You can’t judge a wine by its price

In 2001, Frédéric Brochet, a professor at the University of Bordeaux, conducted a simple experiment using his students. He presented them with two glasses of wine, one white, one red, and asked them to describe both. What the students didn’t know was that they were tasting the same white wine in both glasses, one of which Brochet had tinted with red food coloring. 

The students described the seemingly red wine with language commonly ascribed to reds, including “crushed red fruit” and “jammy.” None of them recognized any inconsistencies enough to question the disparity between what they were seeing and tasting. Word of the results quickly spread, and skeptics of wine experts used the experiment to discredit wine tasting as an objective endeavor. 

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Brochet concluded, “Tasting is [a form of] representation. Indeed, when our brain performs the task of ‘recognizing’ or ‘comprehending,’ it is manipulating representations. In reality, the taste of wine is a perceptual representation, because it manifests an interaction between consciousness and reality.”

That sounds compelling, but does it suggest it is impossible to objectively evaluate wine?

David McRaney, author of You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself, isn’t so sure. According to McRaney, “The wine tasters [in Brochet’s experiment] were being influenced by the nasty beast of expectation. A wine expert’s objectivity and powers of taste under normal circumstance might be amazing, but Brochet’s manipulations of the environment misled his subjects enough to dampen their acumen. An expert’s own expectation can act like Kryptonite on their superpowers. Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The build up to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses.”

OK, so there may be no way to make a purely sensory experience anything other than that. Still, wines are qualitatively different from one another, and those differences can and should be evaluated by objective standards. The same is true in art, dance, music, film and food. 

Judging quality doesn’t mean value and price are always necessarily proportional, but they are often related. A hot dog at a ballpark can be as transcending a gastronomic experience as an evening at California’s The French Laundry, but I don’t know anyone who would pay the same for both.

In my experience, the subjectivity of wine tasting is inversely proportional to the amount of wine knowledge possessed by the taster. Of course, there are exceptions. I have been in blind tastings where self-proclaimed experts have been duped. I have also been at a dinner where a chain-smoking cooper from France blindly identified the grape, provenance and vintage of nearly a dozen wines.

One recently released wine from Spain has experts and amateurs alike in gushing admiration, Borsao Garnacha 2011 ($8). Historically, Garnacha, also commonly known as Grenache, is most often blended with other grapes to form some of the best blends from Spain, France’s Rhône region and Australia. This bottle is a blend of 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah and 10 percent Tempranillo. It has expressive aromas of ripe cherries, blackberry and loam, and blackberries and baking spices on a perfectly balanced, complex, long-lasting finish.

The world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker Jr., proclaimed it “possibly the single greatest dry red wine value in the world.” At the risk of sounding like a subjectivist, I am not comfortable going as far as Robert. But this is a rare and special wine, so do go out and buy a case if you can still find one. 

LaVallee, partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com

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