Wine tasting is bullshit. Here’s why. (from io9)


The human palate is arguably the weakest of the five traditional senses. This begs an important question regarding wine tasting: is it bullshit, or is it complete and utter bullshit?

There are no two ways about it: the bullshit is strong with wine. Wine tasting. Wine rating. Wine reviews. Wine descriptions. They’re all related. And they’re all egregious offenders, from a bullshit standpoint.

Exhibit A: Wine experts contradict themselves. Constantly.

Statistician and wine-lover Robert Hodgson recently analyzed a series of wine competitions in California, after “wondering how wines, such as his own, [could] win a gold medal at one competition, and ‘end up in the pooper’ at others.” In one study, Hodgson presented blindfolded wine experts with the same wine three times in succession. Incredibly, the judges’ ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. Via the Wall Street Journal:

A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.

Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.

It bears repeating that the judges Hodgson surveyed were no ordinary taste-testers. These were judges at California State Fair wine competition – the oldest and most prestigious in North America. If you think you can consistently rate the “quality” of wine, it means two things:

1: No. You can’t.

2. Wine-tasting is bullshit.

Exhibit B: Expert wine critics can’t distinguish between red and white wines

This one’s one of my favorites. In 2001, researcher Frédéric Brochet invited 54 wine experts to give their opinions on what were ostensibly two glasses of different wine: one red, and one white. In actuality, the two wines were identical, with one exception: the “red” wine had been dyed with food coloring.

The experts described the “red” wine in language typically reserved for characterizing reds. They called it “jammy,” for example, and noted the flavors imparted by its “crushed red fruit.” Not one of the 54 experts surveyed noticed that it was, in fact a white wine.

Exhibit C: We taste with our eyes, not our mouths

Actually, scratch that. We taste with our eyes, ears, noses, and even our sense of touch. We taste with our emotions, and our state of mind. This has been demonstrated time after time after time.

Research out of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has shown that people will rate food as more enjoyable if it’s consumed in the relaxed atmosphere of a fine dining environment, as opposed to a noisy fast food restaurant.

A 2006 study, published by the American Association of Wine Economists, found that most people can’t distinguish between paté and dog food.

A recent New Yorker piece describes a followup to Brochet’s 2001 study, wherein he served wine experts a run-of-the-mill Bordeaux in two different bottles:

One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being “agreeable,” “woody,” “complex,” “balanced,” and “rounded,” while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat,” and “faulty.”

Exhibit D: Wine critics know wine reviews are bullshit

Here’s Joe Power, editor of the popular Another Wine Blogin a post titled “Wine Reviews are Bullshit!”:

Today, with apologies to messieurs Penn and Teller, I am going to stand up and shout, “Wine reviews are bullshit!”

If you are wondering if this is going to be some justification of why our reviews at AWB are just spiffy and everyone else is full of shit, you can stop wondering; ours are bullshit too. It is just the nature of the beast.

There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own.

When asked point blank what he thought of the aforementioned results from Robert Hodgson’s study (see Exhibit A) wine-maker Bob Cabral said he was “not surprised”:

In Mr. Cabral’s view, wine ratings are influenced by uncontrolled factors such as the time of day, the number of hours since the taster last ate and the other wines in the lineup. He also says critics taste too many wines in too short a time. As a result, he says, “I would expect a taster’s rating of the same wine to vary by at least three, four, five points from tasting to tasting.”

See? Horseshit.

Exhibits E – ZZZ: Countless other studies

In 1996, research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that wine experts cannot reliably identify more than three or four of a wine’s flavor components. Most wine critics routinely report tasting six or more. The wine review excerpted in the top image for this post, for example (which is a real review, by the way – somebody actually wrote those words about a bottle of wine, in earnest) lists the following components in the wine’s “principle flavor” profile: “red roses, lavender, geranium, dried hibiscus flowers, cranberry raisins, currant jelly, mango with skins [Ed. note: jesus wine-swilling christ – mango with skins?], red plums, cobbler, cinnamon, star anise, blackberry bramble, whole black peppercorn,” and more than a dozen other flavors that I refuse to continue listing lest my head implode.

Fun fact: MIT behavioral economist Coco Krume recently conducted a meta-analysis of the classifiers used in wine reviews, and found that reviewers tend to use “cheap” and “expensive” words differently. Cheap descriptors are used much more frequently, expensive ones more sparingly. Krume even demonstrated that it’s possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words used in its review. “From a quantitative standpoint,” Krume writes, “there are three types of words more likely to be used for expensive wines”:

  • Darker words, such as intense, supple, velvety, and smoky
  • Single flavors such as tobacco or chocolate versus fruity, good, clean, tasty, juicy for cheap wines
  • Exclusive-sounding words in place of simple descriptors. For example, old, elegant, and cuvee rather than pleasing, refreshing, value,and enjoy
  • Additionally, cheap wine is preferentially paired with chicken and pizza, while pricey wine goes with shellfish and pork

Using her scientific metric, Krume goes on to create the most expensive-sounding wine review ever penned: “A velvety chocolate texture and enticingly layered, yet creamy, nose, this wine abounds with focused cassis and a silky ruby finish. Lush, elegant, and nuanced. Pair with pork and shellfish.” If that sentence made you yearn for a glass of classy red, congratulations, there’s a very real chance you’re a pompous asshole.

The Exception

You want an exception to the wine-tasting is bullshit mantra? Here it is.

In 2008, a survey comprising more than 6,000 blind tastings found a positive correlation between price and enjoyment – for individuals with wine training. In other words: if you’re a wine expert, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper ones. HOWEVER, it bears emphatic mentioning that whether this suggests more expensive wines are objectively better (which it doesn’t) is irrelevant, because among amateur wine drinkers (which, let’s face it, you are), the survey found the opposite, i.e. a negative correlation between price and happiness, “suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” This lead the researchers to conclude that “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.”

The upshot: screw the experts. Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford. Or just have a beer – it’s unequivocally better, anyway.


Why Crows are awesome


Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

Crows are among the planet’s most intelligent animals, teaching their young to use tools for foraging and banding together to fight off intruders. Now, the first study of how abstract reasoning works in these birds’ brains could shed light on how intelligence works in a truly alien, non-mammal brain.

Illustration by Tiger-tyger

We’ve studied brain structure pretty extensively in mammals from humans and apes to whales and mice. But German neuroscientists Lena Veit and Andreas Nieder are the first to watch what happens in crow brains as these birds worked their way through a series of brain-teasers. They actually wired the crows’ brains up with electrodes, watching as individual neurons fired when the crows did a test that required abstract reasoning. What Veit and Nieder found reveals a lot about what intelligence looks like in a brain that’s nothing like our own.

The Evolution of Intelligence

The crow, and some of its relatives in the corvid family (such as jays and magpies), are among the only intelligent species we’ve encountered outside the world of mammals. But their brains are utterly different from ours. The mammalian seat of reason is in our prefrontal cortex, a thin layer of nerve-riddled tissue on the outside of the front region of our brains. Birds have no prefrontal cortex (PFC). Instead, they have the nidopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is located toward the middle of their brains. You can see the different regions in the image, below.

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

The thing that’s really interesting about comparing bird and human intelligence is that we did not evolve from a common, intelligent ancestor. Our last common ancestor with birds lived during the Permian period, about 300 million years ago, before the age of dinosaurs. It probably looked like a cross between a reptile and a rodent, and was roughly the size of a big raccoon.

This ancestor’s simple brain was ruled by instinct rather than higher-level cognition. Still, lurking inside its rather small skull was a brain part called the pallium, which over millions of years evolved into the PFC in mammals and the NCL in birds. That makes mammal and bird intelligence an excellent example of parallel evolution — both groups of animals developed intelligence independently of one another.

Despite all their differences, the PFC and NCL have a few features in common. Veit and Nieder write in Nature Communications that both regions are involved in “working memory, reversal learning and reward prediction.” The areas also “share important properties such as dense innervation by dopaminergic fibres and connectivity patterns with multiple sensory input, limbic and motor output regions.” What that means is that the NCL and PFC are both packed with neurons, or nerve cells, that respond to the crucial neurotransmitter dopamine. Its neurons are also connected to the parts of the brain that handle memory, emotion, and body movements. The PFC and NCL are brain command centers, synthesizing information from a vast array of inputs and outputs.

Testing Crows’ Ability to Reason

Given that the NCL is the seat of crow intelligence, the researchers decided to see whether they could actually watch in real time as a crow figured out a puzzle. They used crows that had been raised in captivity, and trained to do a test kind of like the Sesame Street “which one doesn’t belong?” quiz. The crows had to identify whether two images were different or the same.

First, the researchers put electrodes over the crows’ NCL, to watch each neuron firing. Then they would present the crow with an image. Next, the crow would be prompted to choose an image that matched or didn’t match that image (they had already been trained to do this with a sound or sign that either meant “match” or “don’t match”). Finally, the crow would be presented with two images and have to choose the matching or not matching one.

Crows could be the key to understanding alien intelligence

This is a test that requires abstract reasoning, because the images change all the time and the crows have to apply the abstract idea of “match” or “not match” to a variety of inputs. In addition, this test reveals that the researchers defined intelligence as an ability to do abstract reasoning. Obviously there are many ways to define intelligence, and this is simply one way to do it.

What the researchers found was pretty amazing. They identified what they call “abstract rule neurons” which governed which answer the crows would give. Basically, the birds’ brains assigned one rule (match) to one neuron, then the other rule (don’t match) to another neuron. When the crows correctly matched an image, the match rule neuron would fire. When the crow gave an incorrect answer, or became confused, the abstract rule neuron fired only very weakly.

Veit and Nieder concluded that this was strong evidence that crows’ brains have developed to handle abstract rules, which is why the birds are good at learning and responding to a variety of situations in a flexible way. They note that “the ability to guide behavior by general rules rather than by relying on fixed stimulus-response associations constitutes a survival advantage.” This is the same survival advantage conferred on humans due to our intelligence. But our intelligence occupies a very different structure in our brains.

Alien Intelligence on Earth

What this experiment suggests is that two dramatically different species might have similar abstract reasoning abilities — even if their brains are completely unlike each other. If we imagine that intelligence can only dwell in a mammal-like brain, we may miss out on discovering smart life forms elsewhere. The crow brain may be the first truly alien intelligence we’ve been able to study.

The crow brain may also help us better understand what’s required to build an artificial intelligence, too. We can look at what the crow and human brain share in common, and speculate about what it might take to create an intelligence that resides in a non-brain structure. As I mentioned earlier, both the PFC and NCL contain many neurons connected to other parts of the brain, and they work a lot with the neurotransmitter dopamine. These regions also appear to deal in abstract rules.

Most of all, we can find hope in the idea that intelligence isn’t just a quirk of one type of brain. Many kinds of brains can become intelligent. We are not alone.