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Believe it or not!

If enough people tell us that the food or wine we’re enjoying is very good, all too often we will fall for that line – even when it’s not good at all. Vir Sanghvi finds out why.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2010 18:16 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

WineEven chefs will concede that it is difficult to be entirely objective about food. Try and remember the best meals you’ve had. The chances are that these meals will have been consumed in happy circumstances: when you were having a good time, when you were with friends, when you had drunk a fair bit before etc.

Theoretically, it should be possible to have good meals even when the restaurant has crap service, when you are fighting with your wife, when the air-conditioning has broken down or when you are stuck with the world’s most boring people. But in reality, it rarely works that way. The way we respond to food is at least partly connected to the environment in which the food is consumed. Can we take this further? Is food subject to the power of suggestion?

Suppose you go to some incredibly famous biryani place. Will you be more predisposed to like the food? Would you like the biryani less if it had been delivered home by your local biryani joint? The jury is still out on that one. But most restaurateurs believe that hype plays a large part in the enjoyment of food. If enough people tell us that something is good, then we are predisposed to like it.

Nowhere is this truer than in the field of wine. Because the vast majority of us can probably do no more than tell a good wine from a bad one, we are constantly looking for guidance. In the US, Robert Parker has made his reputation by marking wines out of 100. The Wine Spectator, a leading wine publication, follows a similar marking scale.

When you buy a wine at many shops in the States – and increasingly, in the Far East – you will be told how many marks it has been given by Parker or The Wine Spectator. If, after that, you do not like a wine that gets 95 points from Parker, the implication is not that the wine is over-rated but that you’re a fool for not being able to tell how good it is.

Consequently, the whole business of rating wine remains in the hands of a few experts. They make their judgments and the rest of us try and train our palates so that we respond to wines in exactly the same way as the experts. Why are we so willing to be led when it comes to wine?

The short answer is that while we do not accept that our palates are necessarily inferior to those of food critics, we are more prepared to concede that wine experts can judge good wine better than the average person.

There is a famous experiment in which subjects were served wine in darkened glasses so that they could not see what they were drinking. Most could not tell the difference between red wine and white wine in those conditions. When our tastebuds are that dependent on other stimuli (sight in this case), it seems reasonable to conclude that we need help.

On the other hand, there are some people whose palates are so well developed that they can taste wine better than the rest of us. A Yale University researcher concluded that there was a tiny percentage of the population with this ability and called such people ‘super tasters.’

The problem with this distinction is that the super tasters are not really all that they are cracked out to be. Most of them avoid blind tastings because they can be embarrassing. Give a super taster a glass of wine without telling him what it is and the results can sometimes be awkward. The most famous example is the notorious Paris tasting where French experts were served Californian wines next to famous French wines and could not tell them apart. In fact, many of them preferred the Californian wines while believing that they were drinking French wine.

More recently, there has been another example of the fallibility of super tasters. In 1985, Christie’s, the London auctioneers, sold a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite for $ 156,000. It was the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold and had been authenticated by Michael Broadbent, the respected head of Christie’s’ wine department and an expert on the wines of Bordeaux. Broadbent had secured the wine from a German collector called Hardy Rodenstock who claimed that it was part of a recently discovered cache of wines that had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

Rodenstock was notorious for discovering very old wines which he variously claimed to have found in Paris cellars, South American restaurants etc. Over the next two decades he continued to find more rare wines and hosted tastings at which all of the world’s super tasters sang his praises. For instance, Broadbent loved his wines. So did Jancis Robinson, the British wine writer who said of one of the so-called Thomas Jefferson wines that it was “the most exciting liquid I ever expect to drink.” Hugh Johnson, Britain’s best known wine expert, also attended Rodenstock’s tastings and praised his wines.

Naturally, Rodenstock’s propensity to discover wines that were old, rare and very expensive evoked suspicions. Some sceptics who were able to drink them reported that they did not taste as old as they were supposed to be and in some cases, the wine chateaus involved disputed the authenticity of the bottles, arguing for instance, that no magnums were bottled in a year that Rodenstock claimed to possess a magnum from.

But the final proof of a wine is in the tasting. And here, the world’s super tasters were largely united in their regard for Rodenstock’s wines. Even after Rodenstock had become the subject of some controversy, Robert Parker attended one of his tastings and called it ‘the wine event of my lifetime.’

As for Rodenstock, Parker claimed that the sceptics were being unfair because “Rodenstock is a true wine lover in the greatest sense of the word as well as exceptionally knowledgeable.” The wines themselves received rave reviews. One of them, wrote Parker, “would have received more than 100 if possible.” (This was one of Rodenstock’s Chateau D’Yquems, whose authenticity was disputed by the Chateau itself.)

As you may have guessed, the super tasters had all made fools of themselves. Eventually Rodenstock was exposed as a fraud. The German magazine Stern traced the printing press where he ran up false labels for his wines. Chemical analysis demonstrated that his bottles were new. And the wines themselves appeared to consist of younger wines that he adulterated in his own house and then passed off as centuries old. The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold had not only never belonged to Thomas Jefferson but was also not an ancient Chateau Lafite.

How could the super tasters have all got it so wrong? Parker’s claim to fame is his palate. He can taste a wine and give it marks out of 100 after two sips. And yet, here he was, awarding scores of more than 100 for bogus wines concocted by Rodenstock in his own apartment!

The answer appears to be that suggestion plays a role in how wines are judged even at the super taster level. In 2008, neuro economists at Stanford/Caltech conducted an experiment. “Subjects were given several glasses of the exact same wine, each with a different price tag. Believing that they were drinking different wines, the subjects described the ‘more expensive’ wines more favourably. Moreover, brain scans showed the subjects to actually experience more pleasure from the nominally pricier stuff.” (I’m quoting The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, an excellent book on the Rodenstock scam.)

In other words, if we are told that something is better, we actually respond more favourably to it, even deriving more pleasure from drinking it. It does not matter how good or bad, expensive or inexpensive the wine really is. What matters is what we have been told it is. It is not my case that all wine rating is bunk or that every wine expert is a fraud. My point is more limited. We accept that when it comes to food and wine, taste is not everything. What matters are the sight, smell, environment and the mood in which it is consumed.

To that list, add another qualification. As science and experience have now demonstrated, it also matters what we believe about the food or wine we’re enjoying. Tell us it’s very good and all too often, we will fall for that line – even when it’s not good at all.

First Published: Apr 03, 2010 18:02 IST