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The Act of Description


Rebel Rose
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I’m reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point . . . in the middle of the book he spends a few chapters on food tasting and market research. The results are very interesting. In tests of 44 jams, researchers asked tasting experts to rank the jams. Then they asked a group of college students to rank 5 jams chosen from the list. The students’ rankings were very close to that of the experts, until . . . they were asked to enumerate their reasons. The results? “Disaster.” According to the researchers, students then put the top ranked jam, Knott’s Berry Farm, second to last, and Sorrell Ridge, ranked last by experts, in third place.

Gladwell goes on to say . . .

Now I’m talking about the loss of a much more fundamental ability, namely the ability to know our own mind.  Furthermore, in this case we have a much more specific explanation why introspections mess up our reactions . . . what happens is that we come up with a plausible-sounding reason for why we might like or dislike something, and then we adjust our true preference to be in line with that plausible-sounding reason.

And that got me thinking about some of the wine reviews I read on the internet, where the poster will say something like, “This wine has raisiny, pruney, overripe flavors and 16.5% alcohol, with aromas of cola and chocolate. More like a Port than a dinner wine. 82+4+3+5=94 An excellent wine! Will buy more.”

Sometimes the wine jargon we have learned does not address hard-to-define but nevertheless sensory components that we register and process when we taste wine. In the case above, I suspect the poster would have mentally ranked this wine a lot lower in his personal preferences if he hadn’t subjected it to his ranking “formula.” So if a poster is using a limited, numerical scale that assigns points for color, aroma, flavor, secondaries, and finish, that poster’s opinion of a wine may change because now he has convinced himself that it is, indeed, an excellent wine.

Is it possible that in the act of “evaluating” wine we sometimes lose track of our initial, real, impressions and become mired in justifications?

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Mary Baker

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This is why it's often best to taste a wine blind--know what it is (and what you 'should' expect) can result in conformity.

Assigning ratings to wines (in a tasting group situation) has always seemed to be to be somewhat of a folly. IF you can taste thousands of wines a year MAYBE you can come up with a scale. For most people I think it's way more important to develop a sense of preference (just like with food), the ability to say 'I don't like this' without being intimidated, and the freedom to explore.

As you learn about grapes and regional style, then it's interesting (for some) to 'test' that knowlege by trying to discern (from what you know) the basic framework for a wine you've never tried before.

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I have said this before and I'll.....

Tasting wine and evaluating it is a science and an art. Unfortunately, too many people play up the art part and ignore the science. That is, it is far easier to take a purely subjective approach.

The problem is compounded when the taster operating on a purely subjective level then attempts to apply a score to the wine. In the end, none of it (the note or the score) makes any sense.

Any worthwhile scoring system is a system, it demands a level of objective observation to have any value as a communicative tool and most importantly, scores are a summation reflecting the observations and impressions of the taster.

If this were not true, then technically correct wines would always have higher scores--they in fact, do not.

The analogy to jam tasting doesn't work for me. I have no idea what professional tasters are or do regarding jelly. I do know that wines need to be tasted and evaluated blind thus removing the impact/influence a label or knowledge of a wine's provenance may have on the taster.

Anyone who knows what they are doing while tasting wine for the purpose of evaluating it and communicating that evaluation to others will not "lose track of their initial impressions and become mired in justifications." Their notes and their scores (if any) will reflect this.

I will say that, as Mary notes, these awful notes (and scores) are rife on the internet.

Lord knows, there are plenty of places where professional tasters evaluate wine from the critics, Parker, Robinson, Burghound et al to the magazines, Wine Spectator, Decanter etc etc etc why anyone would need additional input from often vague sources who offer what are clearly poorly written notes and confusing scores is beyond me.

Before writing their own notes and scoring wines let alone criticize professionals. People should learn what tasting and evaluating wine is all about and how scoring systems should work. Ya'd think?!!

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True, to an extent, but I would rather the conversation not devolve into a criticism of what people should or should not do, as I don't want to discourage anyone from learning to taste and evaluate wine. . .

Personally, I'm more interested in the phenomenon where tasters immediately and subjectively decide they "like" or "don't like" a wine, but then revise their opinion when asked to elucidate their reasons.

I think, as in the jam experiment, when people find themselves confronted with a lack of terminology, then they may think, "Well, I can't explain why I didn't it like it, so I guess . . . I do like it?"

This is what the researchers (who were market psychologists, not brand research) discovered. Food tasting pros have something like eight categories and 55 specific taste tests for jam, everything from texture, appearance, viscosity to specific types of flavor, and finish. They have well-defined reasons for their rankings. And college students, asked to simply taste and rank, matched the experts' choices closely. But when asked to explain their choices . . . these non-professionals could not elucidate their reasons, and in an effort to score and review the jams, their rankings were all over the map. Totally wonky.

Of course, this comes back to what you were saying about non-professional reviews. I don't think people should not share tasting notes. But it would be wise, I think, to keep this phenomenon in mind. :wink:

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Mary Baker

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I have no problem with someone saying they like or dislike a wine and describing what they taste in support. We do it all the time. However, adding some sort of score to this is just awful. You make this point well in the analogy with students lacking the discipline and knowledge attempt to go beyond "I like" or "I don't like" and quantifying their observations about jams and jellies.

The sample wine note you use is a good example of a note that makes no sense. For eg there is little support for the conclusion that the wine is question is more like a port. "Raisin prune and over ripe are not flavors/notes one finds in "Port." Noting the alcohol level is confusing as I don't know whether or not the taster actually sensed the higher alcohol level or read it on the label. (obviously he/she read it on the label as no one can determine via blind tasting the actual amount of alcohol in degrees or per cent in a wine). To this confusion, adding a score derived by some unknown (to the reader at least) is ludicrous.

Your point about initial impressions is interesting to consider. Most people rely on their initial impressions and do not think much about these impressions. I have found that when people do not like a wine they will not change their mind under any circumstances. There seems to be a piece of conventional wisdom that the opposite is true.

I must say, I do not get Gladwell's point with the jam test other than it seems to indicate amateurs often struggle with reconciling the subjective preference and more objective evaluative processes as well as being able to support/defend their impressions. This brings me back to my point about wine tasting notes and evaluation and scores.

I don't know anyone who has an initial impression of a wine then attempts to support those impressions and revises his or her final evaluation out of frustration.

The sample note you provide doesn't support this because it is so poorly written that it makes no sense.

The truth is, when most people taste wine they have an initial impression and that's what they go with--some people are a bit more contemplative and form their impression more slowly. They are rarely challenged to support their impression.

Beyond good-- better-- best, most people don't attempt to apply a score to a wine.

Gladwell's experiment is, to me, not indicative of how people in real life situations act. Unless I am missing something (wouldn't be the first time).

Your analogy to tasting notes and scores also doesn't seem to work for me because the person who posted the note was clearly intent on what he or she was doing, the jelly taster students were clearly not possessing of any intent that they were evaluating jelly in the role of professional taster.

All I am saying is that people should not attempt to evaluate wines and certainly score them in a professional manner or even argue with professional notes or scoring systems until they at least have a rudimentary knowledge of what's involved.

And again, I have no problem with anyone saying they like or dislike a wine (or anything) and supporting it with their impressions. In the context of general discussion this is more than fine. In the context of trying to convince me that the wine in question should be tasted by me (or others) and worse--purchased, acting as an arbitor of taste putting themselves on the same level or in the same arena as professional tasters, then I have to challenge them.(I usually ignore them).

Believe me, I have plenty of complaints about the professionals but adding these amateurs into the mix is just too much!!

Finally, if your point is that people can fool themselves or be fooled by scoring/scores, I disagree here as well. There are a few exceptions, but people will simply not drink wine they do not personally like regardless of any outside influence. There is a difference between trying wines to find something one likes and attempting to evaluate a wine and covey one's impressions to others.

In the note you provide the taster likes the wine and says so. They obviously do not have the skills or vocabulary to support that impression and trying to score the wine adds to the confusion.

In short--they are not confused--it is all the rest of us reading the note. :wink:

Edited by JohnL (log)
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...Food tasting pros have something like eight categories and 55 specific taste tests for jam, everything from texture, appearance, viscosity to specific types of flavor, and finish.  They have well-defined reasons for their rankings.  And college students, asked to simply taste and rank, matched the experts' choices closely.  But when asked to explain their choices . . .  these non-professionals could not elucidate their reasons, and in an effort to score and review the jams, their rankings were all over the map.  Totally wonky.

This is very interesting and provocative information, Mary. (I gather these were blind tastings, so it wasn't an issue of any preconception.)

I take part in, and organize, comparative blind wine tastings (around one a week, often looking for fine distinctions among related wines). In these tastings the point is to extract impressions. Then (as an afterthought, almost) we rank wines by our nominal preferences. That lends structure to the resulting discussion, which is the main point of the "ranking." (People's deeper conclusions about the wines often are more practical: like it a lot, like it at the price, not my style, etc.) But the "rankings" flow from the impressions, as almost a separate step.

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Max

Very good (and interesting) point. Most people have their own personal "systems" for use in determining what they like and dislike.

Since these systems are personal, most folks are somewhat awkward in explaining the results to others or defending their choices.

My point was, most professional tasters (of jams, teas, coffee, wine, anything really) are trained to systematically evaluate these items and to be able to explain and defend their conclusions. Scores are summations of the evaluation system that are not reached arbitrarily via some intuitive impression.

I once many years ago, tasted a white wine and remarked what an interesting and beguiling nose it had. The elderly gentleman seated next to me tasting the same wine slightly lifted his nose from the glass and remarked:"that's sulfur, it will blow off."

It was and it did! in fact the nose was not particularly fine.

It is a good thing that I did not run home and post a note on line about what a "lovely" nose the wine had.

Many of these on line notes are the equivalent of the five blind men each describing the elephant!

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