Extrinsic influences on taste

If you saw my previous post, you might well be wondering if I really was saying that knowing about a wine, or thinking that you do, actually affects taste and enjoyment. Or did I really mean that knowledge merely affects what people say about the wine?  I meant the former.

The MIT brew experiment is key in supporting this idea. The key result is that totally blind tasters, and those told what they drank after tasting, had similar preferences.  They liked a beer doctored with balsamic vinegar, or were indifferent to the addition of vinegar.  But a third group were told in advance which beer was doctored, and they preferred the one without vinegar.  If it were merely that the experimental subjects did not wish to be associated with a liking for the doctored beer, you would have predicted that their preferences would not have been affected by when they were told.  It seems that this is evidence for information actually influencing taste and enjoyment.  And various experiments, e.g. Morrot et al, in altering or concealing the colour of wine seem to confirm this.

Note that I am not here claiming that prior knowledge always trumps the senses.  If the sensory input is strong enough, no amount of additional information is going to be able to override it.  In reality, the prior knowledge is processed together with the sensory input to give an overall assessment that is based on both. But it does seems to me that the additional information is a significant component of the overall effect when tasting wine.

Assuming I have managed to convince you of the importance of what I would call extrinsic influences on taste, what are we to make of it?

Are we being duped into thinking wines are better than they really are because they have a prestigious label, or because the wines command a high price?  I wouldn’t put it in precisely those terms, and anyway it begs the question of how good a wine “really is”.  But I certainly think we need to be a lot more aware of the extrinsic influences, and use them to our advantage.

For example, if we are serving a wine with a prestigious label we should make sure all at the table know about it.  Not to boast or impress, but to give our fellow diners the courtesy of enjoying the wine as much as possible.

In the longer term, we could also set about developing an alternative set of positive extrinsic values unrelated to price and conventional prestige.  One that has more to do with appreciating interesting wines from less well known regions.  Or anything else that we can relate to.  We ourselves should decide – and not let others dictate to us.

Also we need to be aware that various wine-related businesses manipulate extrinsic factors to increase sales and profits.  The ways in which it can be done are numerous.  Take another scan down the list in my previous post if you need to be reminded, and decide for yourself how cynical you want to be.  Are they doing it to make us happy, or is it primarily for their own bottom line?

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

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