How to Drink Wine

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My nose is not small. That’s a fact.

Although aesthetically a little ski jump a la Brad Pitt is generally seen as the ideal nose, I’ve tried to comfort myself with the idea that big noses simply must be better at smelling.

One of the great things about wine tasting is that you can unselfconsciously thrust your proboscis deep into a wine glass and make a big show about sniffing in. In this context, how could I not see my nose as an asset?

Which is probably a pretty key reason as to why I love wine.

But there are others.

Like the fun guessing game of picking out aromas from a sniff of wine.

l_4680_paolo.basso“My toucanesque nose detects pencil lead, garigue , tobacco, and a touch of Stonefruit”

Or the warm sensation as a swallow of wine slips down my throat accompanying the trailing flavor of the finish.

Or the thrill and biting acidity of a chilled Muscadet cutting the brininess of oysters on the half shell.

Or the pleasant drama of swirling wine around my glass in gliding spiral movements in order to aerate it.

Could cheese even exist for me without wine? (Or vice versa?)

But I digress. This blog is about value. And from a value perspective drinking wine is a real minefield.

Although we think that what we respond to in a wine is the nose, palate, and clarity, a big part of what we respond to is undoubtedly hype.

It is well-known that tasters will rate a wine that they are told is expensive higher than the identical wine when they are told that it is inexpensive.

And I have no reason to believe that I wouldn’t fall for this very same trick.

We are social animals. We’re constantly looking for clues as to what is valuable. We are looking for ideas to anchor our value judgments to. And price is a pretty convenient measuring stick to use in these value assessments.

But the identical wine labeled with two different prices experiment really shows the limits of our ability to truly taste wine. What we are often sampling more-so than tannins or fruit or aromatics are social cues.

Which is why I did a little experiment.

It couldn’t have been more simple.

Step one: I went to a wine store and bought nine different wines at different prices.

Step two: I brought the wine home and placed each bottle in a separate brown paper bag which I numbered one through nine.

Step three: I drank the wines over the course of a few weeks one bottle at a time , taking notes on each one and blindly scoring each on a 100 point scale.

Step four: I compared the price of each wine to its score to see if there was any correlation.

The results:

scatter-plot-image

X axis= price, Y axis= score

 

This is a scattergram. If wine price correlated with my blind score then all the individual points would cluster around a line moving from the lower left to the upper right corner of the graph.

It’s pretty clear that there’s no discernible correlation between price and my enjoyment of the wine.

And I think there are some conclusions that can be drawn from this experiment. But before that, I would like to share some observations about the process itself.

1. Blind tasting my own wine allowed me really taste each wine. In the absence of labels to read, prejudices about different grapes or regions to call upon, or price to consider, I was left with no choice but to simply smell and taste each wine and write down my thoughts and judgements without bias.

2. This was a bit uncomfortable, because I knew I was likely to reveal the limitations of my own ability to “Judge” wine.

3. More than anything, though, it was a lot of fun. I was simply smelling and tasting each wine. There were no social cues, or crutches. It was just me and the wine. In this way I felt “in the moment.”

4. I think I learned more from drinking the wine in this manner. By writing down my honest impression of the wine, I was susequently able to match my actual impressions of the taste and smell, to the vintage, grape, and region of each bottle.

5. I plan to drink my wine this way at home from now on.

And now for my conclusions.

What my experiment does not prove.

1. That higher priced wine is no better than lower priced wine. (This was just one taster with a small number of wines from pretty narrow range of prices.($9-$16.)

2. That drinking expensive wine with the knowledge that is expensive does not add pleasure to the experience of drinking wine. (Sure, it may be the placebo effect, but pleasure is pleasure.)

What this experiment does suggest.

1. That in this particular instance when drinking these nine bottles of wine, this one taster was not able to discern a correlation between the quality and the prices of the wines.

2.  That blind tasting wine is fun and educational (to me.)

3. That’s my highest rated bottle of wine was one of the cheaper ones.

And  you should absolutely search it out at your local wine store.  (and taste it blindly with a bunch of other wines of varying prices.)

And the winner was:

311981

 

2009 Tresa Frappato

My tasting notes:

Nose:  cherry and plum, mildly floral, pretty

Palate: Light and bright fruit, pinot-esque (Reminds me of Ayres Willamette Valley Pinot Noir) nice acid , light tannins, suave and well balanced.

Score:  80.

Grape:  Frappato

Region: Sicily

Would pair with Roast chicken, Vongole, Indian?

Conclusion:  Just a lovely light bodied red from an interesting grape that I had not tried before.  Great table wine.  Utterly refreshing and enjoyable.  Winner!

 

 

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5 Responses to “How to Drink Wine”

  1. Doug February 1, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Dear Miles Dividend MD,

    I have been reading your column for the past month and keep coming back to it simply because I like your writing style and find your posts to invoke much thought on my part. Like just about any anything I find that I disagree with some and agree with other opinions that you have. There are many similarities that we share (wine lover, doctor, desire to consume less and retire early, three children, miles enthusiast). With that said please allow me a couple of bones to pick. Although I am not surprised at the result of your small sample size wine test, I was surprised at the limited variation in the price range that you selected. I have conducted similar, but not identical, such experiments myself and find that limiting the price range to such a small gap will always result in that type of scatter graph. I would suggest you repeat the same study using a price range of say $9-$50 (or more). I think you will find a different graphic result that will not be a perfect ascending line with price directly related to score, but it will likely be closer to that than your initial test. Likewise if you test wines that are priced between $30 and $40 dollars then a similar scatter graph will likely be the result. Another issue is that perhaps you did buy 9 identical varietals (ie..all Frappatos), but if you didn’t then the experiment really only shows that you like the Frappato better than the other varietals. Someone else’s mileage may vary! You have inspired me to try this myself over the next couple weeks. I will try to remove as many variables as possible to validate this for me. Every wine lover should do this as it will allow them to focus their own wine buying to something they will have a better than average chance of liking at the best value. And perhaps buying by the case will save some greenbacks!
    Cheers,
    Doug

    P.S. You should look into the Coravin system for this. I received it as a Christmas gift and it allows me to sample wines one glass at a time without really opening the bottle. It will accelerate this experiment significantly.

    • Miles Dividend M.D. February 1, 2014 at 8:48 am #

      Doug,

      Thanks so much for reading.

      Your criticisms of the “experiment” are all spot on.

      I tried to keep my conclusions humble to avoid overplaying my hand but perhaps implied more significance to the results than intended. A wider price range of wines would indeed tell us more about the value effect as would controlling for variables (ie varietal, vintage)

      In truth the test wasn’t so much “designed” as done on a whim. I usually buy a mixed case of $10-25 bottles and in this case just bagged up the remaining 9 bottles from such a case.

      The process was very interesting though, and I am glad to hear you’ll give it a try.

      Please report back.

      Alexi

  2. Miles Dividend M.D. February 1, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    The coravin system looks pretty great too. It should be a real asset for your taste test. I have some bottles in my cellar (older Barolos, Bandol’s, Bordeaux) that I’d love to include in such a test.

    AZ

  3. Kat J February 3, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

    I’ve been meaning to leave a comment of appreciation and thanks for your entertaining and educational blog for awhile; however, this entry actually made my day and has compelled me to repeat your experiment! I, too, am a foodie, traveler, investor and blog appreciator. THANKS for your efforts!
    (and — I’ve from the great PNW, but now live in Australia — hug the wet trees for me!)

  4. Miles Dividend M.D. February 3, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    Kat,

    Thank you so much. I love writing, but knowing that people read and enjoy my posts means the world to me.

    Please report back on your experiences blind tasting, good or bad. At the least I think you’ll find it interesting.

    Putting on my gore tex to hug a tree as I type…

    Alexi

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