Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

One of the things vexes me as a writer is how quality gets constructed. How do humans decide what they like and dislike? The simple answer is “we like what’s good.” Slightly less simple, but only slightly, is “we like what we like.” But the longer I think about the subject, the more I think that perhaps the most significant factor in determining quality is a person’s internal narrative. I also believe that how we decide what we like and dislike is intensely important because unless we understand the origin of our internal narrative – and how outside forces shape it – we diminish our intellectual freedom and harm our communities.

Which brings us to io9‘s article, pithily entitled, “Wine Tasting is Bullshit. Here’s Why.” It is useful for my purposes because it is a survey of other articles that discuss the problem with wine tasting. In none of the articles does the idea of “narrative” come up, but I firmly believe that’s the underlying issue.

People’s inability to taste subtleties is well documented. I remember the first time I started to grapple with this issue. Years ago, there was a TV show called “Fight Back! with David Horowitz.” It was a “consumer advocacy” show where the host, Horowitz, would challenge claims made by commercials. At the time, the Cola Wars were in full swing, and there was an ad by Pepsi saying that in blind taste tests, people couldn’t tell the difference between the two colas.

Here’s some background: there are some products to which people are extremely loyal. The peak is probably cigarettes. Over the years, cigarette makers found that once a person had decided on a label, it was nearly impossible to get them to switch brands – which is why so many tobacco ads are aimed the youth market. If you get them when they’re young, given the product is also highly addictive, they will stay with it until they die.

Soda is like that. And while neither my friends nor I smoked, we did drink a lot of soda. And we all had our label – Coke or Pepsi. Mostly, my friends were Coke people, and they were vigorous and adamant that Coke was objectively superior to Pepsi. While I was a Pepsi person, myself, I found their attitude sorta crazy. Not that they had a preference – I did, too, after all – but I regarded both to be “about the same.”

It wasn’t until David Horowitz replicated the results of the Pepsi ad – apparently, people can’t tell the difference in a blind taste test – that I started to think about the power of advertising. Somehow, the purveyors of fizzy sugar water had convinced almost all Americans to have a strong opinion about two products that were objectively almost identical – so identical that without a label, almost no one could reliably tell them apart.

It busted my brain in ways I’m still grappling with, clearly. Why would anyone have a strong opinion about their fizzy sugar water?

With Coke, it goes back to World War II. Coca-Cola got a contract with the Department of War to supply soda to the troops. So many millions of Americans – many of whom had never really been exposed to soda, before – came to associate Coca-Cola with the effort to win the war. And there was something so powerful about that narrative that they passed it on to their children, and their children’s children, through to this day. Something very similar happened with cigarettes.

(With soda and cigarettes, to be honest, I think part of it is that they’re addictive substances. The manufacturer isn’t just producing a product, they’re your reliable dealer. But that is also a narrative – soda and cigarettes are mostly the same, after all, regardless of label.  That you stay with them because they’re your drug dealer is not the same as saying you’re with them because they’re objectivity the best deal for you.)

Of course, with wine, there’s not that kind of narrative, but there are many others, which is where the io9 article comes in. So “statistician and wine-lover Robert Hodgson” wondered why there was a forty percent deviance in his wine offerings – ranging from excellent to poor, even at internationally ranked wine tastings.

I contend that the rankings were because each judge was telling themselves a story about the wine, and that story was more important than anything else about the wine.

The rest of the article, I’ll assert, bears me out. Research Frédéric Brochet found that wine experts couldn’t tell the difference between red and white wine. None of the fifty-four professional wine tastes figured out that the “red” wine was white wine with food coloring. A follow-up article to Brochet’s piece, in The New Yorker, found that when you served a bottle of cheap red wine in a fancy, upscale bottle that the wine tasters liked it a lot more. When served the “cheap” wine, they described it with words like “weak, short, light, flat, faulty.” But served the same wine in a fancy bottle, suddenly it was, “woody, complex, balanced, rounded.”

Of course, it should surprise no one that part of the narrative of wine tasting is price. By io9’s article goes on, hedging about the subject but never diving into it. Just in that one article, The New Yorker piece and a piece from an MIT behaviorist that noted that the language used to describe wines changes according to the price of the wine – yet, the io9 piece didn’t want to grasp that a big factor in deciding what is good is how much you paid for it.

(And, ironically, it is likely that narrative is more important to wine tasters than the rest of us. Wine taster’s markup wines that are expensive. Amateur wine drinkers – you know, the bulk of the human population – prefer less expensive wines. Again, I see the hand of a narrative at work. Wine tasters see buying an expensive bottle of wine as a sign of taste, sophistication, and class. The rest of us are more pleased when we get a good deal on something.)

All of this has tremendous significance for any artist and everyone else who likes art. The fact – fact! – that profession wine tasters can be tricked by bullshit like fancy bottles and high price tags to substantially modify their opinion of the object of their expertise puts into doubt the very existence of objective quality. All quality is a construct, where the actual traits of the piece are often only a tiny part. And I suspect this is true in fields – like art and wine – where objectivity is in short supply. You can rate a car on things like reliability, safety, fuel mileage. But wine and art and many things besides have no such easy parameters of objectivity.

With art, though, we’re often not flying solo. Increasingly, long before anything even comes out, we have been worked.

For me, the perfect example of this are the Marvel superhero movies. Many of them are just downright bad with incomprehensible characterizations, repetitive plots, mediocre protagonists. Even the action is often an incoherent whirl of pixels on the screen without rhyme or reason. And, clearly, a big part of any one of the movies is simply to sell you on the next movie, forcing in characters and situations that exist as commercials for more Marvel movies.

It doesn’t surprise me that the movies do well at the box office, of course. Tongue-in-cheek action flicks doing disproportionately well at the box office goes back to the 80s. For a long time, every action flick by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone made money at the box office.

The difference is that while Ah-nuld and Sly’s movies made money, few people were tricked into thinking they were good. So, the by-the-numbers Schwarzenegger actioner, Commando, has an undistinguished 69% at Rotten Tomatoes. Captain America: Civil War has the very fine, indeed, score of 90%.

This is the same as that statistician being baffled at the forty percent variance of his wines at different festivals. Both are brutally stupid super blockbuster action movies. But one has a much, much higher score.

Civil War even has a higher rating than The Raid: Redemption, which is just flat-out one of the best action movies ever made. But even The Raid: Redemption only has an 85% rating.

This narrative is equally true for many other kinds of media. Music, TV shows, and most important for me, books. Once a society has decided that a piece of media is “good,” once that becomes the narrative, it is almost impossible to shake. I find it easy, when discussing Marvel movies, to get people to acknowledge that they’re not as good as their ratings suggest, that they really are mediocre popcorn munchers as forgettable as any mid-80s Schwarzenegger movie – and often inferior to other movies that don’t get nearly so much critical acclaim or juggernaut advertising. So powerful is the narrative, that their enthusiasm is rarely a watt dimmer for the next pre-packaged pablum of a Marvel movie. Or the next A Song of Ice and Fire, or their continued obsession with Harry Potter. The narrative is in full control.

Which puts indie artists at a perpetual disadvantage. In writing, the first step in creating the narrative of quality is being published by a large publishing house. Nevermind that they’re roughly as good at telling a book’s quality as wine tasters are at tasting wine: like wine tasters, though, they are gatekeepers of “quality.” It is much harder to convince someone that an indie novel is as good as a corporate novel because the assumption is that professional editing automatically provides a better book.

Then, of course, even with corporate publications, there is a strict hierarchy. A few – a very few – books will be given real advertising budgets. Unsurprisingly, these books do much better than every other book. And, again, the assumption is that the corporate guys know what they’re doing. The belief is that the editors and publishers at the big houses promote books based on objective quality. If a person is getting a big advertising push, it means that the book is higher quality than the others in its cohort.

It is to their advantage, of course, that we believe this. This narrative centralizes the concept of quality in their hands.

It also explains why works that are “mash-ups” do better than average. You write Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, you’re associating your work with a highly-read book that’s part of the literary canon, and all the passion that goes into that. You write Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you’re associating your work with the positive feelings we have for Lincoln. It subverts the system, though only slightly. It doesn’t match the power of multigenerational branding and multimillion dollar ad campaigns used by Disney to market, say, the Star Wars and Marvel movies.

Overall, I’m not complaining that we develop narratives to organize our likes and dislikes. It is natural and inevitable. I believe it arises from our desire to share our passions with our loved ones.

What offends me is the development of the professional judges and advertisers – the “taste-makers.” (And the io9 article, again, supports this under qualification but, at the same time, the narrative of superhuman skill. Despite good research showing that wine tasters can’t identify more than four different “tastes,” their articles nevertheless describe many, many more – often running into the dozens. For some reason, despite it now being an open secret that they’re lying, they keep on doing it. The same is true of all these other professional judges, too, in my experience – they wildly exaggerate their abilities and, for some reason, we let them.)

Let’s be clear: the professional taste-makers just don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Primarily through control of distribution networks that gives them incredible power over what people read, drink, eat, listen to, play, etc., they have managed to convince people that their recommendation is more important than not only the evidence of your senses but your community and culture. This offends me as classist, sexist, racist, and a bunch of other stuff, too. What we like and don’t like isn’t decided in collaboration with our loved ones, according to our needs and desires, but according to the needs of rich business people far away from us physically and culturally.

The only way I can think to dismantle this system is to, well, dismantle it. Saying things like “buy local” isn’t just a mantra to keep businesses in your community (though that is a desirable end in itself) but to reduce, with the aim of eliminating, the corrosive outside influence of malevolent taste-makers who see you as nothing more as a product to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. I believe, at the end of the day, it is a matter of freedom, that human dignity is not well-served by the whole fucking species being tricked into doing the bidding of a few billionaires by creating a hollow sense of personal connection with corporate bullshit.