Every once in a while, when I tell people what I do for a living, I get a sort of snickering question along the lines of “does it bother you that part of what you do is total bullsh*t?”
These folks are usually referring to the studies, quoted by lazy media outlets ad nauseum, that purportedly debunked wine tasting as bull honkey when “expert” wine folk were given white wines with red food coloring and tricked into thinking that they were tasting red wines.
But what those snickering folks fail to realize is that wine criticism and professional wine tasting are no different than every other form of experiential criticism – movie reviewing, restaurant critiquing, you name it – in that they are the attempts of fallible humans to garner expertise and disperse helpful opinions to the best of their abilities while trying to overcome the ingrained perception wiring that helped us evolutionarily, but hinder us when it comes to consistent, robot-like precision.
To wit: my friend Alder Yarrow recently blogged about a study featured in the New Yorker, in which participants were tricked into thinking that fake tongues were their own, taste perceptions and all. Yes, seriously. Read it, the results and implications are fascinating.
I doubt we’ll see much lazy media attention on this study, however, because it would logically require those same lazy media to start asking people like Alder and me what wines pair best with crow sandwich…
One of the conclusions to be entertained from the fake-tongue experiment is that tasting itself is total bullsh*t. Now, that doesn’t make much logical sense, and so most of us would agree that isn’t the case, that are personal preferences and perceptions in taste are real, and that they differ because, well, that’s just the way that we’re wired. Millions of years of evolution will create strange epistemological bedfellows in the relentless pursuit of molding us to our environs. The trouble is, evolution doesn’t easily forget, so what worked for us then can work against us in some ways now. Ok, so far so good, right?
Another logical step we can take from the experimental tongue results – and one that’s much more logical – is that as humans we are wired to be able to fool ourselves when it comes to perception. This is not new news, we have something like thirty years of data on this, from brain studies to testimonials from meditation experts, all of which shows that we do not actually perceive the world as it is, or as it is really happening. In fact, the data suggest that our brains default to a few milliseconds delay in perceiving any stimulus that requires brain computation to understand (we don’t normally notice this, since we’re all more or less on the same delay).
To me, all of this greatly underscores the point made by another friend of mine, Blake Gray, last year, when he waxed philosophic on the practice of wine tasting and criticism. Here’s the pertinent quote:
“If you want to say wine tasting is bullsh*t, it’s only true if all criticism is bullsh*t. Just because a movie critic or music critic likes something doesn’t mean you will. Movie critics hate plenty of popular films, just like restaurant critics won’t praise Big Macs and wine critics don’t drink Charles Shaw.”
Couple all of the above with this: we now have data that show that expert wine tasters, when tasting wines in a controlled environment monitored by research scientists, will cluster as a group and repeat their evaluations when re-tasting blind, both well within statistically significant margins.
What does the total story tell us?
It tells us that wine experts are not purveyors of B.S., but are simply no different from any other experts: we’re just trying to overcome our faulty, ingrained human perception wiring as best we can, and we probably do it better than those who haven’t devoted any real time to it. You can reject that conclusion, of course, but understand that in doing so you are also rejecting the fundamental tenets that support criticism of any experiential field, of just about any kind. Sorry, but if you’re looking for real B.S., you’ll need to head over to the finance industry…