Do Taste and Smell Adjectives Signal Value, or Do They Create It?

We may disagree about our favorite artists and musicians, but it’s relatively easy to agree that a particular color is blue, or that a particular note is C-sharp.

“The adjectives and analogies we read in wine reviews fuse with our experience of drinking the wine in such a complete way that the liquid’s intrinsic and extrinsic properties become inseparable.”

They’re described by wavelengths and frequencies along a clearly defined spectrum. That’s why the technologies of visual and auditory reproduction — photo, video, audio — work so well, relatively speaking.

With taste and smell — the so-called “chemical” senses, which are more complex (humans have about 400 different types of olfactory receptors) and less well-understood than the others, we don’t have the luxury of those points of reference.

That’s why we so often resort to loose analogies — “tastes like chicken” — and it’s also why reproducing tastes and smells is so difficult (grape soda doesn’t taste much like grapes, and nobody’s yet synthesized a bottle of 1945 Pétrus — an activity that would surely yield tremendous profit).

To challenge this barrier, we resort to analogy. Coffee tastes like nuts and chocolate; Sauvignon Blanc smells like grapefruit and cat pee. In a Sauternes, you might sense the brine of the first green olive you tasted in Italy; in a Pedro Ximénez sherry, the viscous maple syrup that your grandmother once drizzled on your pancakes.

But how carefully are we really choosing these adjectives and analogies? How often do they correspond to real chemical commonalities? Does that matter? Do the analogies more frequently serve a more poetic (or at least suggestive) purpose, forging new neural assemblies that connect relatively arbitrary taste and smell memories with each other—connections that, reinforced over time, turn into sensory reality?

Two papers at last month’s meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists in Reims (this is my second of two articles about the conference) investigated this question with respect to the wine industry, which is, if not a microcosm of all consumer-products industries, at least an increasingly apt caricature of them. While creative adjectivism has long characterized the wine world, the practice in other taste industries — chocolaty coffee, metallic fish, grassy honey, peaty whiskey — is now ascendant.

The canonical work in the wine-adjective field is Princeton economist Richard Quandt‘s “On Wine Bullsh*t” (a riff on his fellow Princetonian Harry Frankfurt‘s “On Bullsh*t”). Writes Quandt:

Two things have to be true before wine ratings can become useful for the average wine drinker. Since there are many wine writers, and there is a substantial overlap in the wines they write about (particularly Bordeaux wines), it is important that there be substantial agreement among them. And secondly, what they write must actually convey information; that is to say, it must be free of bullsh*t. Regrettably, wine evaluations fail on both counts.

At the A.A.W.E. meeting, Coco Krumme of M.I.T., who is also a Fearless Critic food writer, studied data from critical descriptions of more than 3,500 wines from recent vintage years, ranging from $4.99 to $137.99 in retail price, and employed a Bayesian filter to “find those words that best predict the price category of a bottle” (abstract here). She found that “about 65 percent of commonly occurring words are non-overlapping.” Words like “old,” “elegant,” “intense,” “supple,” “velvety,” “smoky,” “tobacco,” and “chocolate” predict expensive wines; “pleasing,” “refreshing,” “value,” “enjoy,” “bright,” “light,” “fresh, “tropical,” “pink,” “fruity,” “good,” “clean,” “tasty,” and “juicy” predict cheap wines. As for suggested pairings, “steak” and “shellfish” predict expensive wines; “chicken” predicts cheap wines.

Perhaps most amusingly, Krumme reports that “words with the same meaning are preferentially used for expensive over cheap wines: for example, ‘vintage’ is six times more likely to describe an expensive wine; ‘harvest’ is used for cheap wines.”

Economist Carlos Ramirez of George Mason University, meanwhile, ran a regression on a data set of 800 Wine Spectator descriptions of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines from the 2004, 2005, and 2006 vintages and found a length-of-review effect; that is, “longer wine descriptions are associated with higher prices — a 10 percent increase in the length of a wine description (adding about 23 characters) is associated with a statistically significant increase of 4 to 13 percent to the price of the bottle.” Like Krumme, Ramirez also found some particular wine descriptors (about 20 of the 208 he looked at) that, controlling for other variables, signal higher wine prices.

If you’re familiar with wine ratings and reviews, neither of these results might surprise you. But the interesting, unanswered question is: which way does the causality go?

Here are three potential theories:

  1. Expensive wines are generally fairly similar to each other, and their particular properties lead critics to refer more frequently to certain flavors (e.g. chocolate) and to write longer reviews of these wines. That is, there’s just a specific expensiveness to expensive wines that explains these differences. (Quandt would likely doubt this, and the empirical evidence, as described in The Wine Trials, would be against it, too.)
  2. Tasting is not done blind, and thus critics are influenced to write more and refer to certain flavors when they taste expensive wines.
  3. Tasting is done blind, but the sensory reviews of expensive wines are edited after the fact by editors who know what the wines are.

Regardless of which of these theories is correct, what’s highly likely is that the descriptors are self-fulfilling: reading an expensive wine description primes the drinker to have a more typically expensive wine experience. That is, the adjectives and analogies we read in wine reviews fuse with our experience of drinking the wine in such a complete way that the liquid’s intrinsic and extrinsic properties become inseparable.

Is this why it’s so difficult to undermine the conventional wisdom that very expensive wine is worth the money?

Maybe we just synthesize whatever we seek, creating value as we go: search for chocolate, and it will magically appear.

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  1. jonathan says:

    Question: stereo speakers can be evaluated objectively by looking at the wave it generates. That wave can be measured at different spots in a room so you can create objective maps. But those maps don’t match to what people hear all that well. That may be a case of training; one hears what one is used to and what one is used to may be wildly inaccurate. But that may also reflect innate differences in perception. Where do you draw that line with food taste?

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  2. k says:

    That was a lot of introductory words to get to the point, and I frankly don’t agree with the intro: my father, who is red-green colorblind, will NOT agree on the color of certain wavelengths (he has a great deal of trouble with tomatoes), and science, with the tool of the gas chromatograph, among other tools, can accurately and repeatedly isolate and identify scent compounds from foods. The several chapters in Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” discussed the flavor industry and food science in great detail; I think we’d all agree isoamyl acetate smells like bananas; and I believe the UC Davis “Aroma Wheel” for wine was developed based on gas chromatography research.

    So, no, I don’t agree that scent or flavor is any different or more obtuse compared to other sensory perceptions.

    It seems the expensive words in general go with red wines, the cheap words with white wines?

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  3. Michael F. Martin says:

    Lots of interesting points here.

    First, I wouldn’t say that taste and smell are so different from sound and sight as you suggest. Although it’s true that it is easier to measure the frequency of a sound or a color than it is to measure the palette of a taste or smell, very little music or visual art is composed of a monotone! (Russian suprematism and John cage aside — that was their point in many ways!). Rather, all works of art are composed of a spectrum. Although taste and smell are multidimensional spectra, our brain ultimately has to process them in reduced dimensional terms.

    Second, this is an interesting test of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in some ways. Analogies to music and art might be payola and the modern art market over the past few decades. Producers do seem to prime consumer tastes — the freemium is not as new as Wired Magazine Chris Anderson might suggest!

    De gustibus non debutandum est indeed.

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  4. Tzipporah says:

    Quandt’s article is wonderful! Thanks for pointing it out.

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  5. Andrew Schumacher says:

    While there is no shortage of Bullsh*t in the wine industry, it is important to remember that wine is the product of both an agricultural process and an industrial process. There are economic factors in those processes that help (along with the Bullsh*t) to determine the final price. Many of the adjectives in the “expensive” category seem to refer to wines that can be cellared, have structure and come from intentionally lowering the yield of the vineyard. It is technically difficult to create a structured wine that can be cellared. Low yields means fewer bottles. The inexpensive adjectives suggest white wine made from high yield, productive vineyards that are not barrel-aged and will precipitously decline in quality after a year of storage.

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  6. ryan says:

    k, above, brought up an interesting point about color-blindness. I for one am utterly incapable of making sense between blue and purple, green and brown, and a host of other colors.

    While we can agree that the color society calls “green” is represented by a certain wavelength, do we really all see green? My green, clearly, is not the same as society’s green, and thus, my impaired eyes (and brain) are unable to perceive it as any different from brown. Despite our remarkable vocabulary and desire to describe the world around us, we are incapable of describing colors by anything other than “bullsh*t” descriptors… think “cool” blue and “hot” red… While we know is that the sky is “blue”… what the hell does that mean? We, as a society, simply have decided that the color of the sky, as the brain perceives the wavelength it emits, is blue.. we know nothing of how that color looks in the mind’s eye.

    The same holds true for flavors… chocolate tastes like, well, chocolate… we know this because we use it as a descriptor… but again, what the hell does chocolate taste like?

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  7. SDC says:

    I dunno, I ‘get’ that most of the wine snob thing is coming up w/ creative/evocative ways to describe things. Wine tastings are kind of like poetry slams that’re more closely integrated with alcohol consumption. And if people dig that, more power to ‘em.

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  8. michael tracy says:

    A very impressive distillation of the components of wine that make a great wine great versus that which make wine good. Beautiful wines, whether from Bordeaux or Barossa, possess a quality of sensory input on the nose and the palate which is unique. One may say it is then snobbery that assigns preference to that uniqueness vis a vis a Lodi merlot, but in my mind, the preference is clearly one of taste.

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