Saturday, December 24, 2022

"Is Wine Fake?"

From Asterisk Magazine:

Wine commands wealth, prestige, and attention from aficionados. How much of what they admire is in their heads?

Your classiest friend invites you to dinner. They take out a bottle of Chardonnay that costs more than your last vacation and pour each of you a drink. They sip from their glass. “Ah,” they say. “1973. An excellent vintage. Notes of avocado, gingko and strontium.” You’re not sure what to do. You mumble something about how you can really taste the strontium. But internally, you wonder: Is wine fake?

A vocal group of skeptics thinks it might be. The most eloquent summary of their position is The Guardian’sWine-Tasting: It’s Junk Science,” which highlights several concerning experiments:

In 2001 Frédérick Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 54 wine experts to test two glasses of wine – one red, one white. Using the typical language of tasters, the panel described the red as “jammy" and commented on its crushed red fruit.

The critics failed to spot that both wines were from the same bottle. The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.


In 2011 Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist (and former professional magician) at Hertfordshire University invited 578 people to comment on a range of red and white wines, varying from £3.49 for a claret to £30 for champagne, and tasted blind. People could tell the difference between wines under £5 and those above £10 only 53% of the time for whites and only 47% of the time for reds. Overall they would have been just as successful flipping a coin to guess.

Wikipedia broadly agrees, saying:

Some blinded trials among wine consumers have indicated that people can find nothing in a wine’s aroma or taste to distinguish between ordinary and pricey brands. Academic research on blinded wine tastings have also cast doubt on the ability of professional tasters to judge wines consistently.

But I recently watched the documentary Somm, about expert wine-tasters trying to pass the Master Sommelier examination. As part of their test, they have to blind-taste six wines and, for each, identify the grape variety, the year it was produced, and tasting notes (e.g., “aged orange peel” or “hints of berry”). Then they need to identify where the wine was grown: certainly in broad categories like country or region, but ideally down to the particular vineyard. Most candidates — 92% — fail the examination. But some pass. And the criteria are so strict that random guessing alone can’t explain the few successes.

So what’s going on? How come some experts can’t distinguish red and white wines, and others can tell that it’s a 1951 Riesling from the Seine River Valley? If you can detect aged orange peel, why can’t you tell a $3 bottle from a $30 one?

In Vino Veritas
All of those things in Somm — grape varieties, country of origin and so on — probably aren’t fake.

The most convincing evidence for this is “Supertasters Among the Dreaming Spires,” from 1843 magazine (also summarized in The Economist). Here a journalist follows the Oxford and Cambridge competitive wine-tasting teams as they prepare for their annual competition. The Master Sommelier examination has never made its results public to journalists or scientists — but the Oxbridge contest did, confirming that some of these wine tasters are pretty good....


Although I disagree with the generalization that it is all in one's head we have posted some critical links over the years:

...We used the Alternative Investments With Liquidity headline in 2014 which I intro'd with the Dimson piece and:

When I was a young hotshot I decided I would sample every representative wine of one type or another.

I had decided on Bordeaux and told a very connected sommelier/procurer of my intent. He advised I definitely not go with Bordeaux as I "would have cirrhosis before I was a quarter of the way through" the 1500 wineries, each with multiple labels. Even if I limited the experiment to certain châteaux, the multitude of vintages would probably mean I'd end as just another poor alcoholic with an educated palate.
So we decided on the Champagne instead....
Somehow related:

"The 6 Most Statistically Full of Shit Professions"
#6. Stock Market Experts
#5. Wine Tasters
#4. Art Critics 
Hmmm....a disturbing trend appears to be emerging.
What a bunch of wine snob poseurs.
Merlot is just fine, especially if it's dolled up as Chateau Petrus.
Berry Bros. & Rudd is running a special case price, "Buy 6 and save £ 2667.37".
A Romanée Conti (pinot noir) will cost you double or triple. BB&R is price on request.
Either way, possibly more than the average baboon has in petty cash....
And quite a few more, use the 'search blog' box if interested.

By-the-bye I just checked a link to a 2005 Bordeaux page at Berry Bros. & Rudd I had bookmarked and this is their 404 message:
We're terribly sorry but you seem to have reached a dead end.
For a nudge in the right direction, please use the search box below, or continue to our home page. If you lose your way again please do let us know.

Finally, a wine joke:

The wine tasting was lovely until a self-professed oeniphile started droning on about the "oily richness" of some scamp of the vineyards, describing another as having "the faintest soupçon of asparagus and the tremulousness of a mimolette.” and extolling the merits of some Château de prétense no one had ever heard of.
Finally, pausing to take a breath he said "Je vais à Bordeaux" and one of his not-so-enthralled audience asked "What's that mean?" to which the oeni-weeny replied "I'm going to Bordeaux". 
His interlocutor then asked, "Who's Doe?" 
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
-from our 2013 post "Dimson et al: 'The impact of aging on wine prices and the performance of wine as a long-term investment'"