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The Legendary Study That Embarrassed Wine Experts (2014) (realclearscience.com)
121 points by Tomte 61 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 173 comments

I used to make a living as a mastering engineer, where the job description is to make many tiny changes near or even beyond the threshold of perception, which when summed may add up to a perceptible whole.

How to do this? It's simple: isolate and magnify. Zoom in to where your senses become reliable, make a change informed by your knowledge and experience which you predict will be beneficial, then zoom out. You don't need "golden ears" to be effective: you need an understanding of your tools and techniques and an appreciation for how they affect the gestalt.

The human perceptual mechanism is prone to illusion, and unreliable for measuring and comparing fine detail — that's not what it's for. You won't go wrong if you think of it as primarily designed by evolution to model and identify threats: to hear a twig snap while ignoring the wind blowing, to perceive that hint of unusual movement by something vaguely alligator-shaped in your peripheral vision while ignoring the waves.

Enjoy wine, or that Stradivarius recording, accepting that you might be fooling yourself. Even if you might be wrong about the wine or the Strad, you know for absolute certain whether it is making you happy! Leave it to the critics to claim perceptual accuracy they don't possess and to risk being exposed.

Professional wine tasters are like engineers, and their senses work like a chromatograph. They are able to match a taste profile to one of the wines they know, they are also able to spot and identify defects. They know the wine process and the chemistry involved. They also know their senses can be fooled and will send samples to the lab if they think it is justified.

They are real pros, they work for wineries and distributors to help produce a wine with a desirable profile and to identify and eventually fix defects.

Sommeliers are only a subcategory of wine tasters and the most likely to sound like snobs, but that's only because it is what is expected of them. After all their job is to sell fancy wines in fancy restaurants, so they better sound fancy to customers.

> Enjoy wine, or that Stradivarius recording, accepting that you might be fooling yourself.

Yes, but it's also good to be aware that there are limits to your perception and take advantage. The 80% rule definitely works here. I don't drink wine, but at least with beer, tequila, and coffee, there is a pretty obvious gap between the cheap/ low end stuff and the good stuff, but paying significantly more for higher end brands isn't worth it.

So focus on getting out of that low end category and really enjoy the good stuff because the supposed "great" high end stuff is rarely worth tripling what you pay (or more).

What I’ve found is that the difference between an $30 bottle of wine and a $8 bottle isn’t necessarily quality, it’s consistency: buying the same $8 bottle of wine 10 times can result in five great bottles and five so-so bottles, with a $30+ bottle, it’s more like 1% of the time you get a bad bottle. So, when I’m giving a present or planning a party, I tend to gravitate to the more expensive bottles because it makes the outcome more certain.

Buying into the mid-range is fine. It's what I do with beer a tequila. Buying the $200 bottles is where I question the logic. Even the expert tasters struggle to differentiate between a good $20-30 bottle and a $400 bottle in double blind tests.

I don't drink Sanka or Coors, I just use good coffee beans and drink good local beer. I don't spend $200 on exotic coffee beans feral cats have shit out.

The only reason I put the $6 in parens for wine is because I don't drink wine and don't really know where the price point is for a solid mid-range wine is.

I don't drink coffee, and probably never will, but I remember listening to a podcast once where two coffee drinkers who derided the whole "eat coffee beans shit out by a civet" idea tried it and said it was the best coffee they had ever had. YMMV

Being an ordinary human, I will never know how trolls trolling trolls had a hand in bringing us this tale of Kopi Luwak.

* you

* the two Kopi Luwak drinkers

* the merchant who sold them the Kopi Luwak

* the modern day manufacturers and wholesalers of Kopi Luwak

* the genius who came up with Kopi Luwak

* the civet

How many are civet shit true believers? How many are trolls — some, none, all?

There is also a lot of unethical/ inhumane sourcing on civet coffee at this point.

With wine, lots of people claim to be able to taste the difference between an expensive wine and a cheap one, but as soon as you did a double-blind test, they couldn't tell them apart.

I would be extremely curious to see if the civet coffee was still there if there was double-blind taste test.

And sure enough, someone has done it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDXWgVr_z30

The civet coffee doesn't even come in second place out of 5. Obviously not scientific.

The explanation they provided(or perhaps this was for another kind of digested coffee bean from a kind of monkey??) was that it eliminated the bitterness that comes with drinking coffee.

buying the same $8 bottle of wine 10 times can result in five great bottles and five so-so bottles, with a $30+ bottle, it’s more like 1% of the time you get a bad bottle.

I don't know, in my experience it could equally go the other way. The $8 bottle is mass produced in huge processing plants run by engineers and where everything is monitored, blended and tweaked to taste exactly the same over 100k bottle runs. The $30 bottle could be one of perhaps 2000 bottles made by a farmer in his shed using natural fermentation and biodynamic processes and quality control consists of tasting a few bottles to see if they taste OK.

The $8 bottle will have a taste that has been designed by a panel of experts to match current wine drinking trends. The $30 bottle will be a quirky representation of that farmers harvest, conditions, winemaking quirks and whatever random fluctuations happened to take place during that particular vinification process.

This seems like a flawed approach. These days, $8 bottles are a mass-produced affairs, generally full of additives for body, color, 'legs', and other attributes. They're very consistent affairs, as consistent as Bic pens or Cheetos. They are not charmingly rustic bottles from small struggling vintners.

(Not sure where you live, but in major US cities $8 will get you only the most mass-market stuff - Frontera, Yellow Tail, etc.)

> generally full of additives for body, color, 'legs', and other attributes

Is this true? Here in New Zealand a NZ$10 (US$7) bottle will be just wine unless it is sparkling. The difference between cheap and expensive is that cheap wine is usually a blend of different wines to achieve some specific flavour profile which theoretically means a more generic flavour since it will average out the specific regional and micro-regional flavours.

Here in New Zealand a NZ$10 (US$7) bottle will be just wine unless it is sparkling.

Virtually no wine is 'just wine', especially at the lower price points. All winemakers add at least some additives and preservatives to help with the vinification process and to stabilize the wine. There are probably 30+ chemicals approved adding to wine and I can promise you that a NZ$10 of wine has several of them.

What we think of as "just wine" isn't "natural wine". Yes, all wine has additives - but it's not artificial flaviourings etc.

This just isn’t true: I’m in SoCal, and you can get a very good bottle of wine at Trader Joe’s for $8 (TJ store label), but there’s no guarantee that buying another bottle with the same label tastes as good.

But that is probably because "TJ store label" isn't a wine maker. They probably just buy whatever wine they can get for cheap and put their name on it. What you are experience isn't inconsistencies in the wine making process, but inconsistencies in TJ's wine procurement process.

So you buy the $8 wine and the $30 wine. Since it's almost certain all the wine from the same batch is going to be similar quality. If you get a good $8 bottle you go back the next day and buy a couple cases of the good/ cheap stuff. If the cheap stuff is not-so-good, drink the $30 wine and use the cheap stuff to cook with.

This way you are guaranteed good wine.

I've been drinking wine for a while, in the range from $4-$100 and even though I wanted to say that the expensive stuff was better, I cannot tell the difference at all. It all tastes like wine. Every now and then my wife will say that a bottle is "bad" and "vinegar-like" but I still can't tell. I just don't get it. The only thing I can tell is whether a wine is sweet or not - but that only has to do with fermentation not necessarily quality.

Sure. But lets have a good time mocking those deluded critics as well. That's good fun too!

On this topic, what resource do you think is a really good one for learning mastering?

Try messing around with buss processing and track sequencing while referencing other recordings in the same genre. Just make sure to keep the unprocessed tracks around, and err on the side of "less is more". There's a lot of overlap between the aesthetic skills needed for mixing and those needed for mastering.

The profession of mastering is much more than that, but generally when people ask this question they want to know about the aesthetics, not about stuff like thoroughly grokking many source and delivery formats, etc.

Thanks for the directional advice.

For me personally, I'm a bit past the messing around stage and wondering about specific areas of exploration.

I'm just always thinking mastering engineers know some techniques I've never considered, especially in terms of creating that upper register 'shimmer' ... is there crazy stuff happening using m-s and then diving in to certain frequency ranges?

It could be that it's more mystique than real?

I don't think there are. Lots of resources on technicalities of the craft, but I'm not sure you can effectively teach mastering skills without hands-on approach. Some subtle nuances of the sound are just very hard to describe and be sure the reader really hears it properly.

Mastering engineer needs to develop sharp focus, integrate themselves deeply into their listening environment and setup to understand how their decisions will translate in the wild. It's also important to know what the author/producer and the listener expects from the music, so you can, fortunately, make both sides happier. This implies listening a lot of different music with a critical ear.

I mostly do mixing, but do mastering as well and I enjoy the process a lot. It's not easy but can be extremely rewarding.

The book Mastering Audio by Bob Katz covers a lot of ground.

>Even if you might be wrong about the wine or the Strad, you know for absolute certain whether it is making you happy!

I also know for absolute certain that I can't afford expensive wine and that there are people who look down at me because the wine I drink shows I have an "unrefined palate".

Normally the concept of "elitism" is hogwash, but this is a pretty clear-cut example. Expensive wine serves to make one seem refined and worldly. It enables rich people to pretend they are more cultured, more intelligent, and just plain better than the plebs because they think they have the taste to appreciate a $500 bottle of wine.

Expensive wine is a tool of oppression. I actually don't think that's hyperbole. It is a small tool that doesn't do anywhere near as much damage as the prisons or the war on drugs or Fox News, but it has the same effect.

Sour Grapes is a documentary about someone who sold a bunch of counterfeit wine to elites that couldn’t tell the difference, worth a watch.

That's probably not a wholly fair characterization. Part of the takeaway is that the perpetrator had a sophisticated palate and spent a lot of time mixing already high-end (but not $thousands/bottle) wine to work out the recipes.

I'm as skeptical as anyone that someone can distinguish between a $2k and $200 wine. But to someone that drinks wine daily, the difference between $6 and $60 wine (red, of similar varietal and style) is pretty dramatic. Yeah, some rich guys got suckered, but I don't think they were chumps.

There’s a scene where an actual expert tastes the fake wine and calls it garbage, the people he swindled tended to have a high view of their own palate but little formal training. And yeah by all accounts the swindler had a very sophisticated sense of taste.

IIRC that actual expert had been informed it was fake before he tasted it, so it sounded like a BS claim to me.

That’s like enjoying a diamond you overpaid for or an art forgery. Just because it makes you happy doesn’t mean you haven’t been swindled.

So, buy cheap wine and enjoy it without regrets! :)

I know, that's empty advice. Drinking expensive wine is usually about signalling social status; it's not really about taste.

Well I don’t really drink but it’s the principle of the matter! I want to be happy and content without being swindled.

This has been debunked repeatedly, but since "we showed those snobs!" makes for good clickbait, it inevitably returns.

The studies listed never quite make it clear how "wine expert" is being defined. The one in this article says it used students, who clearly are not experts in any sense of the word. Other studies just handwave away the question and say, "We asked wine experts." If you dig into some of them, it turns out that the designated "wine experts" were really some people that took a weekend course on wine testing.

If you don't define your terms, your conclusions are not relevant.

Edit, just to add an example more amenable to the HN crowd. Imagine a research study asks CS students or recent coding camp graduates questions about programming and computer science. Would you take their answers as authoritative? Because that's pretty much what is happening here, except with wine.

Here's how the research went down. First, Brochet gave 27 male and 27 female oenology students a glass of red and a glass of white wine and asked them to describe the flavor of each. The students described the white with terms like "floral," "honey," "peach," and "lemon." The red elicited descriptions of "raspberry," "cherry," "cedar," and "chicory."

I think what this study showed is that oenology try to fit the wine in front of themselves into the framework what they have been taught. You see red wine and try to fit it into this limited framework and describe it.

I think they were fooled indeed.

As a person who likes wine, I simply like to enjoy wine and not to describe it and try to figure out what that smell or taste resembles.

Sure. Only a small portion of people care about trying to analyze wine. But it is useful for selling wine. I like wines with lots of non-fruit flavors. Seeing a description with things I have heard used to describe wines I remember liking is useful. So there is a place for descriptors even if I buy wine to enjoy rather than analyze.

Sure, definitely. I have sold wine in my early adulthood and clients really cared about such things and it is good to have some vocabulary to describe and distinguish different wines.

Just what I think this study shows is that you may get stuck in this learned framework and try to apply it based on the appearance of the wine (red|white) and you will bias your judgement based on this.

This study setup is clearly adversarial but then again it pointed out a clear weakness in current state of oenology - to understand the wine better, you must eliminate biases.

> As a person who likes wine, I simply like to enjoy wine and not to describe it and try to figure out what that smell or taste resembles.

I feel similarly about beer and coffee. I hear people talk about fruity flavors in coffee or other similarly weird descriptions of beer and I taste it and just taste the coffee. I can definitely taste the difference between fairly distinct varieties of coffee (or beer). But when people talk about getting cherry overtones in their coffee, I just shrug and enjoy it.

I am currently having Belgian Leffe Brune dark beer and when I force myself to describe it then I could say that I feel coffee overtones. It might be similar to Guinness but it feels more liquid and spicy but in general it is a beer that I just really enjoy.

Usually common beer is, well, common (good as beer but no special tastes, smells). There are of course differences between scale of sweetness, bitterness and so on but rarely something extraordinary.

But craft beers have introduced many flavors into the beer world where you can clearly say that some of the beers are fruity etc (because they maybe were fermented with juice instead of pure water etc).

Now I again try to just enjoy the beverage but the distinction is much more pronounced.

Single malt whiskies are also special case - more similar to the craft beers in their nature - a lot of experimentation and variety and some very distinct smells and tastes.

With coffee there is distinct difference between Arabica and Robusta beans but in general I have not felt anything that would distinguish coffee from common beer - maybe I just have not tasted a really special coffee though.

Ok... I'll admit, beer is a terrible example.

Though personally I can't tell one IPA from another unless they go really weird (like they have dark IPAs around here). And I vastly prefer stouts.

I don't drink a lot of beer, especially lately, but I do like to have a different one once in a while, and I certainly can taste the difference between many, and also can get an idea from most descriptions, what "fruity", "nutty", etc. means. That may have come with experience... Through given a beer in a blind test, I probably couldn't write a useful taste profile and if I tried, it would probably come out very embarrassing for me, since I had no training for this, I think given the description I could have if not exact than pretty useful idea of what to expect.

Interestingly enough, though I like taste of coffee in general, I have never cared for different sorts, it's all "coffee" for me, though I know people who swear there's a huge difference (and they are not generally pretentious kind so I tend to believe they genuinely think so).

You are restricting your perception by not attempting to apply active attention to the flavors. Not bad but it's not bad the other way around either.

> As a person who likes wine, I simply like to enjoy wine and not to describe it and try to figure out what that smell or taste resembles.

As a person who likes wine, I enjoy picking apart the taste on my palate and figuring out what it resembles to characterize it.

> This has been debunked repeatedly

Any sources to support that statement?

That article doesn't debunk Brochet's experiment. Here's what it says: "That said, important to note here is that while Brochet’s studies are often cited as definitively showing how bad wine experts are at judging wines, in this case that they can’t even tell the difference between red and white wines, that’s not what that study actually showed at all."

Brochet proved that most people who are reasonably knowledgeable about wine can be fooled into thinking that a white wine which has been dyed red is a red wine, as shown by their describing it in terms normally used to describe a red wine, because their senses of taste and smell were fooled by what they saw.

It was not a blind taste test.

I think what Brochet study clearly displayed is that novice oenology students are too biased by the framework what they have been taught - they see red colored wine and they try to fit it into the framework they know.

What this study did not show was that a general public would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

It also did not show that seasoned wine experts would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

This is a really interesting study but it has its clear limitations and these should be acknowledged.

So you think that even though the study showed that people so interested in wine that they are in training to become an expert couldn't tell the difference, that doesn't mean joe off the street can't tell a difference? I call bs.

Color white wine red and most people can't tell the difference.

Mix a few wines together and slap an ancient, expensive label on it and most of the world's top experts can't tell the difference. (as evidenced by some of the massive wine scams that have gone on for decades mostly unbeknownst to all the wine experts that buy the fakes)

For the general public, wine of red color IS the red wine, so the whole question would be moot. Unless you're very non-general knowledgeable person - either formally trained or self-taught - you not only wouldn't see the difference, you wouldn't realize there's anything going on at all. Is it wine? Is it red? Then it's the red wine, period.

Then the threshold of what is "knowledgeable" has been mis-defined. There is clearly a level of knowledge that can articulate the distinction.

I'm not saying nobody knows the difference, certainly a lot of people do. But these people are a tiny percentage of the general public.

I think it does not hurt to repost my comment again:

I think what Brochet study clearly displayed is that novice oenology students are too biased by the framework what they have been taught - they see red colored wine and they try to fit it into the framework they know.

What this study did not show was that a general public would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

It also did not show that seasoned wine experts would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

This is a really interesting study but it has its clear limitations and these should be acknowledged.

It didn't hurt, but I feel it didn't also help much. If you had some point that you wanted to express by reposting it, I think you better to say it plainly, because otherwise it's not coming through.

Hmm. Maybe you read a different article from what you linked.

"Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers."

"Much to my mortification I was dead wrong, as was everyone else in the room. The proprietor chuckled and informed his room… that the wines were actually the same wine; one was just warmer than the other."

If anything, this article confirms the conclusions of the original. Again from your article:

"Rather, this test simply showed how easily our perception of things is influenced by suggestion."

This doesn't contradict the original conclusion, it confirms it.

I think that this study is very specific to novice oenology students - they were too biased by the framework what they were taught - they saw red colored wine and they tried to fit it into the framework they know.

What this study did not show was that a general public would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

It also did not show that seasoned wine experts would not distinguish between red wine and colored white wine.

This is a really interesting study but it has its clear limitations and these should be acknowledged.

This is in response to the article the parent linked, not the original.

In that article, professional tasters were fooled by a small temperature difference in the same exact wine.

The big takeaway is if you want to truly test anything about the flavor of wine, you absolutely must remove all preconceptions. So you must control for temperature, color, knowledge of the wine vintage, what you've eaten prior, etc. A true blind test in other words.

This isn't something just novices will fall for, many top pros will fall for simple changes as well.

Alternatively the dynamic of temperature must be included as part of knowledge of the wine, and one must allow for wines to potentially converge in taste depending on their history.

It is not dissimilar to tea in that regard where multiple preparations of a tea under different constraints of temperature or otherwise, can result in drastically different flavorings in the scope of hours. (The tea drinking practice in China known as Cha Dao leverages this fact to create a complex tea drinking experiences in an afternoon)

> In a sneaky study, Brochet dyed a white wine red and gave it to 54 oenology (wine science) students. The supposedly expert panel overwhelmingly described the beverage like they would a red wine. They were completely fooled.

I don't understand. Why would anyone think of a student as an expert? I'm not saying that oenologists aren't full of it. I'm saying that this study doesn't prove what this article claims it does. Why doesn't the author report on a study with established experts instead?

I think that raises questions about the quality of the wine more than about anything else. I'm more of a beer guy but I can easily tell white from red wine. Both taste and aftertaste are very different.

Scientists: We took a bunch of people who claim they can tell red wine from white wine based on taste, and successfully fooled most of them with food coloring.

Internet commenter reading the study: I can definitely tell red wine from white wine based on taste.

Any Spanish person who claims they cannot tell red from white wine is probably a teetotaller. However you can buy extremely good wine for a few € here, which leads me to think these people may have been served some watered down stuff for budget reasons.

Until you do a blind taste test on yourself, you don't know that you can tell.

Gwern is that you?

(Just kidding. I know he doesn't have a monopoly over blind/randomized self-tests.)

To be fair, I did do a blind taste-test indicating I can tell the difference between mineral water brands: https://www.gwern.net/Tea#water-experiment (Spoiler: they all taste bad or indifferent, and Evian tasted the worst.)

The span of 'red' and 'white' wines is pretty massive. I don't find it too hard to believe that if you took a robust, heavily oaked and acidic white (perhaps with some skin maceration) and served it at room temperature with red food coloring that it could pass as a light bodied, low tannin, red from some grape you weren't familiar with.

Obviously if you had a Barolo and a Chablis and asked people to pick out the white wine then people would easily manage.

You probably can't.

You probably can make a difference between a red wine you are familiar with with a white wine you are also familiar with. Both served the usual way.

Besides the color, red and white wines are typically served at a different temperature (that alone change things completely) and with different dishes. So of course, make all parameters different and they are going to taste different.

I can usually make the difference pretty easily but I drank some white wines that I definitely would have thought were red if blind. But that's typically wine made to be paired with the main course and served at a higher temperature than usual.

And sure, some wines are unmistakable. If a wine is loaded in tanins, it is most likely deep red and the taste is obvious. The opposite is not that easy.

With respect, and without any particular knowledge of your experiences, I would suggest that your impression of "red" and "white" wine is shaped by very typical examples of both.

There is an incredibly broad array of flavor, mouth feel, aromas, etc., in both red and white wine and while you and I might very reliably discern a Napa Chardonnay from an Argentine Malbec there are many white and red wines that are well off the spectrum of what we think of as "red" and "white" wines.

I have done a lot of wine tasting all over the world and I am certain you could fool me with regard to red vs. white - if you chose interesting and unconventional examples ...

> is shaped by very typical examples of both.

which is what everyone means by "red" and "white" wine. when you process your data points you're supposed to remove the outliers.

Another somewhat famous study involved taking a cheap wine and an expensive wine and swapping the bottles. When people tasted the wines and the bottles were hidden, people accurately scored the wines. When the bottles were visible, people preferred the wine in the expensive bottle. All but the experts were susceptible to this effect.

Which asks the question: if no one else can tell the difference, are experts just able to detect what expensive wine tastes like, as opposed to what nice-tasting wine tastes like?

That's not what they are concluding. If they are tasting it blind (with no preconception), their taste is accurate. It becomes inaccurate when there is external bias (like cost or a particular label). Note that the actual article was based on the assessments of students. I wouldn't classify them as trained experts, as I'll detail below.

I used to work in a brewery, and part of my job was beer tasting. We used the same nomenclature and tasting training as the wine industry. It's a qualitative assessment, but there is a lot of science behind it, and the training is actually quite difficult. You actually train on specific samples with a single taste, initially very unsubtle and clearly labelled. Then to pass certification you have to do it completely blind. Next level up you progress to subtler tastes and repeat. The really advanced people are genuinely capable of discerning very specific chemical compounds with a very high degree of accuracy.

The point I want to make here is that this is an actual discipline in its own right, and the people practicing it in industry aren't quacks. They have to pass examinations which test their skills empirically and objectively against blinded reference samples. You can't get certified without it, and no one can pass without spending some serious effort getting the training. I didn't stay in the industry long enough to become an expert, but I have done the basics.

We used to do assessment sessions where you would rank 40 unlabelled samples lined up on a bench. Each one would be scored between 1 and 10 on a defined scale for several criteria. Both experts and novices like myself would do it, and then they would do stats on the results of 20 or so people to see how everyone in the expert group compared, and how the novices did compared to the collective expert assessment. So in industry, it is used in a semi-quantitative way. (We have stuff like GC and GC-MS for more exact quantitative measurements.)

I want to push back on one of your central tenets.

> f they are tasting it blind ... their taste is accurate

It would be more accurate to say the tasting would be less subjective. I don’t think “accurate” is a good word - people all taste things differently due to different taste buds and psychological wirings.

But even then, removing the label doesn’t mean people taste anything objectively. They are bringing in their own biases - maybe they are tired, hungry, or stressed.

Finally, (and this is my primary point), to taste is not just to detect the presence of certain molecules. That may be (part of) the objective experience, but is only part of the puzzle. To taste something is to subjectively interpret my enjoyment and experience of something edible. Adding the label and cost can be part of that experience.

Further, the effect of showing the label has a pretty consistent directional impact on ratings. What makes that any different than, say, blocking a specific taste bud receptor and changing what molecules are perceived? I suggest the only difference is the abstraction layer at which the influence occurs.

Taste is inherently subjective. Removing a label does not make it more accurate. I argue further that labels/prices add no more subjectivity than a persons particular configuration of taste buds and neural wiring.

I think you're muddling two meanings of the word taste: the aesthetic sense, vs the chemical detection system of your mouth and nose.

The latter is not subjective. The experience might be, the qualia might be, and it will change with training and priming, but the raw detection is what the parent is talking about and that is objective.

I don't agree. Yes, the qualia is different, but there is no tasting without the taster, who introduces divergence between two individuals. Two different people are going to have different taste buds and different wiring. You might have a stronger signal from tannins than I do. Maybe I lack the receptors for specific molecules. Your psychology might prefer tannins more than I do.

If we're talking about an objective assessment of the molecules in the bottle, then I agree there is an absolute and correct answer. But in order to taste something, there has to be a taster, and that will vary between individuals.

The first part of my reply could have been better. I should have said "unbiased" rather than "accurate".

The training part is very much about learning to identify specific chemicals, or groups of chemicals. That absolutely is raw detection, as you say. Let me provide some examples. For the "level 1" training, the most basic stuff, samples would be things like: plain water, acid (very dilute sulphuric acid), alkali (very dilute sodium hydroxide), metal (copper and nickel metal coins in a bottle of water), rubber (rubber tubing cut up in a bottle of water), salt, sugar and a few others I've forgotten (this was 22 years ago), maybe some other major categories like aldehydes. Just for the record, you don't actually drink any of that stuff down, it's tasting only and its very dilute! When the solutions are all clear, being able to identify each blind from some anonymised samples is surprisingly difficult, especially when diluted so it's more subtle. But it's absolutely possible with practice.

The higher levels are all more subtle things like many different flavour compounds. For wine and beer, almost exclusively aromatic hydrocarbons, along with esters and other flavour compounds. I never did this but it's the same process, but it's much more difficult. Instead of under 10, you have an industry-standard reference set of IIRC around 60 compounds, and you have to be able to identify each and every one blind when diluted in isolation. And obviously in a drink you have to be able to identify them all individually in combination as well. This is the part that takes the most time and effort to master. And it's these people that I wouldn't question too much regarding their skills, because they actually had to pass objective assessments to demonstrate those skills. This is really hard!

This is why I'm a little disappointed that the original article mentioned using students. They would be unlikely to have achieved that level of competence. It takes many months, if not years, of regular practice to get to that level. I spent a year doing the basic training and then continual daily testing and monthly assessments, and while I still class myself as being at a very basic level, I'd still likely have more practical experience than them.

Regarding subjectivity and the "experience" of taste, that's absolutely taken on board as well. But it's a separate question. For where I worked, every product had a spec sheet, mostly physical and chemical properties but also a taste profile. The professional tasters could make sure it met that profile exactly. The rest of us just made sure it looked and tasted as a consumer would expect it to.

For those who are wondering about why those specific "level 1" tastes, they aren't random and they are actually serving an additional purpose. Those are to also pick up on product contamination. Metal and rubber from storage tanks and pipework. Acid and alkali from cleaning agents and coolant. I actually had to check for the latter once when we had a potential set of hairline cracks in a tank suspected of leaching coolant [in beverage production, they use very concentrated KCl since it's non-toxic if it leaks, but at pH14 it's nasty stuff].

Would you compromise and agree with the phrase "less biased" or "removed of one specific kind of bias"? It is impossible to be objective when we're talking about people's experiences. And I don't think "taste" can be defined without including the taster - the objective measurement of molecular concentrations is doing a mass spec on something, not tasting it.

"If they are tasting it blind (with no preconception), their taste is accurate."

Very true, however there's a great deal of pretentious BS in the wine-tasting game. No matter how long one has been tasting wine, ultimately one has to have some degree of competence to analyze and then describe what one is actually tasting.

That said, I'm sure people can be trained to develop wine-tasting skills and that they actually get better with experience—but ultimately one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear no matter how good the training.

I claim no great expertise in the wine-tasting/oenology game and I'm sure that I'd likely have been fooled by the dyed 'red' wine as described in the article (if I were to be so fooled then I would have had a certain class of red wines in mind when doing the comparison).

Nevertheless, I do have little wine experience and I have found that it is often just sufficient to catch out the true BS artists. One only has to be marginally better at discriminating which wine is better than they are then their BS status becomes pretty obvious.

I recall a couple of decades ago attending a rather expensive black-tie blind tasting of about 25 so-called experts with an engineering colleague of mine (he too had had some experience in tasting reasonable-to-good wines). As techies, we were the odd ones out, as we didn't work in the wine industry and most of the others did. Moreover, the master of ceremonies was a long-time well-known wine writer for a large newspaper and had a number of wine books to his name.

As I mentioned, it was a blind tasting and the wines were the then newest (just released) first and second class Bordeaux growths with the exception of the Mouton Rothschild (it was either unavailable or too expensive to include). This much we all knew before the tasting. The aim of the exercise was to determine the best wines then rank them in order using the 3-7-10 scoring system.

Anyway, like many blind tasting, it turned out to be pretty much of a shambles. The so-called experts including the wine writer were all over the place, mistaking first growths for second and vice versa. A final exercise for everyone was to guess the Lafite Rothschild, for without the presence of the Mouton, it was the most expensive wine there. (BTW, it's not the first time I've seen our wine writer in action and he was again true to form on this night.)

The only ones to get the Lafite correct were my colleague and I (I nearly made myself sick from trying to hide my smirks it was so damn funny)! Incidentally, the Lafite wasn't all that hard to guess, as it was true to form and it was also the best wine of the night.

Now back down to earth. Every winter I used to attend a different group for food and wine dinners. They too were black-tie events and were held approximately a month apart. It was organized by a guy who owned a wine cellar/emporium and the dinners/tastings were held at the cellar. This guy was truly one of the best and up there with the likes of Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent—he was certainly the best I've ever come across. Most of us were awestruck by his ability.

Incidentally, all four of these guys are in the Wiki List of wine personalities: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wine_personalities. Thus is goes to show that sometimes BS can get one almost everywhere.

Incidentally, with respect to being fooled by the dyed white wine. It seems to me that if these oenology student were actually fooled then they must have been familiar with lighter style reds à la Provence or similar and comparing the wine with those reds. For I fail to see how any robust red—Bordeaux first growths, Californian (Stags' Leap Cabernet, etc.) or Australian Reds (Grange or similar) could ever be mistaken for a white or vice versa, irrespective of color or in a blind tasting, for these big red styles are just too distinctive to be mistaken for whites in any circumstances. Even neophytes should be able to tell the difference.

> Very true, however there's a great deal of pretentious BS in the wine-tasting game.

Absolutely agreed 100%. I've been to a few organised tasting events, and I think at that level it's pretty much all pretension and style over substance. It's for the experience and the entertainment, and at that level I have no problem with it.

I just wanted to provide a perspective about how it's used industrially for wholly serious purposes, where people train to objective standards, and have to pass formal examinations to demonstrate their skill. You can't pass them with pretension, they are the real deal. The simple examination was tough enough for me, and that only increased my respect for the really skilled people.

At the industrial level, the tasting is also done alongside and correlated with quantitative scientific analysis. The lab I worked in ran each batch through GC-FID (basic stuff), headspace-sampling GC-FID (volatile aromatics), alongside a battery of additional physical and chemical analyses (too many to list here, there are at least 20, the big brewers take product quality and safety really seriously). And we had GCMS and LCMS systems and other more detailed tests as options on demand to test more obscure stuff like metal content (for making Marmite yeast extract where iron levels are important, apparently).

One of the key roles of the tasters isn't just at production, it's to assess how the character changes over time when assessing shelf-life, where there may be negative things like oxidation, bacterial contamination, lightstruck reactions, and other factors which influence the taste change over time. All very rare. Saw one example of oxidation in my entire time there, in a small batch for export. We would taste every batch once a month over the course of its entire shelf life. Bottles, cans, kegs, everything. That's where we would do group assessments where the qualified tasters and ourselves would taste everything blind.

Right, there's many issues here and I'll comment about them in a later post (I've run out of time).

However one comment before I go, what you're describing seems not that dissimilar to the perfumery business. Training for that is intense and takes years.

[Second] <...> Now to the crux of matter concerning those quotes. It's simplest to explain what I'm on about by way of a real example. A couple of years ago, I helped a colleague move the contents of his factory to a new location and we needed drums to store various oils and cutting lubricants from his machine tools. 20-litre ones were too small, 210ltr/44 imp. gal too big, so we settled on using 100 litre ones and the only place we could get them from was a supplier/distributor of synthetic musks, aka SMs, (as used to perfume detergents etc.) who supplied used empties. Each drum still contained a residue of between 300 to 500 ml (due to the bung lip emptying problem) and yours truly was far too curious to let interesting chemicals like these ones escape without further examination, so I saved them.

The drums still had their CAS numbers, IUPAC info/chemical formula and InChI identifiers so I knew exactly what I had. I ended up with a wide collection of about a dozen different chemicals whose structures ranged across the three most common musk types: nitro/xylene/ketone-like, macrocyclic ketones and polycyclic/galaxolide-like musks.

You can imagine what the old factory smelled like while I emptied out the drums, it stank to high heaven and you could still smell the musks way down the street (not surprising really, given that the human olfactory detection threshold for some of them is supposedly in the ng/l range). (Incidentally, whilst I can't immediately recall the exact details, the older-type nitro variety are potentially explosive, these ones were modern variants (isomers, enantiomers or whatever—I can't remember), thus that wasn't an issue—noticeably, the drums didn't have any hazard warnings to that effect.)

When I commented to my colleague to the effect that I hope we don't get complaints about the stink from those in nearby buildings he retorted "what stink?", he then stuck his nose in the open bung hole of one of the drums and said "it only smells a bit oily to me". This immediately rang alarm bells, as I was aware that he had no difficulty smelling other things.

This led me on a quest to understand more about synthetic musk chemistry and to find out why a comparatively large percentage of the population cannot smell the stuff because of minor genetic differences in their makeup (methinks that must be a problem for the marketing departments of soap powders)! A month or so later I put a small selection of the chemicals into the smallest type of Tabasco sauce bottles, 60 ml, (as a chilli eater I've lots of empties) and took them along to one of the regular social nights I attend. The group is about 20 in size and we do nothing other than wine, dine and yak BS well into the evening. Furthermore, many are rather opinionated about wine and continually argue over which wine is best on the night (of which there may be up to six or more bottles thereof). That said, I've never seen a bottle there that cost more than a low two-figure sum let alone a Bordeaux first growth! Unsurprisingly, knowing my friends, there are two chemists in the group.

Testing the musks out on this 20-something sample, I found that roughly 30% could not detect the musk odour and it included one of the chemists (somewhat to his chagrin), whilst a reasonable percentage of those who could detect it complained that the smell was so overpowering that it would put them off their food. Now that's a contrast!

This brings me back to the human calibration matter and your comment "The simple examination was tough enough for me, and that only increased my respect for the really skilled people." Absolutely, as per the highly respected cellar owner in my previous comment. So where does this leave us? Clearly human perception of odours is highly variable. This quote from an article† that I read when researching the musks sums it up reasonably well:

" Human perception of the odour environment is highly variable. People vary both in their general olfactory acuity as well as in if and how they perceive specific odours. In recent years, it has been shown that genetic differences contribute to variability in both general olfactory acuity and the perception of specific odours. Odour perception also depends on other factors such as age and gender."

This brings me back to your other points:

"At the industrial level, the tasting is also done alongside and correlated with quantitative scientific analysis."

Right, that correlation is something I want to learn more about but I'm not expecting you explain it. Knowledge of it is important to sort the crap and BS out of 'unscientific' wine tasting—and for that matter—many other tasting experiences, disagreements, arguments, etc., such as why some like truffles and others do not, or why as a kid I'd eat all green vegetables including spinach, broccoli and cabbage whilst there'd be a screaming match from a sibling when given them. Similarly, at the age of six why I stopped my mother diluting my tea with hot water after she poured it. Then, within a week of that, I demanded that she stop ruining my tea by adding milk and sugar to it—right, I've drunk it black ever since.

Coming back to the musk matter, I've had many a discussion over characteristics of various wines with my chemist friend (the one who cannot detect the musk odour) and we rarely agree, each coming to a different conclusion over one characteristic or another is best. This led me to the inevitable conclusion that his failure to detect the musk may make him more capable of detecting other types of odours than me and vice versa. I've never read any surveys or statistical correlations of the population such as those who can and can't detect musk versus their perceptions of various different wine characteristics (but then I've never done a proper search of the literature either).

Thus, I'd imagine what you say below perhaps ought to be able to enlighten us (if specifically applied to the matter):

"The lab I worked in ran each batch through GC-FID (basic stuff), headspace-sampling GC-FID (volatile aromatics), alongside a battery of additional physical and chemical analyses (too many to list here, there are at least 20, the big brewers take product quality and safety really seriously)."

…And so should this:

"And we had GCMS and LCMS systems and other more detailed tests as options on demand to test more obscure stuff like metal content (for making Marmite yeast extract where iron levels are important, apparently)." Altogether, I reckon your approach was pretty comprehensive, there's not much left to chance. It's belts and braces level stuff.

Over to you! Have I been living under a mushroom or just ill-informed, or could there actually be a complex relationship between one's ability or inability to be able to detect musk and the ability to detect or not detect other volatile aromatics that, say, are in wine and other substances? Essentially, do you know anything about this, if so is there a well-understood position or are we into new territory?

Given my experience and 'straw poll'/small sample, from my perspective there's a tiny modicum evidence that seems to suggest it. Moreover, given the enormous complexity of the matter and the complex non-linear interrelationships between all the various 'components' I'd not be surprised if there were. (As from my previous experience with other complex systems, almost inevitably new tertiary effects arise. The trouble is that one never knows when or where they'll turn up and what form they'll take—that is until they do.)

Other matters will have to wait for now.


My experience here was 22 years ago, so I'm sure the state of the art and the instrumentation has advanced significantly since then. They were evaluating FT-NIR spectroscopy when I was there, and undoubtedly they have gone much further. They may well be using LC-MS-MS time of flight on every sample now, for all I know, to identify and quantify every single organic molecule. By the way, little if any of this is a "trade secret". The analyses are largely standardised across the industry (and validated using reference laboratories), and the taste training reference sets are commercial products.

I later did a PhD in areas including developmental biology and immunology, and went to some talks by researchers on fly olfactory receptors and memory, which I'll come back to. I didn't do research in this area myself (I was looking at vascular development); it was seminars from visiting researchers. So bear in mind this is secondhand!

I think your comments about sensory experience, differences between people with different genetic backgrounds and so on are pretty much how I understand things myself.

Smell is one of the most, if not the most, primitive senses in the body. While we can philosophise about whether individuals experience the world in the same way, and proving it one way or another is very difficult, if not impossible, a great deal of this basic sense is essentially "hardwired". One of the best talks I went to was from a researcher using genetically modified insects with fluorescently-labelled neurons, which lit up when activated but were also visible when inactive as well (IIRC they used two colours). What was really interesting here was that under the microscope, they could visualise, in real-time, the olfactory receptors, the neural structure linking it to the brain, primarily the area associated with memory. What really struck me was that this was effectively (in computer terms) like the address lines on a memory bus. Each different olfactory receptor appeared to activate a different combination of neurons. Kind of like high and low voltages on lines on a parallel bus. That directly activated a response, be it innate or learned. That could be a danger signal, triggering an immediate physical response e.g. "jump", or positive e.g. "food". I did ask the question about the parallel with computer systems, because it just looked so obvious, but they (rightly) said that it certainly looked that way, but it would take a lot more work to prove. And in biological systems, information transmission is often based on frequency encoding rather than simple on or off, so who knows, but I found this absolutely fascinating. And it makes one wonder whether the "address lines" are wired up randomly and you learn from experience, or if they are actually effectively hardcoded, or a combination of the two. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter.

So I think that if we can draw a parallel from insect to human senses (and I think, at the physical level things will likely be very conserved for such a primitive sense), we have a large repertoire of receptors, connected directly to the brain, likely memory to elicit an immediate learned response. I suspect our experiences will be largely the same bar genetic differences around selected receptors, kind of like red-green colourblindness. We will have a combination of innate and learned responses to given stimuli. We all have an immediate and negative reaction to certain "danger" signals. While having a varied response to others; I imagine there's both a genetic and learned components here.

You're absolutely right about "gain". When doing the tasting we would have a stack of dry "table water" biscuits to "reset" the palate. You can really tell the difference, though it's subtle.

In terms of different perceptions between individuals, that's the main reason for training with a "reference set" of chemical compounds. It makes it objective instead of subjective. You learn to detect each one in complete isolation, and if you're completely physically incapable of detecting it, you should be able to pick up on that. Maybe like red-green colourblindness you can compensate for it if other similar receptors are slightly stimulated? I don't know. Either way, that standardised reference set should mean that everyone is trained to the same standard and knows that "this taste is this named flavour", even if their "experience" of that taste is different (we can never know).

Kind regards, Roger

Thank you very much for your extremely interesting reply; I could carry on this conversion much longer but I fear I'll have worn out my welcome after this lot.

"They may well be using LC-MS-MS time of flight on every sample now, for all I know, to identify and quantify every single organic molecule."

There seems no reason to believe this isn't possible. After all, insects (bees being the specific instance I'm aware of) can detect pheromones to phenomenally infinitesimal amounts, so it all hinges on the sensitivity of the receptors/sensors.

I recall hearing a talk on a radio science program several decades ago by a guy who invented one of the sensors for GC-MS. Can't remember all the specifics but I do recall his illustration, it seemed rather impressive to me at the time. That was if you gave him a thimble full of a chemical that wasn't in seawater and he placed the thimble in a body of water such as a large harbour, then he'd be able to detect traces of it a week later. He also referred to the year this resolution was possible which was 1957 (perhaps that was the patent date). Whether he was exaggerating or not I don't know.

If that was the state of the art 64 years ago then I'd not be surprised of the sensitivities you suggest. I'm also reminded that a few years back, I came across a book in a second-hand bookshop titled Pesticide Identification at the Residue Level American Chemical Society, Advances in Chemistry series 104 (1971). In Chapter 1 titled Possible Limits of Ultramicro Analysis, page 3 has a fascinating and very informative diagram (figure 1) titled Map of tracer cosmos. [Apologies if I'm stating the commonplace here, this isn't my day job.] It's a triangle-shaped diagram together with LHS and RHS axes. The LHS axis is labelled is Levels of Molecules and graduated from 10^0 at base of triangle to 10^21 at its apex, the RHS one is labelled Levels of Concentration and it is graduated from 10^-21 at the triangle base to 10^-3 (near but not at the apex). The x axis along the base of the triangle is labelled Maximum Number of Compounds at Each Level of Concentration, and it's graduated at 10^0 at the base's centre point (.i.e.: perpendicular from the apex) and the gradations extend to 10^10 on either side of that point (at the edges of the base of the triangle).

This is a wonderful diagram, I can't ever recall coming across it in all those years I studied chemistry. What's immediately obvious are myriads upon myriads of different chemicals one's likely to find at extremely low concentrations. This book also has an excellent section on GC-MS, detection of residues and related topics. The point of troubling you with all that is that the detection sensitivities shown in the book are now 50 years old and they seems remarkably good. For example, organophosphorus and organochlorine pesticides could easily be detected down to 0.05 microgram back then—mind you, that's still one hell of a lot of molecules whatever that number is (the compounds are given but I'm too lazy to apply Avogadro to find out).

I've often thought I like to own a GC-MS or LC-MS, I'd have a ball, at least until the novelty wore off. ;-)

"By the way, little if any of this is a "trade secret". The analyses are largely standardised across the industry (and validated using reference laboratories)…"

Yeah, makes sense these days with those analytical tools. That discussion is like the Coca Cola formula argument, Pepsi worked that out years ago, nevertheless they still want to differentiate.

"Smell is one of the most, if not the most, primitive senses in the body. <…>While we can philosophise about whether individuals experience the world in the same way, <…> and proving it one way or another is very difficult, if not impossible, a great deal of this basic sense is essentially "hardwired".

Right, qualia and the mind-body problem at their basics is 101 philosophy and they go back to Aristotle et al; at the discussion's 'high' end, the heavyweights are still slogging it out (and it's well over my head). In essence, comparing the differences in one's own 'sense data' [as per Russell, G.E. Moore terminology] and or against the sense data of others is nonsensical and must be equated out of any measurement discussion (there being no external reference to clamp to). As discussed, that's where training and repeated testing becomes essential if objective measurements/comparisons are needed.

"<…>a researcher using genetically modified insects with fluorescently-labelled neurons, which lit up when activated but were also visible when inactive as well (IIRC they used two colours). <…> they could visualise, in real-time, the olfactory receptors, the neural structure linking it to the brain, primarily the area associated with memory interesting here was that under the microscope."

You're right, that is fascinating stuff. One may not be able to measure a person's qualitative (perceptual) response but I can envisage a system that would allow one to quantitatively measure say the response to those synthetic musks to which I was referring earlier. Detecting that info would be useful for any number of reasons (as with Ishihara colour vision tests, it could be used for, say, a preliminary test for those who want to be perfumers).

"Each different olfactory receptor appeared to activate a different combination of neurons."

Apropos my comment immediately above, that presupposes that any analyser can distinguish between a learned response and an innate one. For instance, my example of turning myself off chocolate as a kid. If one couldn't differentiate that learned signal from my innate sense of chocolate smell then it would be pretty useless. Then, that perceptual analysis would no doubt be processed elsewhere in the brain (I think I've answered my own question here).

"And in biological systems, information transmission is often based on frequency encoding rather than simple on or off<…> I wouldn't be surprised if it was the latter."

I'm not familiar enough with biological systems to make sensible comment about that except to say that if we definitely know there's a solid basis for the 'frequency encoding' argument, then could both be relevant if synapses process variable amounts of neurotransmitters (as they do)?

"I suspect our experiences will be largely the same bar genetic differences around selected receptors, kind of like red-green colourblindness. We will have a combination of innate and learned responses to given stimuli." <…> "Maybe like red-green colourblindness you can compensate for it if other similar receptors are slightly stimulated? I don't know."

I've spent much time in electronic vision systems, television, image sensors, etc. and I can say that none of them can match the human eye in sensitivity and dynamic range let alone say a cat's eye, which is about five times as sensitive (it can detect a single photon). Modern electronic sensors are remarkably sensitive and we can get them to do great things in our smartphones. The trouble is that it takes a great deal of electronics to get them to do that. Essentially, image sensors have a linear transfer and they top out hard (saturate) at peak white (at the white clipping point a picket fence no loner has any detail in the whites), and at the bottom noise is a limiting factor and they can suffer a form of 'black clipping' somewhat akin to reciprocity failure in colour film) if not properly biased. Film emulsions [for a given aperture] and the human eye have better dynamic ranges, as their transfer curves are S-shaped and thus compress image data at both ends. With that longwinded lead in, it seems to me that most of our body's receptors have large dynamic ranges, essentially they use floating-point arithmetic to set dynamic range, levels etc. For example, I've been in situations where I've had to install monitoring cameras where the ambient light was highly variable, in fact up to 10^6 : 1. The human eye adapted AOK but the electronics was pretty R/S even after automatic aperture and automatic gain control compensation were wound to maximum effect.

Finally, I noticed you mentioned a matter that only the cognoscenti from specific parts of the planet understand—that of Marmite (long gone is anyone on the western side of the pond, either from boredom, or more likely from sheer disgust—and or perhaps because we've now switched to a foreign language. You obviously have some understanding of the subject or you wouldn't have mentioned it. There are many things I want to know about it, but I'll confine myself to the matter of its consistency. Can you enlighten me about that? How is it achieved? Presumably by some evaporative process but there has to be a lot more to it than that (i.e.: getting from yeast to that consistency would seem to involve many steps).

[First] You raise many very interesting points and I've made comments about them below. In fact, there's too much of interest for me to fully address in just one reply (you'll note this long meandering reply has had to be extended into the next reply below to fit it).

It's a rare experience for me to come across someone who's done the kind of work you have. On the few occasions I have and I follow up with questions, the person usually clams up because of trade secrets or such—you know 'our chocolate is smoother because of our secret process' etc., etc., so I've never gotten to the bottom of the aspects of the subject that I've been most curious about.

I'm not a chemist but given the number of courses I've done where chemistry was one of compulsory subjects, I reckon I ought to be. ;-) Once, I added the years up that I'd studied the subject and it came to over a decade (that, of course, includes high school). If it hadn't been for considerable duplication of subject material due to the silly way courses were constructed then, by now, I ought to be expert in the subject. But alas that's not so.

Now back to your comments:

"If they are tasting it blind (with no preconception), their taste is accurate."

"We used the same nomenclature and tasting training as the wine industry. It's a qualitative assessment, but there is a lot of science behind it, and the training is actually quite difficult. You actually train on specific samples with a single taste, initially very unsubtle and clearly labelled. Then to pass certification you have to do it completely blind.

Next level up you progress to subtler tastes and repeat. The really advanced people are genuinely capable of discerning very specific chemical compounds with a very high degree of accuracy.

Now let me also include my facetious and somewhat unfair comment (unfair for reasons I develop below):

"… I'm sure people can be trained to develop wine-tasting skills and that they actually get better with experience—but ultimately one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear no matter how good the training."

Further down, you'll become aware that the 'silk purse/sow's ear' comment becomes very relevant.

Before I proceed I must add that decades ago one of the 'sins' of my youth was to spend a little time working in a vineyard/winery—not as a winemaker or specialist but as a general dogsbody. Nevertheless, when knowledgeable people who regularly win awards for their wines surround one, one cannot but help pick up a few valuable tips.

OK, back to the comments. All these quotes have common threads, which are, (a) about how do you calibrate the taste and olfactory processes of different individuals so their 'output' is uniform and thus useful to others, and, (b) when exposed to the same stimulus how do different individuals differ in their experience of it. We're confronted with the ancient conundrum that's as old as philosophy itself—not to mention the subject of countless philosophical dissertations—some of which I once had to study. It boils down to this: I cannot experience a given physical phenomena and accurately remember it then jump into your head to see if you/your senses experience it the same identical way that I did when I was in my own body.

Of course, there are two issues here. The first is that one's physical sensors (of taste, smell etc.) have given (nominal) sensitivities and that these differ between individuals. Moreover, they change dynamically over time and with the type and strength of the input signals (tastes). These sensors also possess bandwidth and detection thresholds in the physical sense. One experiences (directly perceives) sensory data from these senses (as say in a blind tasting, or feeling something) but that's about as good as it gets because one can have errors directly associated with perception. For instance, at one end of the spectrum you've lost your glasses and you mistake a ballpoint for a pencil, at the other extreme we've the case of the man with visual agnosia that Oliver Sacks outlined in is book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Then there are interpretation errors (errors of thought/mental processes), which can be caused by any number of reasons from having a vivid imagination, to schizophrenia, to reacting badly to a normal everyday stimulus because of an ongoing memory of a similar bad experience that one has had in the past.

This can quickly become a real can of worms, as things can get so inextricably intertwined and complicated. Where do plain old errors of perception end and interpretation errors actually begin? Let's take an extreme case, say someone is on LSD and they see or feel ants crawling up their arms or spot flying pigs then we have to ask what is at fault? Has the physical sensory system been corrupted and the data it's issuing is garbage, or is it that the sensory data is OK and that mental interpretation turns out junk (like a RAM fault), or is it a combination of both? The modern work/interpretation of this stuff essentially began with the sense-data constructs/notions of B. Russell and G.E. Moore et al, ca 1900, now much of it rests in the hands of neurologists.

Likely, these matters all sound rather hypothetical; the trouble is that the combined 'product' or output of these processes has real consequences in that they distort our perceptions of reality. In practice, they regularly play a large role in our day-to-day experiences. Essentially, they collectively add unwanted distortion to the output (that's to say our composite perception of an event is often in error).

For example, as a young kid I once grossly over-indulged in chocolate and made myself physically sick, afterwards I never ate another skerrick of it for over 20 years (as it made me feel sick whenever I tried ) [In hindsight, it was likely a damn good outcome.] Thus, emotion, likes, dislikes and experiences all play a huge role in interpretation.

The dynamics of all of this are seemingly overwhelming—perhaps confusing is a better word. So for the moment, let's reduce this to the simplest scenario (as per your "If they are tasting it blind (with no preconception), their taste is accurate." case. If I eat a sweet chocolate then immediately taste wine, it will taste bitter (even so a sweet sauterne); if I've just eaten a complex curry then my taste threshold changes (usually by desensitising/increasing the perceptible detection threshold), moreover, it will do so in a non-linear way (that's my experience anyway).

For example, take the case where I've not eaten (i.e.: my palate is 'clean') and (a) I dilute a sugar-water solution to the threshold to where I can just detect the sweetness, and (b) I dilute a water-denatonium (Bitrex) mixture to the point where I can just detect its foul bitterness. Then eating just about anything will alter those thresholds (usually by desensitising them but not always)—and the extent of this desensitisation will have occurred in a non-linear way. That's to say the thresholds will not desensitise to the same extent for each type of taste. If I then add a taste bias, add sweetness, bitterness, etc. into what I eat next, then the detection threshold for each chemical will change yet again. Moreover, it will again do so in a non-linear manner (this further compounds the effect).

Similarly, my taste bandwidth is reduced (here, I use the term 'bandwidth' to mean the extent to which I can differentiate varying degrees of sweetness/bitterness—essentially the range of different chemicals that I can detect for given concentrations of each). [Excuse my limited nomenclature here, my profession is IT and electronics, so it's those terms that make sense to me.]

Essentially, all of our senses have inbuilt Automatic Gain Controls, Automatic Bandwidths and Automatic Thresholds. And all of our various senses dynamically adjust or 'recalibrate' their thresholds to different detection levels depending on (a) the amount or level of the input stimulus/stimuli and (b) the intrinsic characteristics of those stimuli (type of chemical, etc.).

(Here, I've used both singular and plural deliberately, a singular stimulus will solicit a specific response, multiple stimuli will interfere with one another and thus give another different and separate response (as with intermodulation distortion in electronics, the resulting products (new tastes) of the combined responses will then be different to their singular counterparts. Furthermore, it's unlikely that the taster will be able to separate out the new taste(s) into their previous constituents—that is unless he/she does so from experience and or memory.)

Moreover, the sensitivities of our various senses and their recovery times (i.e.: the default input state after a given period of rest after in which no further stabilisation occurs) vary both over the short term (minutes/hours/days) and long-term (years/decades). We know this as we've many well documented cases. For example, there are thousands of instances where soldiers have been wounded on battlefields and their otherwise extremely severe pain is suppressed to tolerable levels—often for days afterwards. My understanding is that battle is such a terrible, emotional and cathartic experience that their perceptions of pain recalibrate as a coping mechanism. Years or even decades later when the same soldiers experience even a much lesser pain for whatever reason in normal civilian circumstances then they do so to the same extent as everyone else. Essentially, they now experience a considerably great pain for a lesser stimulatory input than they did for their battlefield injuries (sometimes this perplexes them greatly, as they worryingly perceive that they've now lost the courage and stamina that they once had.)

> are experts just able to detect what expensive wine tastes like, as opposed to what nice-tasting wine tastes like?

A real expert can do both. The problem is that "nice-tasting" means different things to different people, and "nice tasting" may or may not have any correlation or even overlap with "expensive". The most expensive wines I've ever had have tasted horrible, borderline undrinkable, because they have all been very old wines, which I personally don't like. But some people (apparently) like the taste of very old wines, which are rare, and expensive to produce because they (obviously) have to be stored for a very long time.

The main skill of a true wine expert is to be able to listen to someone else describe what they like and then pick a wine that matches that description or, even better, takes them just a little bit outside of their usual comfort zone.

Wines don't become expensive because they are good. They become expensive for the same reason any other commodity does; the demand, for whatever reason, exceeds the supply. There are really good wines that are cheap because they are mass-produced, and really bad wines that are expensive because they are rare, but have just enough people with more money than sense willing to buy them for whatever reason.

"We're secretly swapping their fresh brewed coffee with dark, sparkling Folger's Crystals."


> All but the experts were susceptible to this effect.

Even the experts, according to some studies, like the one described in the title article, or here:


The one described in the title article was on students.

It seems on the face of things that a good expert would know about these psychological heuristics and would deliberately blind themselves, according to some method suitable for the field.

I doubt it's reliably the case that experts will be immune to the tricks of the human brain, unless they don't own one.

>When people tasted the wines and the bottles were hidden, people accurately scored the wines.

>All but the experts were susceptible to this effect.

I dont understand

If people managed to "accurately scored the wines", then what does "all but experts were suspectible" actually means?

Presumably it means some expensive wines are better than the cheap wines and easily detected. Some expensive wines were "enhanced" by a fancy bottle which even managed to fool the experts.

Great point. Without rigor, expertise is rarely more than anecdotal.


You cannot say a whole field is fake because of a single experiments on students of that field. Neither can you by looking at people using their diploma but lacking the real expertise. I know chemistry PhDs I would never let run even the simplest experiment... They still boast on social media that they are experts, same with people selling wine and lying to clients to make them believe the wine is good or taste like chocolate...

I have witnessed with my own two eyes an experienced wine aficionado call the grape type, terroir (micro-region) and year of a brown-bagged wine, based on a single tasting. They were off by one year, but otherwise correct. There’s a ton of BS in the wine world, but it’s not all fake.

I have a few somm friends that can do this reliably. The process of elimination is really fascinating to watch.

The reason it's possible, though, is because the majority of commercial wine conforms to distinct, repeatable styles. A grassy note in an amber-colored wine might narrow it down to a single grape variety, a hint of smoke might indicate the region. Then take the relative level of oxidation, and you've got a decent guess at the year. Index that against your mental database of all the possible wines that it could be (price point, availability, etc.), and you've got a good shot the exact bottle.

The level of knowledge required to do this without a book in front of you is impressive, but it's not magic. More like 20 questions with a relatively narrow target area. The usual tricks will fail when you try it with small producers, non-traditional production techniques, or AVAs that don't distribute widely.

I have a friend that does that exclusively with small producers wines (he is the owner of a store for specialty wines now somewhere in France), same approach. He has a traditional training in oenology, but spends his time tasting and traveling around Europe to find new unique things. Much more interesting oenological work than people working only with the normalized big-ones.

But its such a profound failure, it warrants skepticism of the field. Or at least of schools that purport to teach a skill, then fail at that entirely.

And a seven year old article without a follow-up also warrants skepticism. People have pointed out problems with the headline conclusion.

To the degree that "skepticism" means thinking hard and applying work to discern differences, it would be warranted. To the degree that it's interpreted as general doubtfulness without further effort or thought, that's actually the opposite of true skepticism.

Come on. We know that taste perception is very largely influenced by expectation. Every drink orange juice just to find out it's milk? Taste awful until you figure out "oh that's just milk".

If it seems that wine chatter can be explained entirely by the power of suggestion, then Occam's razor suggests that's all there is to it. There's no need to invent magical barely-detectable subtle flavor attributes to fermented grape juice.

Of course it's influenced by expectation. That wine students get it wrong when misled is hardly surprising. The question is, what does it actually mean?

Wine experts regularly identify wines when blinded but not misled. The "subtle flavors" are objectively there -- you can see them on a gas chromatograph. But the experts aren't there to be poor-quality GCs. They're there to identify wines that other people will think are interesting.

Some people find the language they use to describe it off-putting, but they're just trying to describe a sensory experience, using familiar language in unfamiliar ways. It's readily understood by their colleagues.

There's an objective difference between that and "power of suggestion" that's poorly conveyed by this article. I believe that's why the article is dated and lacks follow-ups. It doesn't say what people think it does, and researchers either didn't bother to look in more details or didn't think that what they found was as interesting.

I'll reiterate that these subtle differences don't have to be important to you to enjoy wine. People get attached to the high prices and snobbery of very high end wines. But that's not really what wine tasting is about, and it's absolutely not necessary to enjoy wine.

Its kind of a social pressure though, it would be interesting to know if the students were new or experienced. If you are a new student and go into a clinical settings and someone gives you "red wine", you'd be pretty brave to say it tastes like white wine.

A good test would be to have a double blind study where they had to judge if this wine was red wine or colored white. I'd imagine most could easily tell.

Wine tasting is an art of deduction. The first step of any wine tasting is to look at the color, rim variation, legs, etc. From there, you take account the smell and taste. At a professional level, this is always done in a particular order to help narrow down possible characteristics for the next step. If you change the color of the wine, you'll send the wine taster down a completely different mental flow chart.

The tasters assumed the wine didn't have food coloring and correctly used all senses available to them to do the tasting. It's very disingenuous to point out that they should have used more white wine descriptors. The wine was red, so they used that information to further deduct characteristics of red wine.

I also find it peculiar that they don't mention the variety used for this study [1]. The color of the wine comes from how long skins are left with the must (skin contact) while making the wine. There are many wine varieties (white and red) that taste very similar. In some cases, you can have both a white and red coming from the exact same grapes (Pinor Noir, for example).

[1] I did Ctrl+F for "variety" on the study: https://web.archive.org/web/20070928231853/http://www.academ...

Reading that, I'm confused about the conclusion. The wine tasters were looking for flavors, and said they found them. If they weren't there, they should have said so.

The inescapable conclusion is, the supposed differences between white and red wine are imaginary. They are not in the wine, but in the taster's head. In the 'mental flow chart', the chart they use to make up words about what they're tasting.

> The inescapable conclusion is, the supposed differences between white and red wine are imaginary.

The problem is that white/red is a very large grouping of wine. There are very light reds with low tannins that could be hard to tell particularly if served at room temp. There are some robust white wines that fall into this same overlap. In general, red vs. white is normally pretty easy assuming typical red and white wine.

Within these large groupings of white/red there are also other trick wines. Reds where the grape seems like a different grape due the region or wine process. Dry Rieslings are often tricky because most people assume sweet. So non-expert tasters being tricked by trick wines is not really an interesting find.

The problem for most people with wine tasting is it's hard to do it in a way to learn. It's not enough to buy a bottle once/week. In one trip to France, I tasted 100+ wines over a 2 week period. Only when you have wines side by side, day after day do you really start to learn. Sommeliers taste 1000s of wines over many years, taking notes and actively working to learn the flavors.

I might get down-voted more, but I'm going to dig in because I don't think you know what you're talking about.

I'm not sure of the qualifications held by the tasters in the study and the quality of the descriptors used, but I've spent quite a bit of time with people training for the advanced level of The Court of Master Sommeliers. At first, I was a skeptic of wine tasting but they completely changed my mind after doing a number of blind tastings with them. They would usually be able to pick out the variety of grape(s) used along with a rough part of the world the wine came from during blind tastings.

> differences between white and red wine are imaginary

In most cases, they're not. There are some exceptions such as light bodied reds that can be very similar in taste to some orange or white wines, but largely, each wine has different chemical composition (different polyphenolic profiles) and a good sommelier can tell the difference. Here's the deductive tasting format used by 'the court' if you interested in all the different things you can look for in a wine: https://www.mastersommeliers.org/sites/default/files/ES%20Ta...

> The inescapable conclusion is, the supposed differences between white and red wine are imaginary.

You could conclude that only after blind test.

That trial was essentially blind? You couldn't tell which was the white, and which the red. Because they were both the same color.

If you were asked to identify a mystery wine, color would certainly be an important piece of information.

If you, as a wine taster, were asked to describe the taste of a mystery wine, I think it's somewhat disappointing if the color of the wine affects your perception.

Isn't taste supposed to be a first-order sensory experience?

I can't think of a more charitable interpretation of these results than "we have different vocabularies for red and white wines, even to describe the same tastes".

Wine tasters are taught to use color and other visual properties.

And still I do like my Pinot Noir a bit watery red :)

I don't really know what is happening in this context. Maybe a lot of people have not much taste, or cannot disciminate between different tastes or things?

I don't understand anything about the words that go along with wine and beer reviews. I don't understand anything about using words like chocolate or nuts in describing the taste of wine or beer.

I do know what I like in my mouth, but that is also very subjective. It also changes over time and can differ from day to day. Some days I like a bitter hoppy beer, some days a fresh pilsner. Some days I like a softer red wine, some days it may have a 'bite'.

I think that the most important thing is development of your own taste, so this study is by most a distraction.

To me this study shows that novice students of the sommelier order were too biased to apply red wine terminology when the wine was just red colored white wine.

It does not show any deeper knowledge.

Now about discussion of our personal experience (my own based on Western-Europe).

I am personally more a Bordeaux person. I have discovered that there is clear distinction between Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Pinot Noir) wines and in general I do like Bordeaux more. That is, price wise, I would choose Bordeaux over Bourgogne any time.

Now being a general Bordeaux consumer, I could say that based on my personal experience, it is hard to beat it in similarity. At least in our market in my experience none of the Californian, South-American, South-African, Australian wines have came close to wines from Bordeaux. Not that these are bad wines, they are just not that interesting that anything else I could pick up from my supermarket.

What I want to say - many out of France producers are after some general commodity "good" wine, forgetting their specialty.

Novelty plays a part in this too.

So does the amount imbided in a single go.

Sipping tastes different from drinking and gulping. If an 'expert' doesn't know that, and isn't controlling for those variances, then their opinion is not going to be terribly rigorous.

Notably, Pepsi Cola made great use of these types of tricks for their advertising campaign re: "Take the Pepsi Challenge".

Much of taste is more subtle and experiential than many realize.

I took part in a Pepsi challenge at a water park as a kid. I did and still prefer Coke, but the cute girl running the booth would get excited and give me a prize if I picked Pepsi. So not being an idiot I picked Pepsi, if you’ve ever had both it’s extremely easy to tell the difference.

I can't remember the reference but, from what I remember, the moral of the story from the 'Pepsi Challenge' was to disregard what people say they prefer the taste of and to pay intention instead to what people actually buy.

I'd like to point out a number of serious methodological issues with this study.

1. They tested whether the dye was tasteless on students who were not wine students, just students pulled off of the agricultural school campus. This study basically says "Group A, who aren't trained in tasting, say that there's no taste. However, Group B, trained in tasting, report a difference." (More on that "difference" below.)

2. They tested the dye as being tasteless when mixed with wine. If it's truly tasteless they should do the same test with water. I suspect they don't because it does have a taste, more in this below.

3. Even in their experiment on untrained students trying to show that it is "tasteless," the wine containing dye was in fact identified as tasting different 120/300 times (expected value 100/300 if there was no difference in taste). This is not enough evidence to show definitively whether the dye is tasteless or not. The raw evidence reported actually indicates that it is more likely to have a taste than to not have a taste.

4. The way that they asked the wine students to compare the wines is convoluted - overly complicated, as if to obscure the truth. The wine students were asked to compare wines by sorting each feature as belonging more to Wine A versus Wine B. So, if neither wine particularly has some feature, you would still be forced to assign the feature to one of the two wines. The only two wine comparisons done were true white wine versus true red wine, and then true white wine versus white wine dyed to look red. They never actually do a comparison of the white wine dyed to look red compared to true red wine, which would be the most informative comparison.

I will transition here from methodological issues with this study to my opinion on this study.

This study appears to have been designed with a specific outcome in mind, regardless of the underlying truth about people's ability to taste wine. The conclusions stated in the study are not supported by the evidence actually collected in the study. The best thing I can say for this paper is that they report their methods clearly enough for someone to be able to see that they are heavily flawed.

I wonder if this is just making it clear that the words we use for describing red and white wines are fixed, and not that the students really couldn’t tell the difference in flavor between red and white wine. Does the visual information change our taste, or merely our vocabulary?

As a professional cooker, I can confirm that vision is the most important part in tasting. I've read other studies that shows that taste is a brain build which include senses and feelings. Everyone has done a dinner with good friends, eating pasta with butter and drinking some basical wine — do you remember how it was delicious ?

You can see this on nearly every season of "Hell's Kitchen", where they have a taste test challenge. Pairs from the two teams go head to head having to taste and identify things while blindfolded and with their hearing blocked.

Here's the one from season 12 [1] where of the 16 items they were asked to identify, one team got 6 right and one team got 4 right.

[1] https://youtu.be/b-YwHQh6RaM?t=398

As they say: "On mange d'abord avec les yeux".

> I can confirm that vision is the most important part in tasting.

Unless your name is Christine Ha.


To me red wine tastes very differently from white wine.

Am I fooling myself? Are they really indistinguishable?

Is it possible that the experts were afraid of using white attributes for a red wine, like in social consensus experiments?

Did anybody ran a test in the dark, where you cant see the wine at all?

You are not fooling yourself. That said, there is huge variance within the simple categories of red and white, and I could see some particularly acidic red being mistaken for a white.

One way of subverting expectations is to try orange wine: white wine fermented with skins. Orange wine has tannins and can show some aspects you'd associate with a red, e.g. pepper. Yet it is still more on the citrus rather than berry end of the flavour spectrum.

People have strong tendency to describe things how they think they "should be", especially when someone is looking.

Obviously you can tell red wine from white. But if they color them wrong, you will trust your eyes mood then your taste.

Color definitely sets expectations. But I assume the red-tinted white wine was served at red wine temperature, which would give it a very different set of flavors.

This is how most degustations of flavors experiments in oenology schools are made these days. Dark glasses and red light.

> The research, later published in the journal Brain and Language, is now widely used to show why wine tasting is total BS.

BS? Or simply subjective? Sure people are influenced by "experts", as humans when isn't that true? Fashion? Music? The list is endless.

We want to believe we are autonomous and independent but more often we naturally conform to the norm around us. Third-party insights and guidance are why we survived.

I like wine. But I drink what I like. My senses aren't necessarily the same as someone else's. I'm sure if I tasted enough wine I could become an "expert." But that doesn't appeal to me. It takes the enjoyment out of it. I don't think that makes experience and expertise BS. Merely subjective.

Wine tasters make strong claims, and love to point out what others are missing. Those claims are bunk.

If they simply said "That dress is marvelous! It looks great on you! I love the daring neckline!" we could all accept that as effusive enthusiasm.

But to pretend to have an entire lexicon, to write endless descriptive books about it, makes wine tasters an entire level of farce above anything else you care to name.

You are wrong.

I might have agreed with you 20 years ago, but I know better now.

Practice describing the flavours of the wine you drink, and your flavour memory and perception will improve over time. I generally drink a glass or two every evening, and it's usually a new wine, one I've never tasted before. I've written hundreds of tasting notes. One of the most interesting things to come out of this is finding out something later - e.g. a notable region or producer - and then correlating this with past notes. I noted things myself, over multiple samplings, which I later found - via experts - were expected attributes within the category.

That describes exactly, the power of suggestion of perception. If it can all be explained by association triggering memory-perception (and it can, as suggested by the idea that 20 years of conditioning make it vivid) then we can reasonably conclude that there's nothing to the wine thing except that.

Well, as they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. And there are none so blind as those who will not see.

Tasting wine is like listening to a polyphonic note with different envelopes. It has extremely complex flavours that change in the mouth.

Is the taste of an apple simply the association from your memories? An orange likewise? Or do they not have a pleasurable qualia all of their own?

Have you ever tasted a cocktail made by a good bartender? Isn't it fun picking out the different flavours, and feeling how they mix together to create new sensations, not trivially reducible to the component parts?

Wine is like that. But it's not just flavours. Take tension, for example. Wines have acidity, which makes your mouth water, and red wines have tannins, which make your mouth pucker and feel dry. Many great red wines will have a good balance of acidity and tannins which seem to confuse your mouth, leaving it balanced on a midpoint of watering vs drying out. It's quite a peculiar sensation, and it makes you want to go for another sip.

Then there's wine pairing. A fun thing to try is a few pates with a couple of glasses of different wines. One wine brings out spicy notes, another herbal flavours. One pate may make a wine seem fruitier, while another more lactic, or more savoury. In many cases there's no right or wrong; the wine is another ingredient in the mouth, and it simply changes the flavour profile. More variety for your eating!

I think the gripe with things like wine tasting is the "elitist" nature of it all.

Tasting a lot of wines and beers either makes you an expert or a drunk or an expert drunk or drunk expert?

Either way, theres no certainty that a drunk isn't an expert or vice versa.

Wine shouldn't be elitist. There are rich people playing stupid games for stupid prizes, which is tiny but highly visible because it lets people tell a story they want to tell.

The vast majority of wine drinkers simply drink wine. Those who really enjoy it may search out something interesting and distinctive for special occasions. Those will be rarer and more expensive, and the experience is difficult to convey, as any purely sensual experience is difficult to convey.

You can enjoy wine without participating in any of that. But don't be misled by the people putting on airs about it. That's just people being voyeuristic about the wealthy and seeking out snobbery to feel superior to. It's not about wine at all.

Expert drunk. In Iowa wine and spirits are sold mostly my state-run stores. They record the interesting fact that 90% of their sales are to 10% of their customers. Which actually puts that 10% at 81X the money spent on alcohol vs the rest of the population. That's a lot.

Exactly. The whole liquor industry would collapse overnight were it not for their hard-core alcoholic customers. But "Drink responsibly", everyone.

This has profound implications for how we legalize marijuana, where the same dynamic holds and the real money is in supplying the heaviest users.

The end of the article says:

>> "The fact that there are no specific terms to describe odors supports the idea of a defective association between odor and language. Odors take the name of the objects that have these odors."

This idea is wrong. Odors take the name of the objects that have these odors ... IN ENGLISH. Other languages have rich vocabularies for odor categories. Actually, even English has a few specific terms that describe odors, such as 'musty', so the quoted "fact" is also wrong.

Here is one of the first academic studies to document this https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S00100... and the author has other papers which shows the same facts in other languages.

I suspect it wont replicate. Not because there was any flaw in the original. But because today's students have heard of that study and will be more suspicious.

Randomize the coloring?

Or make it part of a bigger study, for example "we want to test if wine tasters are also good beer tasters"

I suppose. But that's not the point I think. You are coming at this from a scientific point of view, which I frankly think is the wrong perspective.

My preferred perspective is an educational one. Students were administered a test, and they failed it. It's a statement about a specific group of students in a specific time and place. They had (so far) received a lacking education. Educators and curriculum should respond to address the shortcoming.

Are there any studies showing the opposite results?

The visual processing part of the brain can completely overwhelm auditory processing: see the mcgurk effect.


I am not at all surprised that there are also olifactory illusions which are impossible to “unsee”.

I'm quite skeptic. As a person that rarely drink wine, I can recognize if a wine is red or white blinded, as other friends of mine. Also white wine hurts my stomach. Hovewer all the different flavours discussions regarding red wine are out of my discernment.

Now do one for Stradivarius violins.

Most musicians recognize that the subjective assessment of instruments is deeply problematic. We have not been offered a good alternative.

I'm not a violinist, but a double bassist. The process of choosing an instrument is nothing short of nerve wracking. My last bass shopping episode took me more than a year. I'd love to be able to know with certainty that the sound I'm hearing is real and not biased by my expectations. With some of the instruments, I had to make minor changes to my technique, to accommodate physical differences in their geometry and setup. In one case, I asked the dealer to install a different type of strings, which he was glad to do.

Now, do we know that different basses sound different? That would at least be a safe guess, given that they are deliberately made to sound different for specific uses and player preferences, and there are radical differences in construction and dimensions. One of my basses is carved from solid chunks of wood, the other is made of plywood that is formed to shape in a mold.

Or "audiophile quality" amps.

"most people use equipment to listen to their music, while audiophiles use music to listen to their equipment"

Opus 160kbps (VBR)


What would you measure? One feature of very good musical instruments is, they make it far easier to get the sounds you want. They are versatile and flexible, with a wide range of possible responses. They sound like what the artist intends, which is why they are so popular to play.

So are you measuring the artist? How would you measure this quality in the instrument?

They have. And modern violins in these studies scored better as I recall.

That has been done multiple times. It is easy: just record the sound and compare acoustic signatures. And yes, Stradivarius is different. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/may/21/scientists-f...

This double-blind study found that experts preferred modern violins to Strads in listening tests:


The experts do prefer the more modern sound, but the core of the study proves that strats are different. They have a special sound. If that's what you want to hear then you need a strat. And we should not discount the psychological effects on the player of playing and living with such a legendary object. Great paintings are more than pixels. Great instruments are more than sound boxes.

Watch out, a "strat" is a Stratocaster. ;-)

A "glock" is also not a gun.

These studies are flawed in ways that every experienced musician recognizes they are: context.

It's _common_ that instruments that sound amazing in a solo context will sound poor in a larger ensemble, or might sound great in one ensemble but not another.

Personal context factors in: how does it feel, how stable is the neck, is it work in commonly stressed spots (usually good), is the design kind to your habits, etc...

Business context: prestige, visual impact, lineage, historical accuracy, marketability etc...

I could go on, but I don't think it's controversial to say that an instrument's sonic qualities alone, in a solo context, are NOT what drives value.

I know that, as of this comment, nobody has made the claim or implied it yet, but it's important not to draw conclusions about one instrument being better than another based on studies like this. Imagine if someone went around comparing generics syntax across languages to 'experts and laypeople', and the comments filled with praise for the scrappy underdog. I think the average HN commenter would spot the BS right away. For music though?

It's simply not what music is about.

Stradivarius violins are invariably played and sometimes owned by soloists, who either literally play solo, lead a concerto, or occasionally play with a pianist or as part of a small ensemble.

First violin in an orchestra will usually have a more modest instrument.

Edit to add: of course there's a lot of Veblenisation in music, and this gets silly when people who are really collectors try to do music and end up being just a more extreme kind of consumer.

Hifi, guitars, synthesizers, and recording equipment are full of this - plenty of moderately wealthy doctors, lawyers, financiers and such of low-to-average talent buying vintage or custom signature whatevers and displaying them proudly on social media.

But there are also professionals who are super-sensitive to tone and expression and have a (literal) track record of making choices that audiences respond to.

Some of them have impressive collections too, but they're able to justify them for specific creative ends.

The difference is that if you take an expert and give them an average instrument they'll do miracles with it. If you take a collector and give them a room full of classics they'll produce mediocre mush.

But give an expert the classics and they'll wring an extra level of musical credibility and interest out of them. That zone is out of reach of the collectors, but audiences still appreciate it and pay for it when they hear it.

I find your response somewhat strange. I'm saying that context matters, and your response is that... context matters?

It would appear that I'm being misread to defend a specific instrument. I'm saying that there's more value to an instrument than simply a 1:n listening test. That goes for ANY instrument.

Regarding people spending money on things they can't fully use (or sometimes appreciate), of course. That happens with everything.

I think he is saying that they are used by soloists which is also how they are compared. So the context is the same.

Before going on a huge (but interesting) tangent.

Sure, but thats not the only contingent of context. Location, piece, player, specific instrument, time of year etc...

I'm in no way saying that this means a specific instrument is better, but specifically that we can't draw that conclusion from these types of studies.

(I understand that you're not the parent, but it's still an interesting discussion)

I don’t know if I understand your point about generics syntax and a scrappy underdog. Are you trying to imply that a group of experts is better than the group of experts and laypeople at judging things? If so, I’m not sure that’s true.

No, I'm saying that generics syntax doesn't express the value of a language.

Interestingly enough, all of the Strads in playable condition have been modernized to some extent. They have changed the shape of the bass bar, the neck length, and steel / synthetic strings. Meanwhile, the bow has changed as well.

There is a growing sentiment among violinists that the Strads and their ilk are being surpassed by new fiddles, and are possibly also in decline.

Um. That article describes a study where the researchers took recordings of different violins, looked for a difference in the strads, and found one. That doesn't establish that strads sound different, it presupposes it.

Surely if they wanted to show that strads sound different they'd need to test whether their method lets them predict whether an unknown recording is a strad or not?

I remember drinking crystal pepsi back in the day and it being a total mind f*ck. A few times I swore I was drinking 7up. So I would like to pile on wine experts here but I don’t think this study proves they are idiots.

It didn't actually taste quite the same as normal Pepsi though, right? The desire to make it transparent necessitated removing the caramel colour, which also affected flavour. It also lacked caffeine, which is a pretty noticeable flavouring too.

I’m not sure, you might be right...or it might have tasted exactly the same but people thought it tasted different due to the visual effect.

For an amusing take on this, have a look at Calvin Trillin's "The Red and the White", collected in Feeding a Yen.

A friend of mine obtained a bottle of blue ketchup once.

John Cleese did a program about this, 20 years ago.


(TL;DR - He does the experiment at 16:30)

I took a wine class in college (my school had a Hotel/Restaurant Management program, and offered the class as a General Ed elective). Those classes are focused on the geography of the different wine regions and taught nothing about how to train your palate. And no one ever talks about the idea of Qualia and how that can be different for different people.

I've got a few issues with most of these studies.

The media tends to make this worse, because these articles (and their accompanying social media discussion) seem to exist solely for writers and readers to claim superiority over the perceived elites. Those pretentious wine snobs, don't they know an Aldi boxed wine tastes no better than their precious Chateau Lafite Rothschild?

The argument is always the same: a classification of wine, such as price, region, or even colour; is irrelevant to the quality of the wine. I find the argument itself is valid, but not convincing because it's totally orthogonal to what I'd like from a wine.

I don't care about a wines quality score, whatever that is. Wine has a deep and complex flavour, and different bottles have different flavours. Many flavours are acquired tastes - not everyone finds bitterness or tannin pleasant. This variety is what does it for me.

Honestly, I find these studies ridiculous. Our sense of taste depends so much on our eyes and nose, that such trickery will always get you results. I don't doubt I'd fall for such a trick.

Anyway, if using junk science to bash people for their preferred beverages is your favourite pastime, you do you. Something-something inferiority compl-cough

I don’t know why you’re so upset about this article.

The experiment basically just proves that wine “science” doesn’t live up to scientific standards and therefore shouldn’t be considered science.

I do agree though that every wine tastes differently and that therefore wine drinkers have preferences.

What about this experiment doesn't live up to standards? It seems well set up and supports the hypothesis that perception takes precedence to smell/taste when describing things.

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