How Subjective is Suggestion?

A few days ago I read a piece by Jon Troutman over at on the power of suggestion in wine tasting. It’s worth a read, but the for the purpose of summarization, the gist of the article is that in Jon’s experience, being given a set of descriptors about a wine often leads to us actually picking up those aromas and/or flavors, likely due to the power of suggestion.

Personally, when review wines I don’t want to have anyone else’s tasting notes available for that wine, for the same reason – I don’t want to be influenced by those notes and I want to formulate my own opinion first. Jon stops shy of delving into the scientific research behind suggestion, but his article does beg the question:

“Am I smelling and tasting things that are actually there in the wine, or do I just think those things are there because someone told me that they are there?”

My answer, based on personal experience, is that for most people the answer is that you’re only smelling/tasting things that are actually there. The trouble is that we can only draw upon our own limited sensory vocabularies when we’re tasting wine, and therefore are certainly susceptible to being influenced on “shades” of those flavors and aromas; kind of like color shades that closely resemble one another.

For example, I can tell you that a wine we are tasting together smells like blue fruits or black fruits, or berries. That’s pretty general and you might agree with me. But then I can tell you that is smells like blackberries, and while you might not have been picking that up directly, chances are you will after I tell you that it smells like blackberries to me.

But… what if I tell you all of a sudden that it smells like skunk?

Sorry, but I just don’t think most people are that gullible or that susceptible to suggestion. If the wine doesn’t smell like skunk, I’m not going to be able to convince most people that there’s a skunk smell in there.

My own experience bears this out. In on-line tasting during events (where dozens of people are tasting the same wine at the same time and sharing their opinions of the wine in real-time), I’ve often been asked, ” do you get [insert descriptor here] on this wine?” If I don’t, I say No. Simple as that.

The moral of the story is to trust your own nose and your own instincts, and don’t let yourself be “sold” a tasting profile anymore than you’d let a used car salesman sell you a line about the past history of one of his cars.


Joe Roberts is a Certified Specialist of Wine and author of the award-winning wine blog.

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