Providing more evidence that the Psychology of Wine is taking off, Eric Asimov had a nice little piece  yesterday discussing recent findings in this emerging field. Specifically, context matters in the enjoyment and rating of wine. This is hardly news to psychologists. Indeed, one of (if not the) main goal of social psychology is to understand contextual influences on behavior and decision making – the power of the situation to affect our experience of the world. Asimov argues that consumers’ susceptibility to the influence of context on drinking pleasure (e.g. that people prefer expensive wines over cheap wines), results from our insecurities unique to the realm of wine – wine intimidates us- as well as “the difficulty of bringing some sort of objective and universal criteria to the fleeting and obscure realms of aroma, taste and texture.” But why should this be so difficult??

Ratings systems like Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator suffer on several levels: 1) they are inherently subjective, and 2) they’re insufferably and proudly inaccessible to non-experts. But that is not to say that superior ratings systems can’t be developed. For example, let’s say every time Robert Parker drinks a bottle, instead of rating it on a 100 point scale and saying something like “a bouquet of mossy fungus with hints of porcelain” he rates the wine along several known and fixed dimensions of aroma, taste, and texture. If I were to purchase this bottle and then look at this “rating” I would then be able to compare my experience of the wine along those same dimensions to Robert Parker’s. Let’s say Robert rates a Gewurztraminer an 80 on a scale of “dryness”, but I give it a 60. Now I know how my experience of “dryness” compares to Robert’s and I have an objective piece of information that I can use when considering Parker’s ratings. Over time, as I compare my ratings along these dimensions to Roberts I will become more and more skilled at understanding how my palate relates to his, and sure enough I will then be able to rely on his rating system as a helpful indicator of what to expect from the wine, and consequently whether or not I will enjoy it.

It’s the difference between rating one’s impression of the wine, with finding a way to rate the particular qualities of a wine. Of course, the hard work here is to come up with appropriate dimensions of aroma, taste and texture; broad enough such that the entire range of qualities is accounted for, but succinct enough such that it does not become unwieldy. Somebody get on that.