smason edit.jpg (23187 bytes)Look At It This Way
by Dr. Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things
In new ways


Drink Up

At a lounge a few nights ago, I happened to be seated near a fellow who ordered a bottle of merlot. It was time for Wine Tasting Theater. He did everything but lick the bottle and listen to the cork. Finally he approved the purchase. Later I asked the sommelier how many bottles were returned in an evening? He said: We've never had one returned.

At the risk of having you think I hang out in bars, I recall another evening when a sweet young thing ordered a vodka tonic and specified a specific brand of vodka. It showed the power of advertising. Even if there was a difference that anyone could actually taste, the tonic would more than overwhelm it.

People think such displays show a refined, upper class palate. The truth is, humans can only taste five things: sweet; sour; salty; bitter plus umami... and that last one refers to a rich mouth feel more than a taste. Anyway, the tongue is there mostly to help us pick good things that are generally sweet and to avoid potentially poisonous things that are generally bitter.

And it doesn't even work that well. Most of what you taste is what you smell. Close your eyes, pinch your nose and try to distinguish between cubes of apple and bits of raw potato. And even at that, our sense of smell is one of the worst in the animal kingdom.

To make this point in my university class, I would blindfold students and give them small cups of Coco Cola, Seven Up and Ginger Ale. After a sip or two, they couldn't distinguish the difference. But you don't have to believe me. Get three bottles of wine and ask your wine connoisseur friends to differentiate a merlot from a cabernet from a shiraz.

Of course there's always the question of price. Can people really tell a higher end vintage from a lower end vintage. I bought three bottles of champagne, two cheap and one expensive. I then emptied the expensive brand and refilled it with one of my cheap brands. I covered the labels (thought it was easy enough to spot the difference in the bottles) and asked a group to sample both. Every single one of them had an overwhelming preference for the same exact wine when it had been decanted into the expensive bottle.

Look At It This Way

Their are certain things in life that most people believe are true but that are just not true. If it costs twice as much it must be twice as good is an example. There are lots of people who say they can taste the difference but have they ever been tested? Number identical cups from 1 to 7. Have a friend pour samples of several drinks. Put on a blindfold and have your friend hand them to you in no special order. Can you tell the difference? If you can't and if I can't, who do you think can?

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