story of a wine. It may be their perception that the more they know about a wine, the more likely they are to enjoy it. However, in a blind tasting, their preferences might be very different.

Bloom's theory has other applications to wine as well, such as in the arena of wine reviews. If a person reviews a wine, possessed of a certain amount of information about that wine, and someone else tastes that same wine, but lacks that same information, will they like the wine less? Would you rather trust a review where the reviewer knows all about the wine, or would you prefer the reviewer tasted blind? If you read a review, do you want to know the knowledge level of the reviewer to ascertain how that might have affected their review?

To sum it up, one could say: Pleasure Is In The Mind Of The Beholder.


Sandy said...

I went to my first blind wine tasting event last year and it was an incredibly eye-opening experience when I discovered which wines I really preferred. It certainly dispels any preconceived notions.

Anonymous said...

To me the trick is to drink more wine. Everything else will sort itself out

Jason Phelps said...

As I said in my comment on Adam's post I am glad to see the simplicity of which you visit the topic of bias. It exists and you can empirically test it. OK, what next? I have never thought that the way to setup for general life experiences is to eliminate bias, but more so recognize what biases you may introduce and how to manage any impact to situation. In clinical situations where bias could be disastrous then efforts to obscure pedigree and other bias-inducing variables must be taken. Pretty simple to me.

Because I am not generally interested in wine prices, I inconsistently share them in my own writing, I often don't connect that with wines until after I taste them. Value can be objectively assessed this way as well. Sometimes this works the other way, great wine, but price too steep! Price is just one bias though.

Well done sir!