Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anchoring: It's Not Just for Boaters Anymore

Anchoring, based on my layman's understanding, is the tendency of an initial review to serve as a basis for future evaluation. This is not unlike the logical fallacy known as poisoning the well where a preemptive argument is used to discredit an opponent in a debate. Although anchoring is not an intentional act, the effect is the same as the more malicious poisoning the well: opinions that follow are given less weight if not completely ignored.

Certainly with wine anchoring is a prominent phenomenon. Critics' ratings, price and producer reputations all tend to anchor consumers' opinions. In effect the well has been poisoned when any wine is accompanied by high expectations. Dislike a highly regarded wine, and one might as well admit to having poor taste.

Reading tasting notes like those posted on Cellartracker illustrates the various guises that anchoring assumes. For example, it's not uncommon for an under performing wine to be given a pass with statements like "needed a 12 hour decant," "opened too young," or "required time for alcohol to blow off." There are indeed cases where decanting allows a wine to show its best. It's also entirely possible that a wine was not opened at its optimal age. But if a wine just wasn't that great, whether it was a bad bottle, a bad vintage or bad timing, there's no reason to make excuses. The wine just wasn't that great, and I'm not blaming myself for not waiting 12 hours for it to squeeze out a hint of vanilla soaked cherries.

Scoring is even more dubious in this regard. It's not at all hard to find expensive wines with descriptors like "hot," "awkward," and "unbalanced" accompanied by 90+ point scores. Why? Because a critic likely gave it a 90+ point rating. An interesting example concerns a Pinot Noir rated something like 96 points by Robert Parker. A significant number of notes refer to noticeably high alcohol levels, yet only one person posted a score below 90. Perhaps this wine has everything else going for it and many tasters have insensitive palates. But it's nonetheless interesting that a wine with a repeatedly noted flaw still averages 93 points communally.

This brings me to the ultimate example of anchoring, the infamous 96 point rated Sierra Carche. Here are a few of my favorite notes from Cellartracker, without points, which I'll list at the end of this post:
Was hoping for a little more since Jumilla is one of my favorite regions in the world--although still very good. Possibly still too young, coupled with the fact that we didn't decant. Will take better notes next time when I'm not at a dinner party.

This wine will EITHER develop A LOT MORE (?, at least I HOPE !!!) OR GV was out of his mind when he said this wine blows CLIO away ! A HUGE disappointment, decanted for several hours and nothing really improved. Already tried 2 bottles with same results. Dry, tannic. Still have 22 bottles to go !!!!!! Anyone interested ??

very dissapointed with this wine. Considering the Parker score and Gary V's push for Clio lovers, I bought several bottles. I feel robbed! No nose of any kind when opened, no nose of any kind after decanting for 3 hrs, beautiful color but that's about the only good thing about this wine. It took quite an effort just to finish the bottle. I have had $10 bottles of wine that would blow this away.
Take my advice and pass on this one!

Rose petals, violets, earth, espresso, liquorice, blackberries and blueberries on the nose, which is unmistakeably influenced by the mourvedre ( a good thing!!!), along with some harsh stemminess. Medium bodied on the palate, but dominated by drying unripe tannins. This might come into balance in 3-5 years, and would merit a higher score.
Now, for those of you keeping score at home, the tasters' ratings are 91, 89, 88 and 90, respectively. None of these notes indicate this wine is particularly enjoyable or special, with the second and third expressing serious distaste for the wine. Yet the ratings indicate it's a borderline very good to excellent wine. Over 48 notes, many of which are ambivalent, the average score is 89.4 with a median of 90.

Just for good measure, I'll throw in another personal favorite, the 2006 BenMarco Malbec. This wine received a 90 or 91 from all of the "major" critics. Now, look at the first dozen or so tasting notes, all of which are clustered around the 90-91 point range. Eventually more variance creeps in over time. Even without attempting some calculation on the odds scores would be randomly clustered like this, it's pretty clear there's more anchoring here than at your local yacht club!

It's human nature to trust an authority to ground your own opinions. And very few people can actually taste even a fraction of the wines they buy before hand. In that respect critical notes provide a valuable service. But it's clear consumers as a whole need to be willing to trust their own palates. We may tend towards being herded like sheep. However, we have the ability to override this instinct once we have access to the information we need. All that information is in the bottle; you can't drink the label, the price tag or the scores.


jasonchaas said...

This is a cool piece. I agree that anchoring bias is a major challenge for reviewers; I actually think it's an even greater challenge for community tasting notes sites like CellarTracker. I wrote a piece on it on the Tablas Creek blog back in June: Anchoring Bias (AKA Follow the Leader) in Community Tasting Notes

Thanks, too, for the nice comments about Tablas Creek in today's piece.

CabFrancoPhile said...

Thanks for the comments, glad you enjoyed the post. I actually read and commented upon your entry back in June. But with the time lag between entries, it slipped my mind.

An interesting feature of CellarTracker is that recent notes on wines you own pop up on your "home page" when logging in. While this can help deciding if a wine is at a good drinking stage, it certainly exacerbates the follow the leader phenomena.