Graphite, currant, camphor: Wine descriptors tell us more about a bottle's price than its flavor.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 23 2011 10:08 AM

Velvety Chocolate With a Silky Ruby Finish. Pair With Shellfish.

Ridiculous wine descriptors may reveal more about a bottle's price than its flavor.

Earthy and relaxed wines. Or are they noisy and ephemeral? Click image to expand.
Earthy and relaxed wines. Or are they noisy and ephemeral?

The seventh edition of Robert Parker's Wine Buyers' Guide is 1,513 pages. It weighs 4.1 pounds, more than a magnum worth of wine, and even carries an oversized electronic price ($24.95 on the Kindle). The heft is due, in large part, to over-the-top descriptions of the world's wines. If you're in the market for an "indispensible" bottle, you might check out the 1998 Chateau La Lagune. More "inimitable"than "indispensible" is the 2006 Chateau Malescot St. Exupery, which contains "notes of graphite, black currant liqueur, incense, and camphor."

Graphite. Black currant. Incense. And camphor? It sounds like something out of a Bollywood take on Hansel and Gretel. Never mind that graphite contains no aromatics, or that incense could mean any of a dozen flavors. Can a simple Bordeaux let loose such a witches' brew of fragrant notions?

George Taber, the reporter who covered the Judgment of Paris tasting, in which California first beat France in a wine tête-à-tête, is skeptical. "Wine critics want to be Zeus on a mountaintop," he says, but there's little objective basis to their declarations. The economist Richard Quandt, riffing on Henry Frankfurt in a missive titled "On Wine Bullshit," is less delicate. He declares the wine industry "intrinsically bullshit prone," one that "therefore attracts bullshit artists." Quandt puzzles over the term "spicy earth," from Parker's glossary: "I could go into my backyard and sprinkle some cumin, cardamom, turmeric and fenugreek; but how would I know that those are the right choices, rather than coriander, chili powder, caraway seeds and cayenne?"

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Of course Parker is not the only culprit—he's just the most famous; impossible descriptions plague many reviews. Take Antonio Galloni's physics-defying phrase: "The 2005 Brunello di Montalcino is a model of weightless finesse." The review continues by conjuring up "dark wild cherries, minerals, menthol and spices."

Since it sometimes seems as though wine tasting is a fixed game of bluffs (let my gravel pass, and I won't challenge your carob), I began to wonder if wine descriptors might not be correlated with something other than flavor: price. I decided to see if I could predict the price of a bottle based on the words in the review. "Wild nettle" sure sounds fancy, but is it preferentially used in conjunction with expensive wines?

Using descriptions of 3,000 bottles, ranging from $5 to $200 in price from an online aggregator of reviews, I first derived a weight for every word, based on the frequency with which it appeared on cheap versus expensive bottles. I then looked at the combination of words used for each bottle, and calculated the probability that the wine would fall into a given price range. The result was, essentially, a Bayesian classifier for wine. In the same way that a spam filter considers the combination of words in an e-mail to predict the legitimacy of the message, the classifier estimates the price of a bottle using its descriptors.

The analysis revealed, first off, that "cheap" and "expensive" words are used differently. Cheap words are more likely to be recycled, while words correlated with expensive wines tend to be in the tail of the distribution. That is, reviewers are more likely to create new vocabulary for top-end wines. The classifier also showed that it's possible to guess the price range of a wine based on the words in the review. From a more qualitative standpoint, there are three types of words more likely to be used for expensive wines:

  • Darker words, such as intense, supple, velvety, and smoky
  • Single flavors such as tobacco or chocolate versus fruity, good, clean, tasty, juicy for cheap wines
  • Exclusive-sounding words in place of simple descriptors. For example, old, elegant, and cuvee rather than pleasing, refreshing, value,and enjoy
  • Additionally, cheap wine is preferentially paired with chicken and pizza, while pricey wine goes with shellfish and pork

Armed with this information, we could, for example, create the most expensive-sounding review in the world: A velvety chocolate texture and enticingly layered, yet creamy, nose, this wine abounds with focused cassis and a silky ruby finish. Lush, elegant, and nuanced. Pair with pork and shellfish.

In defense of critics, one might argue that these correlations exist because expensive wines actually taste like focused cassis, where cheap wines are just juicy. But, along with Quandt and Taber, food scientists think that's doubtful. Recently, researchers have been smashing apart wines in mass spectrometers, looking for odorants like ethyl 2-methylbutanoate, which smells like apples. While they are finding minor differences between varietals, the similarities are more striking. Merlots contain slightly more earthy compounds than cabernets, but the two are otherwise indistinguishable. It's impossible, furthermore, to pick apart differentiating flavors of specific spices or flavors of earth in any wine. Granted, the human nose is more agile than a mass spectrometer, which only detects the mass and structure of molecules. It's unlikely, however, that experts have such precise senses that they can identify minute variations of tastes and odors that a sophisticated machine cannot observe at all.  

Why, then, do critics preferentially pin flavors such as boysenberry and butterscotch to expensive bottles? It's simple, really. When a critic sits down to write a review he often already knows the cost of the bottle. Even at a so-called blind tasting he probably has a rough idea since he knows the prices associated with the vineyards, varietals, and regions represented there. Critics might also observe an industry standard that pairs expensive wines with certain kinds of words, and not want to seem naive or out of the loop—so when they come across a pricey bottle, they reach for the tobacco. It's the herd mentality.

Of course that doesn't explain why boysenberry, for instance, sounds expensive to wine critics, while refreshing sounds cheap. My guess is that, when it comes to invoking elegance, foreign and complex words have a natural advantage. Cigars and truffle conjure up prestige and luxury. Meanwhile, a little-known berry or spice conveys the worldly sophistication of the critic, which the drinker can share. For a price. (As for why unkosher foods, in particular, go so well with fine wine—that's a puzzle for the rabbis.)

It's worth remembering that, before the advent of modern reviews in the 1980s, critics only talked about a wine's body. Varietals were supple or strong, masculine or feminine. André Simon, the pre-eminent English-language wine critic of the early 20th century, once compared a wine to "a girl of fifteen, with laughing blue eyes." Our appreciation of wine has benefited from the innovations of Robert Parker and others, who have tried to make wine-writing less abstract through meticulous descriptions. We now have touchstones to distinguish among basic flavors: a wine can be sweet or dry, full of tannins, light or full-bodied. Think of how a sommelier would differentiate between two wines on a restaurant list: words like full, sweet, fruity, and dry are, unlike camphor, genuinely helpful. In an earnest effort to nix subjectivity from reviews, critics have gone too far, leaving us with a bag of adjectives that say a lot about price, and almost nothing about flavor.

Coco Krumme studies behavioral economics at the MIT Media Lab, and is a member of the American Association of Wine Economists.

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