CHALKY WHITE, my old careers master, was as strong on clichés as he was on his specialist subject. "Remember," he urged potential job-seekers, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Once into the adult world, I realised that making decisions is, of course, so much more complex than just working on first impressions.
I was reminded just how complex last month, when I spent a couple of days judging at the International Wine Challenge. Fittingly for one of the world's top competitions, technical data and ideas on flavours are debated in great detail before the stars of the 10,000 wines submitted are finally chosen. You can be sure that wines winning major awards will be stunningly good and taste exactly as they should.
Indeed, taste is becoming an increasingly important focus of attention. For many of us, trial and error is no longer enough. A recent survey by Australian wine giant Jacob's Creek found that 90 per cent of respondents would take a taste test if one was available.
As a result, the firm quickly created a simple quiz (www.jacobscreek.com) that matches participants to one of four segments in their range. Similarly, wine importer Bibendum is promoting a more comprehensive online callenge (www.bibendum-times.co.uk), designed in conjunction with Tim Hanni, a flavour specialist at the Culinary Institute of America and a master of wine.
Hanni's research suggests wine preferences are driven by the number of tastebuds you have – humans have between 300 and 10,000. The more you have, the more likely you are to enjoy sweeter flavours and the less you can tolerate tannic red wines and bitter flavours. The Bibendum questionnaire helps position you on the flavour spectrum (tolerant, hyper-sensitive etc) and suggests wines you might enjoy.
All this is good news for drinkers. Using taste tests will significantly increase enjoyment of wine and confidence in choosing it. But what about everyday drinkers and the snap, almost intuitive, judgments they make when choosing a bottle? I have some good news for them too.
American psychologist Timothy Wilson asked a group of students to use instinctive judgments to rank a selection of strawberry jams. Amazingly, their conclusions correlated closely with the results of a blind tasting by experts.
Encouraging enough, but the story gets better. Wilson then repeated the experiment with different students, who this time had to be more scientific and write down their opinions. Far from improving the results, any correlations with the expert views effectively disappeared. Q
uoting this and other experiments in his excellent book The Decisive Moment, Jonah Lehrer describes how "thinking too much" can cause us to create – and rely on – a selection structure that is worse than useless. Our instincts about what generates positive feelings can often be the surest guide.
Detailed analysis is unhelpful when deciding what you like – although it has a part to play when considering why you like it. Wilson and Lehrer appear to be saying that "what" and "why" should never be asked at the same time.
Adopting this view, I now use a broad-based tasting panel, briefed to focus on their first instincts rather than being too scientific. I would like to extend this to create a Spectrum panel – to make provisional recommendations on the basis of which wines generate the most positive initial feelings.
Consequently, most judgments will be by readers for readers. Later, as part of a separate exercise, we can identify the flavours and other factors behind the wines selected.
If being part of the Spectrum panel appeals to you, just send me an e-mail to volunteer. Detailed wine knowledge is unnecessary as first impressions will usually carry the day. Me? I am off to Chalky's book of clichs to see what other pearls of wisdom I've been dismissing too lightly.
Nederburg Chardonnay Viognier 2009 South Africa
13.5 per cent
Smooth and creamy with lively lemon acidity and tropical fruit flavours. 3.99 (until 11 May), at Waitrose
Esperanza Mendoza Malbec 2009 Argentina,
13 per cent
A good-value red with plum and beetroot flavours and a spicy finish. 4.69 (in a mixed case of six), at Majestic
Andando Premium Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Chile
14 per cent
A smooth, complex wine with peppery blackcurrant acidity, nicely balanced with firm tannin. 7.99 at Raeburn Fine Wines (0131-343 1159)
• This article was first published in The Scotland on Sunday, May 2, 2010