The Psychology of Wine Tasting

At their annual conference in Princeton, New Jersey, the American Association of Wine Economists, reenacted a famous wine tasting from 1976. The study was comprised of a blind tasting of the best wines from France versus the relatively unknown but burgeoning wines from Napa Valley. The results back in ‘76, showed the Napa wines famously standing toe to toe with the very best wines from France and in many cases even beating them. This result catapulted Napa onto the oenophiles map as a preeminent region for wines.

Well, at their recent conference they decided to reenact that now famous (at least for Wine Economists) event, however, this time with a twist. This time the wine tasting panel tested the best wines from France versus America’s finest wines from the great vineyards of …New Jersey. On hand were some of the best wine judges from France, Belgium and the US to help with this unexpected tasting. Lo and behold, some of the New Jersey wines ranked second, third and fourth in the whites and third and fifth in the reds…all the while coming in at 5% the cost of their French counterparts (that would be 5% the cost, as in 1/20 the price of French wines)

So why do French wines cost 20 times what their comparable New Jersey counterparts do? Because they’re French, and general society says that French wine is the best. This is our tendency to superimpose our narrative story of the world into our sensory perception. And in honor of this quirk of our mental circuitry and in the spirit of this great research project, SGA annually conducts its own blind wine tasting.
Well, this past tasting actually had a surprise, for the first time in four years the great oenophiles of SGA did not pick the cheapest wine as our favorite, but instead picked a $50 Cabernet (Stag’s Leap). This wine beat out both $100 Napa Cab (the number two selection – Caymus) and the $10 Chilean Cab.
So is a blind wine tasting more scientific and a better representation of which wines are best?  As someone who is not into wines or has much of a discerning palate, I think it actually misses the point of enjoying a fine wine or for that matter fine food: Much of the enjoyment of the wine or other products is through our all of our sensory perceptions which includes the ambiance, the presentation, and also, the emotional connection with the story behind the item; in essence the feeling we get, whether real or perceived. Our minds understand the world through stories and having a blind taste test blocks out that story which is a very real part of our experience and enjoyment.

So while we will continue our very serious “scientific” research into which are the best wines of the world and fill the social media airways with our findings; don’t pay too much heed to either the naysayers or the wine aristocrats. But just enjoy the wines, their stories and probably most importantly people with whom you are sharing the wine. Life is about the experience, l’chaim.

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