Marthèlize Tredoux: Time to insist on the blindfold?

blindfoldedI suppose at least one part of being a wine writer is to pontificate about why wine is such a widely adored tipple and at the same time filled with hotly debated topics. Any industry around any product will have any number of contested issues, but they’re often obscure or technical (I’ve never been consumed by the burning questions around fat content in milk or avocado grading standards, for example) and hardly ever spill over to the average consumer.

One discussion that has always piqued my interest is the matter of perception. It’s widely accepted that tasting and opining about wine is very subjective. We may value the opinions of the critics if we consider their comments to come from a place of experience and knowledge. We usually value their opinions more when they align with our own. But their perceptions are just as subjective as ours, even if their use of descriptors are infinitely more verbose.

Perception is not limited to the wine alone – and here I mean the actual liquid itself. How we experience a wine extends to the bottle, name, price, label, the brand and the associations that all the above collectively conjure up in the perceiver.

This influence on perception was strikingly illustrated by a neuromarketing experiment (devised by Read Montague at Baylor College of Medicine) pitting Coke against Pepsi: in a blind taste-test, 67 subjects were given either Coke or Pepsi while undergoing an MRI scan. The preference was about 50/50 though Pepsi caused a much stronger response in the brain’s reward centers. The experiment was repeated but this time subjects were told they were drinking Coke. Suddenly 75% indicated a preference for Coke. The areas of the brain stimulated this time were those connected to higher thinking, suggesting that the perception and preference stemmed from ideas, memories and associations with the brand rather than the actual taste.

The same principles are at play when it comes to wine. Even the most critical of critics are susceptible to these perceptual prejudices. If you speak to enough “wine people” (makers, marketers, sellers and serious drinkers) you’ll be treated to a few stories of how they fooled a prominent wine critic or writer (always discreetly unnamed) by pouring some plonk into a bottle of something impressive and/or expensive and then watched said expert unknowingly praise the virtue of a humble Dry Red. (It occurs to me that you never hear the stories where the expert didn’t fall for the ruse, but I suppose that wouldn’t make as juicy a story.)

This may seem an unkind prank to play but I think it a necessary experiment, as long as it isn’t accompanied by too much Schadenfreude on the part of the prankster. One of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had as a wino was participating in a ‘black glass’ tasting: bottles were wrapped in newspaper – even the bottle shape was obscured to prevent clues to cultivar or style, glasses were black and lighting was dimmed. I could barely tell whether the wines were red or white. So much for my so-called expertise.

The question then is, is the industry blind to these perceptual prejudices? The fallibility of subjective perception and the irrefutable influence of association seem to advocate the virtue of blind over sighted tastings. Professional critics and reviewers may strive to be as objective as possible when scoring and rating, but they’re only human and their preferences and prejudices will ultimately play a role in the final outcome. And when their opinions are ones that may largely influence the purchases of average wine drinker – and therefore the market itself – should the leading lights rather consider a blindfold?

  • Marthèlize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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17 Comments

  1. JeremyMarch 15, 2015 at 9:26 amReply

    Is Tim James really as arrogant as he comes across? Not concerned what we mere mortals think him being the high priest of wine after all

  2. Dana BuysMarch 15, 2015 at 1:16 amReply

    Angela, my main concern with Platter was this: Competition results are very transient. If you get Silver or Gold use it. You dont put a sticker on a bottle ‘Failed to get a Medal’. One competition’s Gold is another’s dud. Using expert judges and blind tastings. Some wineries have huge competition budgets and enter a ton of wines into every competion, hoping to get lucky.
    Platter has a longer term impact, as some restaurants use it in wine lists and consumers and wine tourists used to travel with it.
    Per blog discussions below, perceptions have a major impact, so if a taster gave your wine 3 stars, that stuck. The consumer does not really understand that’s just one person’s rating; its a Platter rating.
    As the links below show, one expert’s 3 star another expert’s 5star. Just the luck of the draw re who you get.
    When investing in building a brand, I could not accept to be dependent on such luck of the draw. We opted out in 2011 and its been great for us.
    Visitors to our tasting room or at a wine show get to try any wine they want and decide for themselves if they like it or not. When they arrived with Platter, they only want to try someone else’s idea of 4 star or better wines. That robbed the consumer of making up their own minds. Sales growth have been great and we sell through all our vintages every year.

    • Marthelize TredouxMarch 16, 2015 at 10:08 amReply

      I think both Dana and Angela make valid points regarding Platter specifically here. Yes, it’s not a competition and it is supposed to be just a guide (many people – myself included – use it as such). But the dead-average consumer type who is impressed by gleaming stickers on bottles probably DO see the 4* and 5* Platter wines likened to some sort of trophy winners.

      Maybe we should be asking what we as people working in various parts of industry want or expect from consumers? There will always be those dazzled by bottles covered in stickers and who will buy their “favourite” wines accordingly. At least a few of those will taste some of these highly rated wines and think they’re crap. Others will find true love. And there will always be those who shun wine competition results completely. They will find their solace elsewhere and be just as happy. And then there is the myriad of consumers inbetween. The ones who buy a wine, drink a wine and hardly notice any stickers. Are any of them doing it wrong?

      Perhaps in our zeal to want South Africans to drink better wine, we cross the line from educating to judgment. Or perhaps I’m rambling and I really just need more coffee.

  3. MiguelMarch 13, 2015 at 8:02 pmReply

    Why are so many people are afraid of blind tasting?

  4. Bryan HadfieldMarch 13, 2015 at 5:55 pmReply

    Thank you for very interesting and thought provoking article, Marthèlize. I wonder if we don’t underestimate the impact of supposedly irrelevant, or at least external, factors on the enjoyment of a particular wine. So often, after spending a delightful day in the Winelands, tasting and selecting wines to replenish the home “cellar” I later find that a wine that so captivated me at the time of purchase disappoints a little when tasted at home in different circumstances. I think of this as the feedback loop between mood, ambience, occasion, memory or past experience, and taste. Change any one of those elements and it impacts on the others. So, yes, foreknowledge of the origin, price, the occasion, the venue and the company will all influence the impression a wine makes and even very experienced experts are human.

    • Marthelize TredouxMarch 13, 2015 at 7:59 pmReply

      Hi Bryan,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you make a fantastic point there, about the influencing factors on enjoyment. Taking it away from tasting for evaluation/review (where there is or should arguably be enforced objectivity) and bringing it around to tasting and drinking purely for enjoyment, I think these perceptions and influences are even stronger. I’ve often had that exact scenario you describe of a wine (same vintage etc.) just not living up to the initial experience. It even happens with wines I adore and clearly have a strong emotional attachment or ‘brand loyalty’ to.

      • Angela lloydMarch 16, 2015 at 4:16 pm

        The old saying, ‘there are no great wines, only great bottles’, sums up this scenario.

  5. Angela lloydMarch 13, 2015 at 5:43 pmReply

    As someone who’s been tasting wines, both local and international, for quite a few years, I fully admit I have preferences and prejudices, but these are formed only after I’ve tasted a wine for the first time. Over the years I’ve formed a stylistic preference but even if I hold a prejudice against others, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to judge those strictly on quality,(putting aside my stylistic prejudice). We’re talking sighted here.
    With regard to Dana’s comments, it seems he still views Platter as a competition; it’s a guide. He doesn’t give specifics as to why he withdrew from submitting Vrede en Lust’s wines to the guide – maybe his own perception and prejudice against the person who tasted the wines? These things work both ways. Producers are quite free, with sound reasons, to say they don’t want a particular taster to review their wines for Platter. The same applies to tasters. So, Dana, I think your contention that sighted tastings, at least in the case of Platter, are more of a gamble than blind ones is ill-founded,
    But, as Tim says, there’s no ideal way of tasting; methods and situations dictate signted or blind, and this argument will go on ad infinitum.
    In the meantime, it’s Friday evening and I badly need a glass of wine, which I’ll drink with great enjoyment – after all which wine’s there for.

  6. Dana BuysMarch 13, 2015 at 1:58 pmReply

    Thx for your reply Marthèlize. I looked into this issue in depth before taking the decision to withdraw from Platter ratings.
    I attach some studies into the consistency of the so-called professional wine judges.
    The first looks into how the same wines were rated at different competitions. Pretty much no consistency!
    http://www.letastevin.org/Hodgson%202009%20Analysis%20of%20concordance%20among%2013%20us%20wine%20competitions.pdf
    The second looks at the consistency of wine competition judges to rate the same wines over a range of competitions. It showed that the only consistency was in the wines they rejected. Ie they were skilled enough to detect faults or had very specific preferences.
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.393.1195&rep=rep1&type=pdf
    The final nail in the local judging coffin was the results of the Chenin Top 10 competition that year, where the scores were made public and showed how leading local ‘experts’ had completely opposing views re quality.
    https://www.vnl.co.za/2011/08/16/we-opt-out-of-platter-sighted-reviews/
    So with blind tastings as difficult and inconsistent as the studies show, why gamble on sighted tastings??

    • Christian EedesMarch 13, 2015 at 4:43 pmReply

      Hi Dana, To my mind, demanding consistency above all else when it comes to wine assessment is to lose a lot of its mystique. It’s a category mistake – scientific measures for something that is in large part a philosophical endeavour. Just as important as consistency is validity in the sense of a tasting coming up with a plausible outcome – it’s possible to prefer different wines on different days presuming they all possess a basic minimum of quality. Many dismiss wine competitions as “beauty shows” but to me that’s precisely what they are: Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren are both beautiful and either could have won the pageant on the day.

  7. Dana BuysMarch 13, 2015 at 2:28 amReply

    Marthèlize, a very useful study done by a group at Stanford Univeristy really supports your position well. It looks at how people react to wines with price as only information. They basically gave them the same aet of wines but varied the prices conveyed to the subjects. It also used MRI scans to examine brain reaction vs depend on verbal feedback.
    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/january16/wine-011608.html
    I personally suspect a number of supposed ‘blind tastings’ for some prominent international wine magazines start with “now we will blind taste a set of the First Growths…” or “we will now taste some lesser known South African wines from volume producers” etc. The scores are always way too closely aligned to repuation and price.
    We should be encouraging the consumers to trust their own palates and perceptions above all. They are after all the ones paying for the wines they consume.

    • Marthelize TredouxMarch 13, 2015 at 8:32 amReply

      Hi Dana, thanks for the link to the study. It makes really interesting points.
      I don’t think there’s an “answer” to the question I posed (it really was more a hypothetical) but I think we can make reasonable conclusions about the general state of things. It also depends on the type of taster: I wouldn’t paint people who do this for a living (experienced critics, sommeliers etc.) with the same brush as ones who do this as a hobby (like myself), even if the latter has a considerable knowledge of wine and tasting. But we are all human and susceptible to the same influence of perception. I suspect the professionals are perhaps more adept at resisting these influences in order to be objective than less experienced tasters.
      I was at the Winestyle Consumer Wine Awards tasting (“consumer” being the key word there – many people with varying degrees of wine experience so NOT comparing it to more formal tastings eg. Platter scorings etc.). The wines were divided into flights by cultivar and tasted blind BUT the flights were also split into price ranges. I thought that was interesting, it was supposed to be a reflection of value but in light of the article, I can’t help but wonder how some may have been influenced by the price brackets.

  8. Tim JamesMarch 12, 2015 at 9:37 pmReply

    Yes Marthèlize, I do realise that these topics have to be raised again and again (that’s why I responded). It’s important that they are, and I should have been less grumpy. It’s a problem, though, that sighted tasting is too often dismissed without much evidence of thought and without careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of different methods. A careful, thoughtful tasting of a wine by someone who’s cared about the stuff for a lifetime is, quite simply, not the same as a laboratory tasting of Coke and Pepsi, and I hope that in 30 years you will agree and will perhaps remember this tussle with a dead and forgotten wine critic and raise a glass to him!

    • Marthelize TredouxMarch 12, 2015 at 9:54 pmReply

      Thanks Tim. It wasn’t my intention to dismiss anything at all. And of course Coke/Pepsi isn’t nearly the same as our mutually adored wine. But when you only have about 600 words to raise a topic and take a stab at making a point, you have to gloss over a few things – hopefully without leaving out the important bits!
      My point really was more about perception in general, but with reference to wine the blind vs sighted tasting is probably the most obvious and (as I mentioned) discussed example.
      And I won’t wait 30 years to raise that glass either. Cheers :)

  9. Marthelize TredouxMarch 12, 2015 at 6:57 pmReply

    Hi Tim.
    Thank you for your input, I appreciate the comments. I’m sure I have growing up to do but for myself and my numerous wine-drinking peers (Millennials, we’re referred to), this is a topic we frequently discuss and experiment with. We may not have 30 years of wine-tasting experience but that’s because we’ve only just been around for that long.

    I recognise that the discussion is a bit of old hat for you, but lots of people are still interested in learning about how these things work – me included. You’re entirely correct: there is stuff to learn about wine and it is significant. Believe me, I am ALL about the learning. I took my cues from Jamie Goode on this, perhaps I like his takes on things because he also has a scientific background, as I do. (For reference, my expertise is M.Sc Wine Biotechnology, a smattering of sensory training courses on wine, one Cape Wine Academy course – the most basic one – and 12 years of loving wine as a hobby. Hardly a Master Sommelier, but then again who is?)

    I never intimated that my take on it to be a final word on anything, but I’d like to think neither is yours or anyone else’s – for opinion rarely transcends into cold hard fact. I certainly didn’t suggest that any review or result was to be *invalidated* by preference. I merely posed the question, a smidgen of science mixed in, because I found it an interesting take on perception (such a key component of the whole wine experience) and I thought others might too. And if the title seems a bit too decisive for my intended rapport, I blame Christian, as he added it :)

    • Christian EedesMarch 12, 2015 at 7:25 pmReply

      Guilty as charged when it comes to the title. Marthelize submitted “Are we blind to perceptual prejudice?” which might have been more apt but didn’t seem that compelling. I initially went with “Perceptual prejudice and the supremacy of blind over sighted tasting” which took me about five minutes to bomb after it went live and now we’re stuck with “Time to insist on the blindfold?” which is meant to tie in with the whole “50 Shades of Grey” zeitgeist. Forgive me…

  10. Tim JamesMarch 12, 2015 at 4:36 pmReply

    Oh dear. I always try and fail to resist these weary old semi-arguments offered as though they’re new – and triumphant. I really thought we’d all grown up now and realised that there is no ideal way of judging wine; all methods have advantages and drawbacks in different situations. The best tools are experience, concentration and honesty, I think.

    I don’t know what Marthèlize’s “so-called expertise” (her phrase) consists in, but I hope that it includes a great deal of experience and learning, tasting widely and internationally with even more experienced people, passing (blind-tasting) exams, etc. If so, then her sighted judgements shouldn’t be as limited by subjectivity as is the case for the inexperienced. There is stuff to learn about wine, and it is significant.

    I wonder if she thinks that all film and restaurant and book reviews are invalidated by personal preference too? In fact, I’d say that many (not all) blind wine-tasting experiences are akin to making a judgement on a film on the basis of a five minute clip out of it, with no knowledge of its origin, aims, etc.

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