I remember the first $50 bottle of local wine I ever bought. It was about 10 years ago, and my BFF and I were away for a mom's weekend visiting a regional wine trail. Between the two of us, we had five kids ranging from ages 2 to 7, and an entire weekend away to drink wine (and sleep in) was glorious.
I was in one of the tasting rooms on the wine trail, being served wine by the winemaker himself, and drinking one of his most popular wines — one that would be perfect for a great steak dinner — so I decided to splurge. I waited for just the right time to open the bottle at home, a night when my kids were in bed early and their father and I had the chance to cook up some really good steaks.
We didn't like the wine, and I couldn't figure out why I'd bought it.
Why did it taste so good in the tasting room, but so awful in my dining room?
I now realize what I loved about the wine was the entire experience I was having, much more so than the wine itself.
I'd like to say that nothing like that ever happens to me these days — thanks to all the the education, training and tasting I've done over the past decade, my palate is changing. I'd like to say the only thing that influences me when I'm tasting wine is the quality of the wine. But I'd be lying.
First of all, my palate is definitely not that refined. I'm working on it, but I have a long way to go. Secondly, when I'm enjoying myself, the things I'm eating and drinking tend to blend into the whole experience and don't get dissected as carefully as when I'm tasting specifically to taste. The fun ends up being more fun that way.
The influence of a wine label description
There are many things that can influence your perception of wine that don't have to do with your taste buds. A recent study done at the University of Adelaide in Australia found that wine descriptions written on a bottle can "alter consumer emotions, increase their wine liking and encourage them to pay more for a bottle," according to Science Daily.
That sounds similar to my experience 10 years ago on the wine trail, only it wasn't a description on the bottle, but the description the winemaker gave us that altered my emotions, increasing how much I liked the wine, and convincing me to pay more.
I'm not implying that the winemaker that day was being manipulative. When he's pouring, his job is to describe the wine, but his descriptors — and I don't remember specifically what they were — influenced me.
For the Australian study about descriptions on bottles, the researchers had 126 "regular white wine consumers" taste three easily available white wines from Australia — a chardonnay, a riesling and a sauvignon blanc — and had them taste them three ways: blind with no information, given a "basic sensory description," and given an "elaborate/emotional description."
The more elaborate the wine description, including giving winery history and positive wine quality statements, the higher the "preference rating the consumers allocated to the wines."
A good story along with positive descriptors, it seems, can influence a wine drinker's perception. I brought up this concept with some wine professionals, and asked them this question: "What are the things — separate from tasting a wine itself — that informs your perspective about a wine?"
Even for wine professionals, the company matters
Tina Morey, who hosts #Winestudio, a wine education program that I participate in weekly, says a lot of marketing time has been poured into labels, bottle shapes and other things, all to shape a consumer's perception.
"We are social creatures so what sways us sure is socially driven, memory associated — follow any social media streams to get a sense of how this works," Morey said. "There definitely is that sense of 'belonging' and 'good times' associated with activities experienced together, and we remember them differently when taken out of context — so as with wine."
For Wine Skool'd podcast host Keith Beavers, his experience helps him to look past labels because "wine labels and aesthetic has gotten so studied that one cannot glean anything from he label," especially if those labels are trying to be "millennial-hip." The shiny labels with their descriptors can "trick you into thinking what's inside is satisfying," so he doesn't allow them to shape what he thinks about a wine.
"Nothing is more informing than the person you buy from and tasting the wine," he said. Talking with the winemaker or a very knowledgable wine rep is helpful. Tasting, though, is the ultimate informer for him.
"As a professional, I've been trained to evaluate the quality of wines based on a fairly objective set of criteria," said Mike Beneduce, winemaker at Beneduce Vineyards in Pittstown, New Jersey, a winery near me that was recently named one of Travel + Leisure's Top 25 Vineyards in the Country. "The parts of my brain that are influenced by things like ambiance or tasting notes shut down. Blinders go on, and I'm focused on the wine in the glass."
But, when he's drinking wine with friends and family like the rest of us do, things are a little different.
"As a wine drinker, some of the most memorable bottles in my life have been mediocre wines enjoyed in outstanding company or context," Beneduce said. "Of course those things affect our enjoyment of wine — it's about the complete sensory experience. If you ate your favorite food off a paper plate in a dark room surrounded by people you hate, I bet it wouldn't taste so good."
After hearing what others have to say, I'm judging the wine-drinking me of 10 years ago and the wine-writer me of today less harshly. Who you're with, what you're doing, and what you're being told can shape what you think of the wine you're drinking at that very moment. And that's okay. If you're having a good experience, and you're enjoying the wine, don't question it. Do be prepared, though, that if you have that same wine without the same experience, it may not taste the same. It may not taste bad the way that $50 bottle did for me all those years ago, but just know your opinion about the wine may change.