The Illusion of Taste

I love articles such as this one, as they tend to affirm my own experiences and world-view. Its basic thesis is this:

A survey of hundreds of drinkers found that on average people could tell good wine from plonk no more often than if they had simply guessed.

In the blind taste test, 578 people commented on a variety of red and white wines ranging from a £3.49 bottle of Claret to a £29.99 bottle of champagne. The researchers categorised inexpensive wines as costing £5 and less, while expensive bottles were £10 and more.

The study found that people correctly distinguished between cheap and expensive white wines only 53% of the time, and only 47% of the time for red wines. The overall result suggests a 50:50 chance of identifying a wine as expensive or cheap based on taste alone – the same odds as flipping a coin.

If there’s one I’ve pulled from this, it is as follows – Taste, as always, is subjective.

Yes, yes. there’s a vast difference between poorly made foods and those that have been made adequately. But that line between good and great? First off, trying to define that line is difficult unto itself. After all, there’s a reason why there are hundreds of recipes for bolognese out there; there’s more than one, proper way to do things. How do you or I or anyone else state emphatically that there’s only one way to make wine, whiskey, or any number of other of the hundreds of thousands of recipes out there?

So, if we can’t determine the one and only way to make something, then there will be variations introduced. Variations of technique, variations of ingredients, and variations of portion size. Hell, even presentation matters when it comes to how we interact with our food. And once variation is introduced, all bets are off as to what can claim to be “better than” good enough. One variation is introduced, what matters to taste can be boiled down to the two words that are a bane to marketers and publicists everywhere – personal preference.

Why does personal preference create even more turbulence when trying to define taste? Because it is influenced by things far out of control of the food producer. Things such as country of origin, or which socio-economic class one was born into all play their part in determining what a person likes and doesn’t like.
So when a person drinks a glass from a £3.49 bottle of Claret, and goes “That’s delicious!”, it’s as valid of an opinion as someone who can taste the nuances in a $100 bottle of Grand Cru Burgandy.

I’m not trying to diminish those who have a refined palate, and can tell the differences between good wines and great ones. Life is made grander by those who seek out the best and have the skill to do so.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter that much when it comes to putting the glass to the lips. Most people haven’t put in the time and effort to refine their palate to make such distinctions in their food or wine, and will rely upon others to tell them what is “great”. But remove those influences, be they experts in the field, or advertisers on the television, and your typical consumer is left to their own devices. And what we find out, time and time again, is that refinement of the palate cannot be bought. Remove the price tags and we find that most people cannot tell the difference between what is simply good and what is a work of utmost craftsmanship.