Culture Fail: Pretentious Wine Tasting… Not a Hint of Awesome

Let me start by saying: I like wine. It definitely has a place on my dinner table. But you won’t hear me take a sip of my Pinot Noir and declare it fruity on the nose, with “notes of stewed rhubarb, fig, dried rose petals, and orange peel.” You will never hear me say that because an embarrassing amount of studies have shown that it is embarrassingly likely that I could try the same wine the next night, and suddenly find it rich with notes of “dried cherry, dried herbs and rose petals, sweet pipe tobacco and dried plum with an ethereal but still showy lightness to the palate” before I realize I just described the exact same wine from the night before. Embarrassing.

Ah yes, tissue paper, watermelon, Kool-Aid and just a hint of pear.
Ah yes, tissue paper, watermelon,
Kool-Aid and just a hint of pear.

Changing my opinions on the flavor profile of one wine would still be less embarrassing than swishing a nice red around for a minute before guessing Merlot, only to be informed by a manically cackling scientist that I just imbibed a white wine dyed red with food coloring (this happened in a real study, too). Many of these studies were helmed by a guy named Frederic Brochet at the University of Bordeaux back in 2001, who had access to unsuspecting oenology undergraduates. Other studies have shown ingrained preferences for wine in expensive bottles versus wine in cheap bottles, even when the wines were actually the same. Tricky scientists.  Tricky brains.

Obviously wines do have flavors and characters distinct to themselves; but, as countless studies seem to show, our surroundings, the wine label, cost, and even the provenance of the wine, can all influence expectations and even our taste buds. Unless you’re doing a blind tasting, bandying around descriptors like “charcoal,” “cigar box,” and “fleshy,” doesn’t make a lick of sense. And when it comes to buying a bottle of wine, it doesn’t matter if it costs $20 or $200. Most of the time, the experts can’t even tell the price difference.

So why not do something novel? Get together with a bunch of friends and some bottles of wine, spend a night doing blind taste tests, and discover your favorites that way. Personally, I think having people over for blind tastings and seeing how often we trick ourselves sounds like a good time. And while your new favorite wines may be “jammy,” or “structured,” or “toasty,” I bet not a one of them will have any notes of bull.

Oh, and in case you were wondering… all quoted wine descriptions are from real published articles.

By Mica Habarad

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2 thoughts on “Culture Fail: Pretentious Wine Tasting… Not a Hint of Awesome

  1. Every year for a friend’s birthday, we do a big blind wine tasting contest called “Test Your Tastebuds.” Everyone brings a bottle to submit. My friend’s wife, who is excluded from the contest, covers all of the bottles with cloth bags and adds a labeled tag (1, 2, 3…). She prints out lists (one for reds, one for whites) that have the varietals and a year and/or a region (if necessary to differentiate between duplicates). So, we all end up tasting a LOT of wine, and trying to do pointless things like tell the difference between Oregon and Washington Pinot Noir. There is always a winner (usually the birthday boy – he’s good), but there are no losers at this party. It’s always hilarious how much we all suck at differentiating between the wines, even if we bring a bottle that we drink all the time. We also vote on the best wine (red and white), and whoever brought the bottle wins a prize (wine, of course). I don’t think an expensive bottle has ever won, and one year we picked the Pinot that we had made the year before. I really can’t recommend this kind of party highly enough. Side note: we also did a “cheap beer” taste-off. It was disgusting and there were no winners.

    1. I do a very similar party annually – though I choose the wines, buying multiple bottles of only about 9 related varieties (last time I had only Cab, Shiraz, and Malbec, for example) and covering and numbering them myself, providing a score card with ideas from the Internet. Then I also make endless amounts of pizza dough and sauce, and guests only have to bring a topping or two, make their own, and we bake about 50 pizzas during the evening. Though we all rate the wines, the end result is only discovering which one goes best with pizza, and it’s never the most expensive wine (I stay under $10/bottle, though once I tried a $20 just to see). TJ’s two-buck chuck consistently rates low, however. One friend is very good at guessing the varietals, though most of us don’t even try.

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