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RS90 - On Wine, Water, and Audio

Release date: June 30, 2013

In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Massimo turn their attention to connoisseurship -- or snobbery, depending on your point of view! Fine wines, bottled water, high-end audio equipment -- what all these have in common are passionate customers who are discriminating enough to pay top dollar for subtle differences between options. Or are they? This episode explores the evidence on whether connoisseurs can really tell the difference between, for example, the $7 wine and the $700 one -- or whether it's a distinction without a difference.

Julia's pick: "Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work"

Massimo's pick: "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin"



Reader Comments (9)

Loved this podcast episode! It was so funny. Julia's enhanced cold-reading anecdote was great. lol. It was lighthearted and great for my drive home. :)

June 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

I really like this podcast. Eric Schwitzgebel's book "perplexities of consciousness" does some good work pushing towards the thesis that we are very bad at telling what kind of experiences we are having. Also this paper "The Unreliability of Naive Introspection"

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShane

Terrific episode! I've been a professional recording engineer for the last 15 years and I'm constantly amazed at the amount of nonsense that gets thrown around in both the audiophile community that listens to recordings and the recording community that produces them. Although the audiophile community seems to have the greater amount of nonsense--but that just may be my bias as a member of the recording community.

There is an audio forum that is dedicated to double-blind listening tests whenever the subject of "sounds better than..." comes up: Hydrogen Audio: I highly recommend it to anyone interested in listening to high quality audio.

A great article on why sighted listening tests are flawed and why double blinding is necessary is at Dr. Sean Olive's blog: The blog isn't updated very frequently, but there is a lot of fantastic info there about research into what people actually perceive as good sound reproduction.

July 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBob Smoot

Enjoyed this. It sent me looking for an old article in the New Yorker about wine supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, with connoisseurs going head-to-head with historians and c14 dating. "The Jefferson Bottles: How could one collector find so much rare fine wine?" (Patrick Radden Keefe September 3, 2007) <>

I remembered it for this paragraph.

"Some unbridgeable philosophical gap seemed to separate the historians in Virginia and the connoisseurs in Europe. Broadbent, like Rodenstock, expressed confidence that the sensory experience of consuming a bottle of wine trumped historical evidence. In June, 1986, he noted that he had just tasted a bottle of Rodenstock’s 1787 Th.J. Branne Mouton. The wine was “sensationally good,” Broadbent wrote. “If anyone had any lingering doubts about the authenticity of this extraordinary old wine, they were completely removed. . . . Admittedly, there is no written evidence that these particular bottles had been in the possession of Jefferson, but I am now firmly convinced that this indeed was the wine that Jefferson ordered.”"

July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark W.

Podcast topic suggestion: The Philosophy & History of Calculus

July 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Z.

Just listened to this podcast today; was shocked that you, Massimo, did not mention Hume's bringing up the Don Quixote story about Sanchez and his acutely-sensitive wine-tasting kinsmen in Hume's "The Standard of Taste" essay (where the moral of the story might be seen as: before judging the judgments of two judges, make sure they are not drawing from the equivalent of a Heracletian stream, for they'll never taste from the same draw twice.):

"One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy, than has hitherto been attempted. And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in Don Quixote.

"It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it."


Absence of the obvious notwithstanding, though (Massimo, you LOVE Hume, no??), your podcasts are growing ever favorably upon me. Thanks to both of you, Massimo and Julia, for your really interesting shows. Look forward to the fall stuff upcoming.


August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkmarnyc

"-ology" a Latin suffix?!? True, it was borrowed through Latin, as many Greek roots and affixes were. It almost always combines with Greek roots, as "oeno-" is.

It probably wouldn't have bothered me if Julia hadn't mentioned Massimo being "protective of [his] native language". :-)

October 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Goard

In your discussion of audiophilia, you entertain the possibility that certain listeners may have more sensitive "ears"
than others. But you don't mention this idea in your discussion of water, despite the large body of evidence that taste sensitivity and perception differ widely across individuals. If you take into account the fact of "supertasters" (the term Linda Bartoshuk coined for those individuals with heightened taste responses), the idea that (certain) people can taste minute differences between brands of water (or, say, vintages of wine) becomes a lot more plausible.

January 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterN.
Red wines pair best with pizza.

I love Julia's tasting description technique.

It probably makes more sense to just use tap water and fill a reusable bottle, or if you have bad tasting tap water filter it first. However, perhaps someone could market tap water from various famous cities around the world, put it in glass bottles similar to wine bottles, and have "connoisseurs" rate the various waters.
January 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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