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The psychology of tasting in Taiwan

In 1994 the Taiwanese had suddenly fallen in love with red wine and there was an explosion of new importers. There was a buck to be made and suddenly everyone was in on the game.

For us this made life both easier and more difficult. It was easier because you could meet dozens of potentially interested importers who might represent you, and more difficult because most of them had no experience in wine. Inevitably some of the meetings were a total comedy.

On my first mission, as the French call it, I went to see a company who had just made the decision to import wines and I was about the first supplier they had ever met. Lovely people, very kind, warm and welcoming. Hospitality was always so gracious. But the meeting quickly went sideways when we got to the tasting.

In Bordeaux I had seen the owner do a tasting with one of our UK importers and he simply opened the wines and let him taste, not saying a word until after he was done. I thought this was very impartial and allowed the taster to make a true judgment of the wine quality. So I adopted the same technique.

My new Taiwanese friends looked at the mysterious red liquid as I poured them all samples. I formally stated the name of the chateau, and did not say anything else. They picked up their glasses, did a cheers, and then tasted my young red Bordeaux. The facial contortions that followed were something to behold as the tannin ripped through their gums and the acid pierced their lips. Tears were welling up in the ladies eyes, and then after the owner somehow managed to swallow he blurted out “SO BAD. I feel like something die in my mouth”.

This was not the feedback I was used to and I didn’t know whether to laugh, be insulted or reply that I’d never let you represent us so ciao. But I realized that it was all new to them, and it was my job to try and explain and educate so that this company could understand wine, just as people had explained to me.

So for the next wine I took a different tact, one that any savvy wine salesmen would take. I refrained from pouring a sample until I had given them an explanation of the chateau, the region, the grapes, the scores, the flavours and thrown in a nice story “You are going to LOVE this wine. It’s one of my favorites. I live in the top left bedroom of the chateau on the label and its my home”. I think I put some extra emphasis on the fact it was my home…

Sure enough, although there was even more tannin, they loved it. And how could you not? There have been several studies on the psychology of tasting which typically imply that if you tell someone that they are tasting something then they will believe you. And there is definitely some truth to this with many wine drinkers, but not all. The studies usually tell the tasters that the table wine is a Grand Cru and vica versa and it fools most people.

But in my experience I am convinced that the vast majority of wine drinkers can actually tell quite a lot about a wine, and that the human being has an innate ability to tell if something is pleasurable or not. If there is a bad smell then we can tell. We’re basically built that way.

That said, if you are told a nice story about the wine that you are about to taste, including some type of intriguing inside scoop, along with some big scores, some delicious sounding flavours, and you are shown a pretty picture of the estate then the taster already has a pre-disposition to being positive about the wine.

As was usually the case at these 2-3 hour meetings we tasted all the wines and had some good discussion. I had already decided that this company was not the right choice for us because we needed an experienced importer. As it drew to a close the owner looked at me and said, “We like the red wine from the place where you live, but can you ask them to make it sweet.”