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Do people like certain wines because certain critics tell them they should?

November 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Wine

This question’s been in my mind for a long time. I think that when people are confused about what they should or shouldn’t do or like, in this information-overloaded, sensorily-saturated culture, they look to the authority of others to tell them. You want to go to the movies on Friday night, but there are 18 flicks playing at the theatres in your city. How to decide? Go to Rotten Tomatoes. If Roger Ebert, whom you trust, tells you J. Edgar’s pretty damned good, that may decide the case for you–and I would argue you’re more likely to like it because you know Roger does.

This is a subdivision of the old “argument from authority” hypothesis. Briefly, it states that, if people think that ___ [an authority on something] is usually correct, then if he pronounces on a specific topic in his area of expertise, he’s correct. We see this all the time in matters ranging from politics to religion to esthetics. It’s a fundament of human nature to turn to shamans or soothsayers to make sense of the chaos of existence.

Imagine if you will a wine tasting. One hundred people have gathered in a hotel ballroom, after paying good money for the privilege of being taken through a guided tasting by a famous wine critic (or F.W.C. for short). Eight glasses, each containing a different wine, are arranged on the table in front of them. The moderator, who will later introduce the F.W.C., first tells the audience to quietly experience the wines, making notes if they wish. Perhaps the audience doesn’t know what the wines are, or, if they do, they do not know what the F.W.C. thinks of them. So they eye the wines, swirling and sniffing, taking little tastes and, hopefully, spitting in dump buckets. You look around and see them concentrating. That guy over there, he’s got his eyes closed as he sloshes the wine. That lady is licking her lips as she writes, probably figuring out what adjectives to use. You, yourself, go back to each wine a second time, maybe a third, depending on how much time you have. You make detailed, thoughtful notes. Wine number three is stupendous, rich and velvety and fruity. Wine number five is tannic and shut down. Wine number one seems rather tart. And so on.

Then the moderator says time’s up for tasting; the F.W.C. is about to say what she thinks. You’re in awe of this celebrity. She’s as famous, in the little world of wine writing, as Bono is in rock and roll. Everybody else in the room feels the same way; otherwise they wouldn’t have paid to be there. A hush falls. The F.W.C. makes a little throat clearing sound, audible through the sound system. Then she thanks everyone for being there, maybe making a self-deprecating remark to let you know she doesn’t take herself too seriously even if you do. Then it’s game on.

F.W.C. starts with wine number one, the one you thought was rather tart. She loves it! She says it’s a grand cru quality wine. She waxes on about the pedigree of the vineyard, the talent of the winemaker who happens to use biodynamic methods, how verticals of the wine prove that it is stupendous after 15 or even 20 years in a good vintage–and this vintage happens to be the greatest in the region in decades! You slouch a little in your seat, dejected. You hadn’t thought much of the wine. But the F.W.C. did. She must be correct, because she’s the F.W.C. and you’re just, well, the guy who would have liked to have the F.W.C. verify each of your opinions, but of course, it never happens that way. So there’s this place in your brain that flares up whenever this happens–a place of self-doubt. You realize how meaningless your own opinions are in such matters, and that casts a pall of dubiousness over all your other impressions of the remaining wines. If the F.W.C. actually happens to agree in large measure with you on, say, wine number three, you’re ecstatic. But in this world where your expectations are so often thwarted, she says that wine number three is a simple villages-style wine, nowhere near as great as any of the others.

This is how the argument from authority works. The F.W.C. cannot be wrong. You can. Therefore, you must be wrong, and she’s right.

I’ve seen this phenomenon many times in my own guided tastings. I’m not saying I’m a F.W.C. but if I’m the one up there at the front of the room, facing an audience that’s looking at and listening to me, then I’m the one who’s invested with authority. And so often, when I say I selected a certain wine to include in the tasting because I think it’s fabulous and a value and one that might ordinarily get overlooked, I see heads nodding in agreement with me, and then the hands go up and people start saying how much they like the wine, and how much does it cost, and where can they get it, and what’s the alcohol, and what kind of barrels was it aged in, and I know that the wine has been a hit. And I go away wondering, once again, if the people liked the wine because they thought they should based on my assessment, or if they liked it because it really is as good as I thought.

I don’t suppose there’s any way to answer that question.

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