Your Memory Sucks Donkey Bong (Or, “On The Importance Of Tasting Notes”)

Vinted on September 8, 2015 binned in commentary, wine appreciation

Because I am divorcing someone at fault, I have been on the receiving end of revisionist history, even when it seeks to conform to a false, self-serving narrative of cognitive dissonance.

It turns out, however, that revisionism towards an agenda of mollifying cognitive dissonance (“yeah, I did that nasty sh*t, but I am different and it’s ok because…”) is actually one of the core elements of a properly functioning human memory.

As strange as this may sound initially, revisionist memory is the reason why I am always carrying around pen and notebook when tasting wine, my friends, and why I think that any budding wine nerd needs to do the same (or an equivalent) when they are getting serious about appreciating wine (let alone criticizing it). Because if you’re anything like the majority of the human population (and, trust me, you are), then your memory is… well… crap.

Not only is your memory poor at capturing actual details as they happened (this includes about wine), it is an ever-changing, malleable storytelling machine, constantly revising and rewriting history, filling in the blanks between factual details in order to preserve whatever narrative best reduces any dissonance between what actually went down, and your (most likely overly-inflated) internal view of your self…

What this means is that your memory of tasting a wine will, eventually, almost certainly conform to whatever scenario best suits your personal view of the situation in which you tasted it, and your subjective view of yourself in that situation.

If your aim is to objectively evaluate wine, or (more importantly) to accurately discern why you like/dislike the wines that you do, and the above doesn’t worry you a bit, then you are not paying enough attention.

If you think that everyone else is like that, but not you (admittedly, my initial reaction, too), then I think an example from Carol Tavris’s and Elliot Aronson’s excellent “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” is worth considering, in the hopes that it will give you a 2×4-to-the-face-style wake-up call (and have you reaching for a notebook and pen the next time that you taste some vino).

In that book, the authors recount a story from cognitive psychologist Ralph Haber. Haber recalls from memory that, years ago, he had to argue with his mother about attending graduate school at Stanford (where he recalls desperately wanting to go, as a mark of both academic excellence and as an opportunity to move away from home and become independent). In Haber’s recollection, his mother wanted him instead to attend nearby University of Michigan.

Fast forward about twenty-five years, when Haber was visiting his mother in Michigan for her then eightieth birthday. She gave him a box of letters that they had written between them over the previous years, and it was very clear from those written accounts that it was Haber who had wanted to stay in Michigan, and his mother who had passionately attempted to get him to change his mind. After rereading the letters (and bear in mind, he had himself written half of them), Haber admitted that he had unknowingly “rewritten the entire history of this conflicted choice so my memory came out consistent… with how I wanted to see myself – being able to leave home.”

Haber’s specialty in the field of cognitive psychology? Autobiographical memory. The one guy who should have known that he was susceptible to memory rewriting history? Yep, he let it happen anyway.

So will you.

When the shit hits the fan (and it will) and life gets tough (and it will), your mind will mess with your memory to suit whatever needs it has over time (yes, even yours).

The moral here is that even if your wine memory is amazing, you still need a backup, because that brainiac internal hard-drive of yours is going to get fragmented, and will fail, and it will do so in the very ways in which it is personally most difficult for you to realize that it is happening.

Take tasting notes, people, and save them. Then, prepare for the humbling experience of revisiting them, and truly knowing yourself.






  • Douglas Trapasso

    Have to wonder if what you’re describing is what happened to Brian Williams. On a side note, I am sorry about your split. Hoping you can make a positive fresh start.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Douglas. Maybe, but I suspect that Douglas suffered from something else (narcissism, maybe) that made his choices seem “ok” to him at the time (entitlement).

      Regarding the split, thanks for the support. Honestly, this divorce cannot come soon enough for me!

  • MyrddinGwin

    I often like to joke that I have a photographic memory, without film, and the lens cap is still on. Also, while I’m at it, there’s no flash, and the camera’s on fire.

    • 1WineDude

      MG – you and I have similar memories!

      Wait… who are you again?

  • DrinkWhatYouLike

    Yes, yes, yes! “When the shit hits the fan (and it will) and life gets tough (and it will), your mind will mess with your memory to suit whatever needs it has over time (yes, even yours)”

    In the context of wine, I am always (surprised) amazed by wine folk that attend tastings/dinners/trips without a notebook, relying on their ‘memory’ to accurately recount their experiences. And, I’m even more surprised by the elaborate tasting notes and recaps they write and post following these events.

    I was going to make a more profound comment here but… alas, I’ve forgotten what it was…

    • 1WineDude

      DWYL – Ha! Thus begins the deluge of memory-related jokes…

  • SAHMmelier

    I love this post. I’m sorry you’re going through this but at least you’re maintaining your sense of humor. What else can you do?
    I find event where one is walking around tasting multiple wines the hardest. Any tips for note taking in those situations? I feel like I need a clip board and one of those pens our teachers wore around their necks. But those aren’t high on my list of accessories.

  • 1winedude

    Thanks, sahm! Gotta admit, I’ve never fully cracked that code at walk around tastings, which is partly why I don’t like them much.

  • Bob Henry

    “Great minds think alike,” as they say.

    Proffered from my hoary archive of newsclippings.

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (May 10, 2007, Page D7):

    “The Blame Game Revisited”


    Book review by Andrew Stark
    [Mr. Stark’s recent book is “The Limits of Medicine” (Cambridge University Press)]

    “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me):
    Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts”
    By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
    (Harcourt, 292 pages, $25)

    — AND SEE —

    From The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (June 17, 2014, Page A11):

    “I’m Sorry You Were Offended”


    Book review by Barton Swaim
    [who is writing a book on political language and public life.]

    “Sorry About That:
    The Language of Public Apology”
    By Edwin Battistella
    (Oxford, 217 pages, $24.95)

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks for those article links, Bob, I’ll check them out.

  • Bob Henry

    While a business school student in Silicon Valley (no, not at Stanford), I studied the “father” of cognitive dissonance as an aid in understanding consumer psychology.

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