Saturday, August 4, 2012

Psychowine: Grape Expectations

I have a phobia of blind wine tastings. It's not severe enough to warrant treatment, but they still make me very nervous. You see, when you've been deemed as someone who knows about wine, people expect you to know what you're tasting. I frequently don't. What gets in the way? Expectations.

Consider a recent study (NPR article here) that found wine geeks are willing to pay more for wine with an unpronounceable name, whereas it's likely "low-knowledge consumers" will go for the fun or quirky named wines. This is all because of expectations, namely, "wine geeks will hunt for just about any subtle difference they can find, like a unique sounding name." Unique name = something new, different, and interesting.
This wine is made from Assyrtiko grapes. Therefore, it must be really good! Actually, it was.  Okay, bad example...
As a psychologist, I don't work in the world of concrete reality, but rather how people perceive the world and what they expect will happen. We – not the royal we, although I do include myself in this – waste a lot of time and mental energy setting up expectations, which may or may not be accurate. Blind wine tastings illustrate this principle beautifully.

Please note, I'm not confusing my expectation theory with Expectancy Theory, which is popular in the organizational field of psychology. That one could apply to many other wine-related behaviors, which will be the subject of a different post.

Think about the different layers of the wine-tasting experience and where the expectations occur:

First layer: sensory input – what am I actually experiencing? This includes color, nose, and flavors.

Second layer: knowledge – I tried to identify the wine according to what my experience has told me about the typical characteristics of certain wines.

Third layer: environmental – I'm a regular at this venue's tastings and know the proprietress likes to include unexpected styles and varietals to throw us off.

I'd never guess this one in a blind tasting, but I wouldn't put it past her to include something like it.
Fourth layer: social – I admit to allowing some of my guesses to be influenced through interaction with others

The expectations are most prominent in the second and third layers. In the interest of full disclosure, here are my notes from the wine tasting and what the wine actually ended up being.

Wine #1:
Notes: mineral-ish, fruity, some nectarine, a little frizzante, and very light
Guesses: dry Moscato with Vinho Verde as a second choice
Actual wine: 2010 Vidigal Vinho Verde (Vinho Verde, Portugal)
What threw me: the dry Moscato was my final answer because of the stone fruit characteristics; my experience had led me astray to associate Vinho Verde with citrus, not stone. At least my second guess was right.
Rating: Very Good

Wine #2:
Notes: not much nose, very floral with anise finish
Guess: Seyval Blanc
Actual wine: 2010 Cartlidge & Brown Chardonnay (North Coast, California)
What threw me: I expect California chardonnays to be big oak bombs.
Rating: Okay

Wine #3:
Notes: funky nose!
Guesses: French Syrah, second choice Gamay
Actual wine: Roncier Pinot Noir
What threw me: the nose. To me, barnyard funk is Cotes du Rhone grapes.
Rating: meh/ok, got better as it went

Wine #4:
Notes: cedar notes on finish, a little smoke, smooth fruit with grapey-vanilla flavors
Guesses: Petit Syrah, Petit Verdot, or Malbec
Actual wine: 2010 Protocolo Tempranillo (Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Spain)
What threw me: the smoke and grapey flavors; Hubby got that it was a Tempranillo
Rating: Good

Wine #5:
Notes: zut alors! Fruit bomb
Guess: California Zin
Actual wine: 2010 Ruta 22 Malbec (Patagonia, Argentina)
What threw me: the jammy fruitiness, which I expect in zinfandel, merlot, and cab, not Malbec
Rating: Good

Wine #6:
Notes: big, leathery, dark fruit
Guess: Cabernet Sauvignon
Actual wine: 2010 Milton Park Shiraz (South Australia)
What threw me: the leathery characteristics, although I should've clued in to the screw-top like Hubby did
Rating: Good

So, there you go. Hopefully I won't get laughed out of this year's Wine Bloggers' Conference. This was a good learning experience and gave me some good data to add to my mental wine characteristics database so I can hone my expectations.  If not, it's nice to know I don't know everything.  Really, that's one of the fun things about wine -- there's always more to learn.

Here's a quiz for you to check on your own expectations and how they might influence your wine experience:

1. You see a red wine with a screw top. The first thing that comes to mind is...
A. Must be from Australia.
B. Can't be from Australia. Too obvious.
C. Oh, look, they're saving the environment one cork at a time.
D. I can't drink that. No cork equals no quality.
E. Hide this before the Cork Alliance guy sees it & starts lecturing us.

2. You're in a wine shop, and you see a wine with a cartoon-like character on the label. You think:
A. The people who make this are trying to get away from the stuffy wine image.
B. It's looking at me. Make it stop.
C. I wonder if they have any with an anime character. Sailor Moon wine would be awesome!
D. If it's not a plain label with a fancy font and unpronounceable name, I'm not interested.

3. You're hosting a dinner party, and a friend shows up with a bottle of grocery store wine (e.g., Sutter Home). You:
A. Open it and present it to your guests as an option. Hey, free wine is free wine, right?
B. Quickly review your history with this friend to see if they might be kidding you or are testing you.
C. Wonder for a moment who Sutter was and make a note to Google the history of the winery later.
D. Figure out how to work "bless your heart" and "thank you" into the same sentence to describe your feelings about the wine.

4. You're out to dinner at a nice restaurant with a group of friends, and as the designated wine expert, you're given the list to order for the table. Half the guests have ordered fish, the others red meat. What do you choose?
A. I choose to allow the sommelier, if they have one on staff, or waiter make a suggestion.
B. I choose to think they planned this on purpose. There should be rules about this sort of thing!
C. I choose a dry rosé. It probably won't go with anyone's meal, but at least it's pretty.
D. I pick something that goes with my meal. Screw the rest of them because I know it'll be good whether it goes with their food or not.

5. You're in a winery, and the pourer tells you the current wine you're enjoying would go great with Cheetos. You:
A. Ask for Cheetos because you're curious now.
B. Wonder if you've landed in a different dimension.
C. Ask if it would also go well with Velveeta-based macaroni and cheese.
D. Turn your nose up at it and walk out. As a serious oenophile, you demand serious cheese.

I wasn't kidding about the Cheeto wine thing.
Answer key:

Mostly A's: Congratulations, you're mostly normal!
Mostly B's: It's not paranoia if the world really is out to get you. In your case, it's probably just paranoia, or you're overthinking it.
Mostly C's: I threw these in to be random. You've already been drinking, haven't you?
Mostly D's: You have a firm sense of what the wine drinking experience should be, but get over yourself already. It's okay for wine to be fun.
If you chose that random E answer, you were cornered in the lobby at last year's wine blogger conference.

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