September 3, 2008

Chasing Rabbits: Tasting with the Mouth, Fooling the Mind or The Art of the Con

This interesting NYT op-ed follows up on an earlier reported story in which two teenagers used a relatively simple DNA test to discover that several Manhattan restaurants and markets were mislabeling the fish used in their sushi, often replacing higher end fish with much cheaper offerings, by discussing just how easy it is for our mouths to lead our minds astray - and the more we know, or think we know, apparently the easier it becomes:
Experts make the best victims because they jump to unwarranted conclusions. The savvier they are, the quicker they jump, because they see at a glance which way a story is heading. In 2002, for instance, a French wine researcher named Frédéric Brochet gave 54 experts an array of red wines to evaluate. Some of the glasses contained white wine that Mr. Brochet had doctored to look red, by adding a tasteless, odorless additive. Not a single taster noticed the switch.

“About 2 or 3 percent of people detect the white wine flavor,” Mr. Brochet said, “but invariably they have little experience of wine culture. Connoisseurs tend to fail to do so. The more training they have, the more mistakes they make because they are influenced by the color of the wine.”

For the experts, the term “red wine” carries countless associations. Each one points to further questions; each question leads them further off the trail. By contrast, the amateurs’ ignorance keeps them from exploring subtle byways. Seeing only one question — “what do you think of this wine?” — they can’t wander far.

The catch is that, when it comes to food, we all think of ourselves as experts. But we taste with both our tongues and our minds, and it’s easy to lead minds astray. Brownies taste better, for example, when served on china rather than on paper plates, research has shown. And we prefer wine with a pedigree, even if it’s a phony one. Sometimes all it takes is an alluring name. Until a few decades ago, Patagonian toothfish was a trash fish not worth trying to give away. Renamed Chilean sea bass, it sold so fast that it nearly disappeared from the sea.
I had never heard of Brochet and his experiment but came across a couple of articles that mentioned, but didn't focus on, his expermiment, including this one from The Guardian:
Frédéric Brochet, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Bordeaux, decided to find out. In 1998, he invited 54 specialists to taste wines and write down their impressions.

First, he served a red and a white. The tasters made notes. Next, he served a different red and white. Again, they jotted down comments. To describe the two reds they used terms such as plump, deep, dark, blackcurrant and spice. The two white wines evoked descriptions such as golden, floral, pale, honey, straw and lively.

Unbeknownst to the specialists, the second set of wines they tasted, the red and the white, were identical. Brochet had simply added flavourless food colouring to some of the white wine to create a faux red. Not a single person wrote down that the second pair of wines tasted similar, nor that the "red" tasted like a white. Their descriptions of the dyed white read exactly like descriptions of a red wine. The inescapable conclusion was that the specialists had all been fooled.

Brochet didn't design his studies to knock wine connoisseurs down a peg. His experiments demonstrate the power of perceptive expectation: "The subject perceives, in reality, what he or she has pre-perceived and finds it difficult to back away."

What this means is that the brain does not treat taste as a discrete sensation. Instead, it constructs the experience of flavour by taking into consideration information from all the senses – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Paradoxically, it places the greatest emphasis on sight – almost 20 times more emphasis, according to Brochet, than on any other sense. So if our eyes tell us there's red wine in the glass, our brain places more faith in that data than in the information from the taste buds.
The second article, from Jonah Lehrer's blog, mentions a second Brochet experiment:
The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was a fancy grand-cru. The other bottle was an ordinary vin du table. Despite the fact that they were actually being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the differently labeled bottles nearly opposite ratings. The grand cru was "agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded," while the vin du table was "weak, short, light, flat and faulty". Forty experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking, while only 12 said the cheap wine was.

What these wine experiments illuminate is the omnipresence of subjectivity. When we take a sip of wine, we don't taste the wine first, and the cheapness or redness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisred, or thiswineisexpensive. As a result, the wine "experts" sincerely believed that the white wine was red, and that the cheap wine was expensive. And while they were pitifully mistaken, their mistakes weren't entirely their fault. Our brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that our prejudices feel like facts, our opinions indistinguishable from the actual sensation. If we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a grand cru, then we will taste a grand cru. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their suggestions based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface. As Brochet himself notes, our expectations of what the wine will taste like "can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself."
Unfortunately, Brochet doesn't have a Wikipedia entry (and despite the contrary evidence that this post might present, I don't have time to start one for him) but he is mentioned in a couple of other entries and one of those is the Riedel wine glass entry.  Which led me to this interesting piece from Gourmet Magazine back in 2004 examining "the myth of Riedel wine glasses" and this exchange between the author of the article and Brochet:
“Come on,” I ask Brochet, during a lengthy phone call. “Are you saying that most of us can’t tell the difference between a Chardonnay and a Zinfandel? We can’t tell good wine from bad?”

“No, no, no,” he says. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying that expectations have an enormous impact. People can, in fact, tell the difference between wines. But their expectations—based on the label, or whether you tell them it’s expensive, or good, or based on what kind of wine you tell them it is, the color—all these factors can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.”

And now we’re getting to the moral of the story.

Look, Brochet says, he’s never studied wineglasses himself, so he can’t prove what he’s about to say. But the research that he and others have done on the science of expectation convinces him that they’ve found the key: Riedel and other high-end glasses can make wine taste better. Because they’re pretty. Because they’re delicate. Because they’re expensive. Because you expect them to make the wine taste better.

And that, says Brochet, can make all the difference.
If so inclined, I will allow you to insert your own connection to Sarah Palin and or Barack Obama here.

Aside:  In the interest of full disclosure we have some Riedel glasses given to us by the dearest of friends and they always make our wine taste better for an infinite number of reasons.


Pomeroy Kinsey said...

Very good points (about the Reidels). In the Gary show, it's actually not a blind test of those glasses. (Gary needs to move towards complete blind tests, imo). We need someone to do a real double blind study of wineglasses (surely someone has done this). I can completely imagine that one is projecting something that isn't there because you want it to be there. But when we drank out of your Reidels that night, personally, I thought it had a powerful aroma that wasn't there in our crappy bowls on a stick things. (Why do you have to rub it in that I don't have a Reidel! Nor an iphone for that matter! )

Anonymous said...

ok, do ya'll remember that salmon I made for your going away dinner? really wasn't salmon.


Pomeroy Kinsey said...

lol! Yeah, it was actually spam.

J said...

this post was just actually an elaborate ruse to get you to confess . . . we had our suspicions