Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

An article titled “Can You Tell Red From White?” in the online edition of Wine Spectator Magazine a couple of years ago began with this line:

The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.

Whatever else you may say about the two magazines in question or the qualifications of the authors they hire to write about wine, this much is clear: Wine Spectator missed a critical opportunity for an excellent pun. In fact, so blatant was their oversight that it casts grave doubts on the magazine’s editorial sensibilities.

The Red and White Blues

But linguistic flexibility is a much less serious matter than that which concerned humorist Calvin Trillin, who wrote an article titled “The Red and the White. Is it possible that wine connoisseurs can’t tell them apart?” in the August 19 & 26, 2002, edition of The New Yorker. Trillin claimed to have heard from multiple sources that wine experts—even those with degrees in enology from the University of California, Davis—routinely failed a blind taste test in which participants were asked simply to pick which wines (served at room temperature in black glasses) were red and which were white. If true, this suggests that the whole enterprise of tasting and judging wines rests on a shaky foundation at best.

In the course of Trillin’s research, he discovered that the test he had heard of was most likely an urban myth, or at least a significant embellishment of a test where wines are judged by smell rather than taste. Nevertheless, he himself couldn’t reliably tell the difference. In an effort to show just how ridiculous it should be even to ask such a question, an enology professor subjected Trillin to an impromptu experiment with a pair of wines—one white, one red—and he guessed wrong. Volunteers on the staff of Wine Spectator fared much better in their own version of the test, correctly guessing color 40 out of 42 times.

Fruity, with a Note of Imagination

But the fact that anyone could fail such a test suggests that wines’ aromas and flavors are not as distinctive as experts have led us to believe. It also reminds us that the experience of taste and smell—tightly connected as they are—may be quite subjective. Psychologists say that one’s perception of smell is strongly affected by one’s expectations—more often than not, we smell what we think we’re going to smell, or what someone tells us we’ll smell. So it’s entirely plausible that the smells and tastes we perceive in a glass of wine can be colored (so to speak) by the wine’s appearance. Meanwhile, experts ranging from Wine Spectator editors to UC Davis enologists admit that some wines have flavors that belie their colors—typically reds with an unusually low level of tannin or whites with an unusually high level. Without the standard cues of color and temperature, even a seasoned pro could plausibly suffer from a confused palate.

Although I’ve been to several wine tastings, I have not developed the sophisticated palate or vocabulary necessary for describing the taste of a wine meaningfully. But then, if even such a basic distinction as a wine’s being red or white can be missed, I don’t feel so bad for not being able to detect that hint of raspberry, that faint aroma of vanilla, or even those strong oak overtones the labels declare so boldly. My test is much simpler: what color are your cheeks after drinking the wine? Red: good. White: not so much. —Joe Kissell

More Information

Enology (sometimes spelled oenology) is the study of wine. But you knew that, right? And if you want to study wine, the place to go is the University of California at Davis’s Department of Viticulture and Enology.

You can read Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker article The Red and the White: Is it possible that wine connoisseurs can’t tell them apart? on Connecticut Forum. Through A Glass Darkly by Adam Gopnik contains some additional useful information on the topic.

Need some good advice on selecting inexpensive wines? Try Wilder on Wine.