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Words: Big Trouble For Tasting Notes

This is part of a series on flaws in current wine recommendation systems originally published at Wine Industry Insights:

For much more on recommendation systems, please visit: Recommendation Insights


Words can mean different thing to different people. What does “complex” mean? Or “balanced?” “Big?” “Olive-tinged black currant?”

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 2.34.52 PM
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
— From Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass

WE ARE ALL ALICE

We are all Alice looking at wine through a curious looking glass that filters meaning and misunderstanding through the lenses of:

  • education,
  • culture,
  • life experience,
  • context
  • environment,
  • psychology,
  • genetics and,
  • vocabulary.

A CONSPIRACY OF WORDS

All those factors conspire to make word choice and meaning as variable a target as individual taste.

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the — if he — if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.” President Bill Clinton, 1998 Grand Jury Testimony in the Monica Lewinsky case.

Context, environment and psychology obviously  influenced Bill Clinton’s recursive, existential riff on the meaning of “is.” But the similar factors play out in more prosaic communication contexts:

  • everyday conversations,
  • flat-pack assembly instructions,
  • employer directions to workers,
  • school and college lectures,
  • instructions for installing O-rings in space shuttle rockets and handling deadly viruses at CDC labs.

That’s why why tasting notes can make for good reading — interesting, entertaining and funny — but fail more often than not as reliable ways to find wines one will enjoy.

Words and descriptions are enjoyable (and should continue), but are rarely meaningful  enough for satisfying  purchase decisions.

An article published in The Journal of Wine Economics by  Princeton University economics professor, Richard E. Quandt — On Wine Bullshit — offers a far harsher view. The author, also designed computer software that would autonomously write wine reviews from a “vocabulary of bullshit” he compiled.

Of course, one never knows if Quandt may have had a BS epiphany if he had seen the guide to wine descriptions published by Wine Folly. Or whether he would have felt his scatological approbation had been justified.

THE GENETICS OF PERCEPTION

Genetics shapes every taster’s perception (Genetic Chaos Mandates New Look At How Wine Gets Recommended). A staggering number of gene combinations in taste and smell make some tastes and smells stronger, others weaker and some not at all.

These genetic variations mean that one person may experience strawberries in a wine while the person next to them tastes raspberries instead of strawberries.

In another case, one taster may express their pleasure with a grapefruit flavor. But the person next to them, perceives a horrible bitter oily taste. In these cases, an organic compound known as fusel oil produces the taste/smell sensation.

The difference in the perception comes from genetically determined taste and smell receptors that send different information to the brain.

THE GENETICS OF EXPRESSION

In addition to perceiving the same flavors and smells differently, genetics along with education and experience also gifts some people with better abilities to connect specific names to smells and tastes.

GENERAL, SPECIFIC, VERY SPECIFIC

Vocabulary — the product of education and experience — can also send easily misinterpreted data.

In the example above, assume the first taster has difficulty pinning down the right word for what they tasted. Instead of “grapefruit” they might just state that it had “citrusy” flavors.

That general description would be of no help to someone who hates the taste of grapefruit.

Let’s also think of the second person who hates grapefruit, but is experienced enough to know that comes from fusel oil. Their very specific description might skip over grapefruit and name fusel oil instead.

That very specific description (fusel oil) would be useless to the first grapefruit hater.

The number of ways that descriptions can sabotage understanding probably approaches infinity.

Fruity. Tropical Fruit. Cattley Guava

Tart. Citrus. Buddha’s Hand Citron

Which is “right?” They all are … but most notably to the taster who chose the words.

I have witnessed professional wine writers, sommeliers and MWs debate the identity of a smell and, sometimes, come to no consensus at all. Granted they are a lot better than the average person. Regardless of that ability, their perception — like all perceptions — is personal and does not necessarily translate accurately. to other people.

For a real-life test that I use in most every university course I have ever taught in writing or business management, see: “How Big Is A Dog?”

WINE WRITING IS HARD, CAN BE TEDIOUS

Wine writing is hard.

Nailing down a specific taste or smell to an analogous real-world object requires good writing, astute perception and the ability to summon the right word.

The similarity of many wines, especially within a specific varietal (and cornered by the prevailing style of the day) can cause a vocabulary crisis.

Good writers know that maintaining user interest requires more change-ups than a major league pitcher. The same words, over and over, loses readers just like the same pitch produces home runs.

Because of this, there exists a “thesaurus writer, “always searching for different words to describe two near-identical wines. Two different descriptions of virtually the same wine does not help wine lovers choose a wine.

And, in the end, descriptions like “flinty overtones of dried cranberries in a dusty tobacco pouch” may be a good test of the wine writer’s vocabulary, but meaninglessly overwrought prose for the wine consumer.

“I really draw the line at scorched earth and spicy earth,”
“First, I have never eaten earth (although I have smelled earth after a good summer rain) and I have never been near scorched earth, perhaps because Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were a bit before my time.
“And how do you know what spicy earth tastes or smells like? I could go into my back yard and sprinkle some cumin, cardamom, turmeric and fenugreek; but how would I know that those are the right choices, rather than coriander, chili powder, caraway seeds and cayenne?”
— From On Wine Bullshit

AGGREGATION AGGRAVATION

Significantly, the aggregation of scores or hundreds or even thousands of descriptions of the same wine from different people does not solve the problem. Lots of dirty data does not add up to clean data.

It is conceivable that aggregation combined with some form of analysis of the text might be useful if it retains only the words that all (or most) of the reviews agree upon.

OF ALMOND PASTE AND FLYING ROACHES

Psychology and life experience shade words in individual ways.

In particular, smells connected with a specific memory can exert powerful effects, both psychologically and physiologically. Scientists called this the “Proust phenomenon”

These smell-evoked autobiographic memories color emotions, but can also have measurable physical effects on the body. (See further reading at the bottom of this article.) Even smell/memory connections that can be remembered only dimly, can influence word choices and even wine preferences and ratings.

A personal anecdote offers an illustration. When I was 10 or 11, my family lived in a house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast a hundred feet or so from the beach. Like most everyone in this warm, humid region, our house would occasionally host giant flying roaches the size of your index finger. Genteel language referred to these tiny flying monkeys as “Palmetto bugs.”

While anti-aircraft missiles would have been appropriate, I settled for using a fly swatter. And when I squashed one, they gave off an intense bitter odor. I could smell that odor, but no one else in the family could. That was the result of genetic variations that led to a particular smell-evoked autobiographic memory for me.

The memory came back with a stomach-turning shock years later, when being served a warm croissant filled with almond paste. I immediately recalled the freshly dead bugs. Quickly made an excuse to leave the table. (“Sorry, just remembered that I left my cat in the dryer.”)

It took me decades to get over that memory connection and learn to love almonds, almond croissants, marzipan and the like. But, until that time, that smell aroused unpleasant memories and emotions.

In addition to these remembered smell experiences, extensive medical research has shown that the foods and liquids that a pregnant other consumes can alter their child’s taste preferences for a lifetime.

Whether we are aware of them or not, smells do connect to memories that can influence moods and word choices in our speech and writing. We can compensate for those we are most aware of, but not those that rest beneath the surface.


Further Reading

Psychological and physiological responses to odor-evoked autobiographic memory.

Brain–Immune Interaction Accompanying Odor-Evoked Autobiographic Memory

The Nose, an Emotional Time Machine

Proust Was A Neuroscientist

The Living Word