Four years ago I started this website with a single goal – to apply rationality to wine.
It seemed like a simple idea – know what you want, know what to look for, and you will be able to find the right wine every time.
Without training, most of us would just use very vague terms and descriptions.
“I want a wine that’s…”
- Not sweet.
- Not bitter.
Which is why in the beginning, I posted wine reviews with the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) as a base:
- Wine was no longer sweet or not sweet – there was now a scale.
- Fruit was divided into classes (orchard, stone, tropical, citrus, berry, etc…)
- Bitterness could be attributed to tannin, just one of many structural elements analyzed (along with acidity, alcohol and length).
This makes sense on a certain level – if you find a wine that you really like, break it down into these elements, then you will have an easier time finding another wine that will suit your tastes.
As strongly as I have believed this, I have recently come around to the idea that… this might not be enough anymore.
Now, part of my role as a sommelier is to help our guests to navigate a very substantial wine list.
After asking the guest a series of questions and narrowing the options to two or three wines, they often turn it back to me:
“Mark, which wine would you choose?”
It’s an innocent question. It also puts a lot of responsibility on me.
Firstly, my tastes may not be the same as theirs. Secondly, if I select a wine and they don’t enjoy it, I will have lost some of their trust.
Thankfully, if we have gotten to the stage where we only have 2-3 options, any of those should suffice to satisfy them.
But, as I pour the wine into their glass, leave the bottle and decanter on display and turn away from the table, a part of me wonders: they could have chosen one by themselves, asked a friend, or even flipped a coin.
And there was the problem.
You will never really know if the wine chosen is the one that will “best suit your tastes”.
In this case, you could hypothetically open all the 2-3 bottles and taste them at the same time, but that would be beyond your average diner’s budget or capacity to drink.
And that’s just one wine list. Now imagine walking through the aisles of a wine store, much less the entire world of wine itself.
It is a fact that our brains would not be able to operate without (…) shortcuts. The first thinker who figured it out was Herbert Simon, an interesting fellow in intellectual history. He started out as a political scientist (but he was a formal thinker, not the literary variety of political scientists who write about Afghanistan in Foreign Affairs); he was an artificial-intelligence pioneer, taught computer science and psychology, did research in cognitive science, philosophy, and applied mathematics, and received the Bank of Sweden Prize for Economics in honor of Alfred Nobel.
His idea is that if we were to optimize at every step in life, then it would cost us an infinite amount of time and energy. Accordingly, there has to be in us an approximation process that stops somewhere.
“Satisficing” was his idea (the melding together of satisfy and suffice):You stop when you get a near-satisfactory solution. Otherwise it may take you an eternity to reach the smallest conclusion or perform the smallest act. We are therefore rational, but in a limited way: “boundedly rational.” He believed that our brains were a large optimizing machine that had built-in rules to stop somewhere.
To even speak of what you “enjoy” or “like” suggests the need for emotional content in decision making.
Descartes’ Error presents a very simple thesis: You perform a surgical ablation on a piece of someone’s brain (say, to remove a tumor and tissue around it) with the sole resulting effect of an inability to register emotions, nothing else (the IQ and every other faculty remain the same). What you have done is a controlled experiment to separate someone’s intelligence from his emotions. Now you have a purely rational human being unencumbered with feelings and emotions. Let’s watch: Damasio reported that the purely unemotional man was incapable of making the simplest decision. He could not get out of bed in the morning, and frittered away his days fruitlessly weighing decisions. Shock! This flies in the face of everything one would have expected: One cannot make a decision without emotion. Now, mathematics gives the same answer: If one were to perform an optimizing operation across a large collection of variables, even with a brain as large as ours, it would take a very long time to decide on the simplest of tasks. So we need a shortcut; emotions are there to prevent us from temporizing. Does it remind you of Herbert Simon’s idea? It seems that the emotions are the ones doing the job. Psychologists call them “lubricants of reason.”
If the options presented do rationally seem equal at first glance, rather than digging for further information, you will probably find something that pulls you in one direction or another on an emotional level.
This is probably why label and bottle designs are so important. Something that feels heavy and looks impressive will convey a different message to a carbon-neutral (less glass used) bottle with a cartoonish label at the same price.
Flip A Coin
Alternatively, if you feel stuck between equal-seeming choices, just choose at random.
Imagine a donkey equally hungry and thirsty placed at exactly equal distance from sources of food and water. In such a framework, he would die of both thirst and hunger as he would be unable to decide which one to get to first. Now inject some randomness in the picture, by randomly nudging the donkey, causing him to get closer to one source, no matter which, and accordingly away from the other. The impasse would be instantly broken and our happy donkey will be either in turn well fed then well hydrated, or well hydrated then well fed.
By all means, be an inquisitive drinker, analyze your personal tastes and preferences, but if you ever find yourself at an impasse, do not be afraid to flip the coin.
Let Lady Luck be your guide, and you might well fall in love with something you had never experienced before.
Read more: 5 Reasons To Have Wine On A Date