Wine the Grand Illusion (or, The Myth of "Breathing" Wine)

Does price affect the "quality" of wine? Yes, indeed it do.

At least according to results of a study released last year (2008), conducted by Antonio Rangel, Associate Professor of Economics at the California Institute of Technology (re The Price is Wrong). Rangel asked twenty-one volunteers to blind-taste five different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and rate their preferences. The taste test was run fifteen times, and the wines presented in random order.

The only information given to the volunteers was price tags. However, two of the wines were presented twice; one with its true retail price, and the other with a fake price. They also presented one bottle that actually retailed for $90 as $10, and still another bottle that retailed for $5 as $45. To top it all off, according to the story, the dastardly researchers scanned the test subjects’ brains to monitor the “neural activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex – an area of the brain believed to encode pleasure related to taste, odors and music.”

The results? Inflation of the price of a bottle consistently enhanced the subjects’ experience of it, as shown by the neural activity, and the volunteers consistently gave higher ratings to the more expensively priced wines. To quote Professor Rangel, “this study shows that the brain’s rewards center takes into account subjective beliefs about the quality of the experience… if you believe the experience is better, even though it’s the same wine, the rewards center of the brain encodes it as feeling better.”

Why am I not surprised? I’ve been talking about the grossly underestimated power of the mind when it comes to wine evaluation for years. At first, in the late 1970’s when I first got into the wine business and found myself being “mentored” by wine experts as old as I am right now (for the record, I’ve reached the big five-oh), I used to often wonder when we would taste, say, a ten to thirty year old bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux, and my betters would go on and on about the glorious “bouquet,” the sensual “legs,” the “complex” flavors, and the “neverending” finishes. And all I would be tasting is an old, decrepit, tired wine. I admit often having doubts about my wine tasting prowess, despite Andre Simon’s old adage, “we may all have good taste, but not the same taste.”

By the early 1980’s I found myself with the privilege of attending two, three or four large scale wine exhibitions each year. You might know the scenario: huge auditoriums, hundreds of other wine professionals and connoisseurs milling about, choices of hundreds of different wines to taste. Naturally the biggest crowds were to be found around the tables presenting the most prestigious wines. I remember one year – the 1988 Monterey Wine Festival, to be exact – in which the Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon was being poured, and I had to fight my way to the front for my little sip; and when I got there, the wine tasted awful! Dull, dreary, blah… yet there I was, surrounded by a crowd of people cooing with pleasure in contrast with my dismay. A half-hour or so later, worried that I may have had the bad luck of tasting from a corked bottle, I returned to the Heitz table, maneuvered my way up to the front again, and found my second tasting of the famed “Martha’s” to be no different than the first. In fact, it may have been worse.

And that’s when I decided right then and there, and for all-time:

  • Most wine professionals are idiots – no better than herds of cattle – who couldn’t recognize a good, or lousy, bottle of wine if it hit them upside the head
  • Well, to cut these idiots some slack – like most human beings, they’re simply swayed by the power of suggestion (and who am I to question anyone’s humanity?)

Indeed, one of my favorite things to do in large consumer tastings over the years was to present two different, but similarly blended, wines of widely contrasting price points, like a $100 Quintessa compared to a $12 Casa Lapostolle “Cuvée Alexandre.” I would blind-taste the crowd, and ask for a show of hands on their preferences; and yes, I have found that for every fifty consumers expressing a preference for a $100 Quintessa, another fifty would prefer the $12 Casa Lapostolle. Granted, you could say that they are “just consumers” who don't know what to look for. But like I said, what's worse is so-called “professionals” who know what to look for, and find it whether it's there or not. I’m happier when I see people who truly know what they like: never what someone tells them they should like. Ironically, it's "ordinary" consumers, not the pros, who are more likely to know what they like.

One of the most controversial wine pieces I’ve ever published was called Seven Ways to Improve Your Wine Life (March 2006). One of those seven topics was on the commonly accepted practice of improving the taste of wine by letting it “breathe.” As my original story went:

“Breathing.” We are often asked, especially in expensive restaurants: “Shall we open your bottle ahead of time to let it breathe?” Well, there are few things as preposterous as the notion that exposure of less than a square inch of wine at the neck of the bottle to the beneficial qualities of oxygen will result in increased quality of the wine therein. Not a chance.

Then there are the sommeliers who offer to “decant” your wine – pouring it from the bottle and into an open glass container – under the assumption that even more dramatic exposure to air will increase overall quality. If you ask me, another myth of the wine world. If anything, a wine – even a thick, heavy, youthful red wine – loses some of its freshness in the nose and flavor when allowed to “breathe” in a decanter.

Yet there are many experts (including esteemed colleagues) who absolutely swear by the benefits of breathing, especially after hours in decanters. If you ask me again, I think it’s because the mind becomes more alerted to sharpening sensations over time (as well it should), not because a wine actually changes for the better. To wit: in one recent Decanter magazine, a report done on a blind taste-test involving some of the UK’s most discriminating wine judges, who could not tell the difference or even establish a pattern of preference or quality level in wines that were decanted minutes before tasting, hours before tasting, or simply popped, poured, and tasted immediately.

If anything, they preferred the latter, and I would concur: decanted wines are no likely to be better than undecanted wines. Then again, if you have a beautiful decanter and you like using it to serve your guests, by all means use it. Quality of wine being such a state of mind, anything you do to make the perception of a wine experience a more positive one can only be good. As long as you understand the mythical nature of “breathing,” which makes the word itself illogical and thus to be avoided.

As it were, I received e-mails from more than a dozen wine cognoscente, most of them “professionals,” and most of them gently admonishing me for my apparent ignorance: everyone knows wines are improved by “breathing!” One reader even implied that I may have made up the Decanter story in question; either that, or there was something wrong with the wines or judges involved.

For the record: the Decanter issue cited in my story is from December 1997 (Vol. 23/No. 4), and the wines used for this tasting were a 1961 Mouton-Rothschild, a 1982 Clerc-Milon, a 1980 d’Armailhac, and a 1990 Mouton-Cadet. Of the six judges on that panel, the best known were Hugh Johnson, Serena Sutcliffe MW, Steven Spurrier and Patrick Leon. I’ve always been confident in my own palate, but I have to admit that even I would probably feel fear and trembling if ever given the opportunity to taste beside this bunch. Bottom line: if Hugh Johnson, Serena Sutcliffe, et al. can fess up to the finding that “opening and pouring wines straight away received by far the most acclaim regardless of the wine in question,” who am I to blow against the wind? Especially when I’ve long known the same thing, woefully unappreciated genius that I am.

My own conclusions, re decanting and oxygenating, after thirty years in the business of buying, selling and serving wine:

  • It probably doesn’t hurt to decant a good red wine – be it old or young, a classic growth, an “amusingly naïve domestic” or otherwise – but the benefits are less significant than simply pouring into a good sized, properly shaped wine glass, swirling, and smelling the vapors emanating from the insides.
  • Tannins in red wine do soften as they oxygenate in a decanter, but an even bigger factor is your sensory disposition – wines tend to soften and round out more because your palate becomes conditioned to the taste of tannin rather than because tannins undergo actual transformation on a molecular level.
  • Aromas and flavors are affected by sensory disposition in the same way – nuances are more likely to sharpen and grow in attraction after a few minutes because the palate and mind become more attuned to them (especially when suggested by fellow tasters), not because a wine has physically “improved” on a molecular level as a result of oxygenation.
  • Although great wines have been known to benefit from decanting (pro-breathers: I'm not arguing this point), wines over ten years old are just as likely to recede in quality if decanted more than a few minutes before consumption.
  • For any wines over ten years old, the safest thing you can do is either pour the wine immediately from a just opened bottle into glasses, or pour into glasses immediately after decanting.
  • Many changes commonly noted in decanted wines are due to temperature, which is a huge factor. Aromatic byproducts of esters and alcohol can vary drastically at different temperatures, as do the effect of tannin and alcohol on the taste buds. Red wines that are medium to high in tannin and body tend to taste tight and hard at temperatures below 60 degreees Fahrenheit, and harsh or rough above 72 degrees. If you prefer the natural, sweet berry perfume of red wines, I would say that the optimal serving temperature for most reds is somewhere between 62 and 68 degrees (well below normal "room" temperatures); closer to 60 for softer reds like Pinot Noir and Beaujolais style wines.
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder the same way that perception of wine quality is highly individual – know your own taste and preferences!

Never underestimate the power of your own mind, and resist the suggestions of idiots!

Views: 0

Comment

You need to be a member of FohBoh to add comments!

Join FohBoh

Advertisments

 

DEPARTMENTS

Social Wine Club for Craft Wineries

Smartbrief

Restaurants may feel the pinch of pricier coffee later this year

Prices for arabica coffee futures hit a 26-month high amid a drought in Brazil, which produces a third of the world's coffee  -More

McDonald's rules out all-day breakfast in push to simplify

McDonald's breakfast menu accounts for 25% of the chain's U.S.  -More

Easy ways to use 5 uncommon spring greens

As light, crisp greens arrive at farmers markets and grocery stores, chefs are finding creative ways to add them to spring me -More

JOBS & CAREERS

Posting a job or finding a job starts here at FohBoh. Call us about special $25 posting packages to syndicate across all major jobs boards.

National News

National Restaurant Association Offers Training DVDs on Harassment Prevention, Social Media Use, and Customer Service

The National Restaurant Association has released three new DVDs that offer best practices in dealing with harassment and discrimination, customer service training, and the first of its kind video guide on the use of social media.

Yum! Brands Reports First-Quarter EPS Growth of 24% Excluding Special Items

China Division System Sales Increased 17% with Operating Profit Growth of 80%; Yum! Reaffirms Full-Year Guidance of at Lea

Souplantation & Sweet Tomatoes Certified As Nation's Largest 'Green' Restaurant Chain

National Group Salutes Country's Only Large Restaurant Group to be 'Certified Green Restaurants®'

National Restaurant Association and EatStreet Release Online Ordering Guide

The National Restaurant Association and EatStreet have released a free educational guide focusing on online ordering and emerging restaurant technology trends.

Boyd's Coffee Launches Single-Cup Coffees For Retail And Foodservice

The coffees come in a variety of roast levels and include organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified™ options: French No. 6®, Red Wagon® Organic Coffee, Good Morning™, Hi-Rev® (delivers more caffeine), and Lost Lake™ Decaf Organic Coffee.

CROWD FUNDING

If you are looking for capital to start or grow your restaurant, create the next 501c3, develop and launch the next app for the restaurant industry,or want to help your peers in some meaningful way, we want to know about it.

TED TALKS VIDEO

TED: Hamish Jolly: A shark-deterrent wetsuit (and it's not what you think) - Hamish Jolly (2013)

Hamish Jolly, an ocean swimmer in Australia, wanted a wetsuit that would deter a curious shark from mistaking him for a potential source of nourishment. (Which, statistically, is rare, but certainly a fate worth avoiding.) Working with a team of scientists, he and his friends came up with a fresh approach — not a shark cage, not a suit of chain-mail, but a sleek suit that taps our growing understanding of shark vision.

TED: Michel Laberge: How synchronized hammer strikes could generate nuclear fusion - Michel Laberge (2014)

Our energy future depends on nuclear fusion, says Michel Laberge. The plasma physicist runs a small company with a big idea for a new type of nuclear reactor that could produce clean, cheap energy. His secret recipe? High speeds, scorching temperatures and crushing pressure. In this hopeful talk, he explains how nuclear fusion might be just around the corner.

TED: Sarah Lewis: Embrace the near win - Sarah Lewis (2014)

At her first museum job, art historian Sarah Lewis noticed something important about an artist she was studying: Not every artwork was a total masterpiece. She asks us to consider the role of the almost-failure, the near win, in our own lives. In our pursuit of success and mastery, is it actually our near wins that push us forward?

TED: Matthew Carter: My life in typefaces - Matthew Carter (2014)

Pick up a book, magazine or screen, and more than likely you'll come across some typography designed by Matthew Carter. In this charming talk, the man behind typefaces such as Verdana, Georgia and Bell Centennial (designed just for phone books -- remember them?), takes us on a spin through a career focused on the very last pixel of each letter of a font.

© 2014   Created by FohBoh.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service