I’ll never forget the day when I sat down to watch a documentary and was verbally assaulted with this statement: “This wine has notes of tennis ball and garden hose.”
That is (a paraphrased version of) an actual sentence uttered by an insufferable snob from a film called “Somm.” I know that everyone has their thing, but watching grown-ass adults talking about the base notes in wine in comparison to garden tools for hours on end felt like a form of punishment.
And since I’m a glutton for the stuff, I tuned in until the end. Don’t get me wrong. I love wine. Most people love wine, but sommeliers are known the world over for being the most hardcore winos of all.
But are they really onto something with all that sniffing, spitting, comparison-making insanity? If you ask some researchers, probably not.
According to one decidedly unenthused announcer from Freakonomics Radio, “Wine experts should just put a cork in it.”
Why, you ask? Aside from opening up the possibility of making any friends ever, sommeliers should probably just throw in the towel for the sake of not lying professionally.
“This wine has notes of oak, wet grass, and a lifetime without friendship.”
Call me unrefined, but something tells me that there is no possible way that one could tell the month and year in which a particular wine was bottled. To be fair, I once bought a wine called BearBoat solely because the label was stamped with an adorable bear sitting in a boat. I may not be the best judge here.
So without getting into formal wine-tasting jargon, let’s take a look at a few experiments run by the likes of Harvard economists and California vintners.
1. The Harvard Setup
When Steven D. Levitt was a burgeoning economist at Harvard, he was asked to join a prestigious society filled to the brim with scholars and Nobel Prize recipients called the Society of Fellows. Fancy.
Levitt, who happened to have a taste for grape soda and beef jerky at the time, was a little peeved with the fact that he was paying a ton before each meal to make up for the absolutely insane amount of money the group spent on fine wine.
When he suggested that those who didn’t enjoy guzzling $300 wine pay less, his smarmy buddies turned up their pinot-sniffing noses. To retaliate in the most Harvard way possible, he conducted a little experiment.
When their next wine-tasting event rolled around, he had some tricks up his sleeve.
With a little help from a wine steward, he purchased two bottles of wine that were close to $100 each. After that, he bought a bottle that his buddies would likely call “swill.” It was $8.
He poured the two expensive wines into their own decanters. He filled a third decanter with the cheap wine and repeated one of the expensive vintages in the fourth.
The four wines received similar ratings from the panel. What’s more is that the ratings on the two decanters filled with the same wine showed greater disparity than ratings between decanters that contained totally different wines. I’d call that a win, folks. Needless to say, no one in the Society of Fellows was pleased to hear that they’d been duped.
2. The Vintner Victory
One winemaker by the name of Robert Hodgson was getting all kinds of annoyed with the inconsistencies he faced when he sent his best bottles off to competitions.
Because he happens to have a background in statistics, he put judges at the California State Fair to the test. He presented them with a flight of four wines, three of which were the same one poured from a single bottle. The results made the judges’ inconsistencies blatantly obvious, since the exact same wine was often judged differently by the same people. Fun!
Because I ruin everything in real life, I love TruTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything.” To hear Adam Conover’s take on wine snobbery, check this out.
You know what? I’m going to drink my cheap wine proudly. Next time your wine snob friend decides to go from zero to infuriating real quick, smile as you drink your swill knowing that they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.