Wine Tasting, Empiricism, and Perception

Builds Upon: Photography, Transience, Memories
Neatness: The Religion of the Rectilinear

I had read about scientists fooling professional wine tasters by merely putting food coloring in the wine, by changing the labels on the bottles they were being served, by serving up the same wine in different bottles, or by telling them nothing at all about what they were drinking.  The scientists’ conclusion?:  Even the professionals are all frauds.  We are incapable of actually knowing what we’re eating or drinking.  Our perceptions are all hopelessly skewed by emotions, suggestion, and expectations. Therefore, we’re mostly wrong most of the time without strict methods of empirical observation.  Scientists have demonstrated yet again that they are the indisputable bookkeepers and accountants of a collective reality.

Yet science also tells us that the human nose has countless receptors that account for most of our sense of taste.  Researchers are amazed at the incredibly small number of particles per million we are capable of detecting.  Scientists and advertisers are especially intrigued to discover that our sense of smell has more immediate, visceral access to our brain than any other.  We are deeply influenced by smells without even consciously perceiving them.

When it comes to foods and scents:

The appeal or the very nature of a food changes relative to our mood, our circumstances, our bodily needs of the moment.

A stick of butter would taste very different on the first bite than on the last.

Thus butter indeed tastes different to me based on the state of my body and my mood.  Empirically I am wrong.  I have been ‘fooled’ by my senses.  It is the same stick of butter each time I take a bite from it.  If I were in any way rational, I would tell them after each bite that the stick of butter tasted and felt the same, even as I approached the point of wanting to vomit.  The scientists would celebrate another defeat for subjective perception and another victory for empirical observation.

I wonder if the outcome of these experiments means what the scientists think it means.

With wine, I imagine that one gets hints of different kinds of flavors depending on what it’s eaten with, how much wine has already been drank,  one’s mental state.  Whatever the body craves at the moment will taste far better than it usually would.  A wine will taste better or worse depending on one’s personal taste or on what wines one has had before.   I’m sure a cheap wine tastes as good as an expensive wine if one has had to go a year without any wine at all.  Many variables could affect the perception of the taste of wine.

I am very far from any kind of a wine tasting professional but I can readily say that I much prefer a Cabernet Sauvignon to a Merlot.  How on Earth could  I possibly have the gall to state any such preference if I ought not to be able to tell the difference between a white and a red?

To me, an affordable merlot tastes like a watered down cabernet.  The same oak and blackberries minus the cleansing dryness and full body.  A merlot is something of a blank slate that requires an artist to paint on it.  Paying more a higher price per bottle is almost necessary to get a good one.  It’s just not a good everyday table wine.  I think of it as the gateway wine beginners, appletini ladies, and light beer guys can tolerate.

All these detailed, emotionally charged opinions yet I admit I could be easily fooled in a taste test.  If I were blindfolded, I might not be able to tell the difference between a cab and a merlot.  I might taste one of the wines and wonder whether it was a lousy cab or a typical beginner’s merlot.  It could be either one.  Not only are there lots of wine varietals, there’s a huge amount of variation for each varietal.  Without something to go on, I just wouldn’t know.  Upon guessing the wrong one, the scientists would pull off my blindfold and say “HA HA!  Fooled you!  Your pathetic little senses can’t do nothing without strict empirical, quantitative, observations!”

However, science has found that especially when it comes to taste and smell, our limited conscious awareness of the experience is but the tip of the iceberg.   Scientific inquiry has already demonstrated that most of the impact of taste/smell is subconscious!  Can our judgments and preferences be said to be a complete flight of fancy if we are not fully consciously aware of the experience.

In an empirical, standardized mass reality, an inability to declare=falsifiability.  Thus we’re all frauds for preferring either white or red wine.  If you can’t produce the correct information on demand, you obviously don’t know it.

Yet most scientists probably couldn’t tell me what they had for dinner three months ago.  The same scientists would likely be flabbergasted if I suggested that if they could not remember eating anything for dinner on that day, clearly they had eaten nothing at all.  I would further explain that the idea of having eaten dinner that night is merely a comforting self-delusion and a product of their shoddy emotional brains.

I have a very rational friend who once amused himself by giving me a special test.  He moved the bookmark in the book I was reading forward a few pages while I was away and watched what happened when I returned.  I kept reading without realizing what he’d done.  He eventually told me what he’d done and I found myself feeling angry about his meddling.  “How can those pages matter,” he argued, “If you didn’t realize they weren’t missing it makes no difference whether or not they were there.”  At the time I felt a sense of stubborn indignation and did not know quite how to counter him.  Yet I could have asked him to tell me what happened on page 304 of his edition of ‘Fellowship of the Ring’.  He would not have been able to produce any details for me.  I could therefore have come to a couple of different conclusions.

-He’s a fraud and never actually read through the book.

-He must have accidentally skipped page 304.  Nothing important must have happened if he didn’t even realize he had missed it.

We find that it is the general, partially conscious, emotional information that is truly important to us.  My friend couldn’t recite for me the content from a single page of the book, but clearly he got something out of it.  It’s one of his favorite books.  He probably could have read and enjoyed the story just the same without a page 304.  Yet he would have lost something from the overall memory of having read that book.  The loss of one or even a few pages might be trivial, but every single page fleshes out the concept even if no individual page can be explicitly recalled to memory.

In many ways, the emotionally charged perception and memory is the hardest to access reliably through conscious inquiry or to articulate in its fullness to a scientific questioner.

Thus:  Have we all been proven frauds for preferring different kinds of wine over others?  OR is judging our perception only by empirical information immediately obtainable at the conscious level simply an approach ill-suited to gauging human perception and memory?

If a stick of butter tastes different after each bite, is it extraordinary to suppose that even a glass of wine could taste a little different after every sip?  As the state of the body changes, the state of perception must change.  Are the senses fooling themselves.  Not really.  They give us information relative to our needs and circumstances.  We’re living things subject to constant change, not static scientific instruments.

So naturally, if we’re called on to behave like scientific instruments, we’re going to fail.

Perhaps it is the very difficulty of applying order and categorization to the sense of taste/smell that has attracted the attention of strict empiricists.  Perhaps this fixation on demonstrating the ‘inaccuracy’ of human perception is a result of an inability to accept or understand the transient, entropic nature of the universe.


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