Personality and wine
by Miles Thomas

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The idea that wine and personality are linked is an attractive one. We might like to think Merlot fans masochistic or Pinot Noir geeks obsessive-compulsive, but there is little empirical evidence to support people fitting such convenient stereotypes. On the contrary, there is a growing acknowledgement that personality is as fluid and mercurial as wine once we get beyond basic traits related to our genetic inheritance.

The word 'personality' comes from the Latin persona, meaning mask. In ancient plays masks were used as plot devices to typify, not disguise, the character. We still use such tropes though we have moved away from simplistic ideas of appearance reflecting character to more sophisticated epistemological territories involving empiricism and brain scans. Nowadays if you suggested that someone was more likely to drink Riesling than Pinot Grigio because of the shape of their head you would, rightly, be seen as superstitious rather than scientific. But psychologists working in the field of personality still search for patterns in the thoughts and behaviours of individuals.

Researchers who have looked at the relationship between personality and wine preferences have not had a particularly fruitful time although some findings are of interest. Anthony J. Saliba and colleagues suggest participants in their study “with a sweet taste preference were significantly higher in impulsiveness than their dry preference counterparts". The research with Kate Wragg and Paul Richardson, of Sheffield Hallam University, tested the wine preferences of 45 people and divided them into those who liked sweet or dry wine. Each group was also given personality tests to evaluate their impulsiveness, empathy, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Apart from impulsiveness and openness, no personality trait was significantly different between the two groups. In the journal Food Quality and Preference they postulated that “There is some support for the notion that sweet preference develops early in humans and thus could drive the development of impulsiveness”. Unsurprisingly there is evidence that a preference for sweetness fluctuates throughout life with it heightened during childhood and declining in late adolescence.

There is some support for the notion that sweet preference develops early in humans and thus could drive the development of impulsiveness

Gordon Allport helped establish personality psychology and introduced the first modern trait theories. One dimension common to many theorists, and observed as far back as the ancient Greeks, is extraversion. Introverts salivate more than extroverts when a drop of lemon juice is put on their tongue. They might more likely to drink alone or with a small number of familiar people whereas extroverts might gravitate towards more public consumption. Kathleen Burk and Micheal Bywater in their informative and amusing book Is this Bottle Corked? make the following observation about ostentatious drinkers “in the majority of cases it’s fair to say that the people over there, who are ruining your evening, aren’t drinking Petrus. They aren’t even drinking wine. They are drinking money.” They are being seen and feeling themselves drinking money. The analogy of a peacock’s tail is apt. It is high maintenance but has the simple function of impressing a mate and increasing the chance of genetic material being passed on. We often develop quite sophisticated rituals around quite basic drives e.g. potlatch ceremonies. Why do people have collections of wines that are far too big for them to drink (even with concerted help from their friends)? Often for investment purposes but some collectors are so rich they do not need to speculate on wine (their oil wells make more in a day than they would ever make on wine). The answer is superficially straightforward (status) but there is often much more to it than that and collectors do differ in motivation.

Contemporary research suggests that personality traits are based on the joint influence of genetics and environment. At a fundamental biological level, as Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of behavioural science, points out, we live in different taste worlds. People can be divided up into ‘tasters’, ‘non-tasters’ and ‘super-tasters’ based on their response to tasting specific compounds. So, if you recall broccoli being unpalatable as a child it is possible you fell into the latter group. There is cultural variation with 33% of North Europeans being non-tasters but only 10% of the Chinese population falling into this category. We make a huge value judgment though if we suggest it is better to be a ‘super-taster’, and the notion, expressed by more than one wine expert, that all those who are professionally engaged in tasting wine should be from this group is simplistic and unhelpful. They would be an unrepresentative panel from a taste universe unfamiliar to the majority of wine drinkers. There are critics who have had their taste profile assessed but few, to my knowledge, have disclosed the results. One honourable exception is Mike Steinberger wrote about his profile in Slate but recognised that biological predisposition is probably not the key to being a successful critic. But as Jay McInerney points out in Hedonist in the Cellar there is no Platonic notion of perfection when it comes to wine and ultimately the name of the game is personal preference. But what is personal preference and where does it come from?

A popular definition of personality is attributed to the neurologist Paul Roe who conceptualised it as “an individual's predisposition to think certain patterns of thought, and therefore engage in certain patterns of behaviour”. We drink wine because it ‘rewards’ us in various ways. Wine supplies calories. Not great calories in health terms but calories nonetheless. Wine is also refreshing and has lots of interesting flavours so provides sensory rewards. Depending on your knowledge and preferences you may seek out particular types of wine. Most experienced wine drinkers will happily list grapes they love, tolerate or despise. Many might identify particular vintages or vineyards because they have defined their preferences through tastings. These preferences are likely to be linked to wider taste profiles but given the number of different wines out there, they are also a reflection of exposure effects and cultural norms. Tolerance levels for tannins can vary widely and areas where black tea is drunk, such as some parts of China, appear to correlate with enjoyment of tannic red wines. Language is also a factor with separation of fruit and flower descriptors common to French or North American tasters strange to Vietnamese tasters who tend not to distinguish between the two. A 1987 survey asked “what does being French mean to you?” Born in France came in at number one, then defending liberties and speaking French. In fourth position was “to like good wine”. Most of our choices are contextually sensitive. If you are brought up in Italy you tend to drink Italian wine. What we often think of as our personal preferences are often biologically predetermined preferences, cultural artefacts or straightforward exposure effects.

We do change over time and even develop new tastes and habits. Regular exposure can make us far more tolerant of tastes we may have previously disliked. Many over 50 lose their sense of taste. This can impact on health and well-being and might also impact on the way a person views their personality. At what point might a critic reveal that their sense of smell was disappearing? There is also the question of them even being aware their sensory equipment is failing and what sense they might make of it. It is possible that memory and experience compensate for such changes so that the individual maintains an illusion of the stable self. Quantum physicists subscribing to the Copenhagen Interpretation would argue that the idea of a personality is redundant and there is no stable 'I', it is just a useful story we tell ourselves to cope with the chaos of our complex world. Psychology has made us increasingly aware of the illusion of choice and limits of self-determination. You may think it is 'you' choosing that bottle of Sauvignon Blanc but is it really? And do our choices really reveal anything?

Too much choice is stressful and confusing. When selecting wine there are often many bottles to evaluate and compare, the majority of which you probably haven’t tasted. The safest option is to select a wine you are familiar with, that you know you enjoy, within your price range and that matches the occasion you are buying it for (quiet night in or fancy dinner party). This is what most people do in most instances. Familiarity is comforting and we are generally seeking comfort as we make our way through the world. There are of course differences in individual traits and demographic groups. Some are more open to novel experiences, take more risks, have more disposable income or are more prone to status displays. All these variables will influence choice but experimentation is risky and people generally don't like risk so will try to minimise the chance of buying the 'wrong wine'. This is why big brands want consistency in products and why buying Burgundy from small producers will always be a niche pursuit. My guess is that ‘Burg hounds’ tend to have higher than average educational achievement and disposable income. They also need tolerance for high levels of risk and are cursed by the power of intermittent reinforcement, constantly chasing that elusive eureka moment.

Pierre Bourdieu explored wine discourses and power in terms of key individuals and their influence on trends. Celebrities (wine critics or simply movie stars) can confer prestige on products and shift tastes, language, markets and methodologies. Cattell de?ned personality as ‘‘that which permits a prediction of what a person will do in a given situation.’’ and this is of interest to people trying to sell you things including wine. Popular culture loves such ideas, for example: Clarice Starling using wine purchases to track down Hannibal Lecter, and the thing I am asked most frequently to comment on is how wine choice reflects personality despite little evidence that it does.

Wine drinkers should be mindful of how knowledge of human behaviour allows retailers to maintain an illusion of choice. Researchers have demonstrated effects between the music played in retail outlets and wine purchases. Classical music played in wine retailers promotes sales of more expensive wines. Perhaps our sense of being cultured is triggered and this is connected to the amount of risk we are willing to take in terms of spending. Often a choice is simply the result of a learned association like that demonstrated by Pavlov with dogs. Playing music from a country has been shown to prime consumer choices, possibly because of our need for congruence. If we hear French music we gravitate towards French wines. This has nothing to do with individuality or personality despite the stories we tell ourselves about the choices we make. We know sensory processing is cross-modal. Brochet’s cheeky experiment colouring white wine with red food colouring demonstrated how we smell with our eyes when we sample a wine and altering colour is enough to radically alter the language we use to describe something. It also reinforced the fallibility of experts who seem more susceptible to such effects, perhaps because of their knowledge and expectations.

The human tendency to search for congruence, order and connections between things serves a comforting purpose and is sometimes great fun. In the recent London Mayoral elections wines were suggested by Oddbins for each of the candidates. Boris Johnson was seen as a bottle of Diane de Belgrave Haut-Médoc Bordeaux because “Just like the current mayor, the wine has been around since 2008, is classic old-school with a posh upbringing, a fruity side and a suggestion of leather cigar boxes”. Ken Livingstone was paired with a Cape Chamonix Pinotage because “The perfect wine for Ken must go with newts, carry real weight and also have legs – as it doesn’t look like he is ever going to retire”. I guess it had to be a red for Ken but I would have seen Boris as much more White Burgundy with his unruly blonde hair and slightly erratic behavior.

Heads of State are often seen as selecting wines to reflect their personality. W Blake Gray recently cited John F Kennedy serving French wine at the White House as being in keeping with his ‘cosmopolitan image’. But most Heads of State recognise political and economic imperatives and therefore serve wines from their own country. Gray also tells the story of Nixon serving guests cheap plonk but having a sneaky bottle of Château Margaux in a brown paper bag for his own drinking pleasure. My guess is that this is apocryphal and probably originated as a slur on an individual seen as lacking integrity and generosity. Stories often emerge to match a personality revealed by events. Let’s face it, Nixon was not going to be out of pocket by serving decent wine so perhaps, if he did do this, it reflected a fear of being seen as ‘foreign’ or profligate. This may not have been paranoid as Obama has been mocked for serving an expensive wine. He has subsequently decreed that the names of wines will no longer be revealed, which is somewhat at odds with his expressed beliefs in transparency. He does identify himself as a supporter of organic viticulture but perhaps this is simply a politically favourable position as much as a reflection of personality.

Most people, regardless of personality, say that what they are looking for in wine is enjoyment. There are of course different types of enjoyment (hedonic being more direct sensory enjoyment and eudaimonic more related to social interaction and learning). However, I have argued that wine enjoyment is not simply about the type of wine being consumed, or even its quality (people generally can’t accurately predict the price of wines tasted blind and quality and price aren’t simply correlated anyway). Attributes of the wine such as colour and alcohol content are important but there are two other significant variables which tend to be neglected. Firstly, what we might call 'personality', perhaps better conceptualised as our biological predispositions and our individual history. Secondly the environment or context in which a wine is drunk. It is often the latter that most enhances our enjoyment and most of us will be familiar with the simple wine on holiday that is incredibly enjoyable but dull when we return home. This is due to us being relaxed, the good weather, the company we are in etc. etc. which is not replicated when we drink the wine at home. This can be seen in terms of the Fundamental Attribution Error which describes the tendency to explain actions in terms of personality rather than context despite the latter often being the determining factor for behaviour.

There is an idea that wine reveals us not only through our choices of wines but through our behaviour when we drink it, despite this also being very situation dependent. This goes back to the Classical period when your ability to remain ‘civilised’ despite intoxication was seen as evidence of good character. In his recent book on Argentinean wine Ian Mount quotes Alfredo Bartholomaus who suggests “We spend all our time showing people what we are not. When we have two or three glasses of wine we lower our defence; we show who we are”. Wine disinhibits and enhances mood, for better or worse, due to its psychoactive properties. However, intoxication in some cultures allows for 'bad behaviour' whilst in others is still seen as a failure of character.

Wine is transformative, itself a result of a profound change. It changes us when we drink it but is this simply an ephemeral state or something more profound? There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that wine influences the development of personality any more than a pork chop does. Alcohol influences behaviour but so does consuming chocolate. In fact whatever we take into our body can be seen as contributing to what we are. Did Winston Churchill develop sanguinity due to his Port or Champagne consumption? Unlikely, but perhaps his depression, which he described as his ‘Black dog’, predisposed him to ‘self-medicate’. We can never know how he might have been as a teetotaller. If wine does change us then it probably does so, at least in part, because it is psychoactive. The addictive potential of alcohol is rarely acknowledged by wine professionals and woe betides anyone who includes wine under the umbrella term ‘drugs’. Wine is perhaps the most sublimated of all drugs, socially acceptable and not associated with character defects or disease in the same way as criminalised drugs (although even this generalisation does not hold across cultures).

Lots of research has examined the relationship between wine preference and health. One involved over 10, 000 young adults and suggested that wine drinkers generally had more formal education, better dietary and exercise habits, and more favourable health status indicators such as normal body mass, than other drinkers and non drinkers. A larger proportion were also light to moderate drinkers compared to beer or spirit drinkers, and they were less likely to report smoking or problem drinking. Other studies have also demonstrate this 'J curve' effect where light wine consumption is associated with better health outcomes than abstinence or heavier consumption especially of alcohol other than wine.

A person's height is affected by genetics, but if they are malnourished then growth will be stunted no matter what their genetic coding is. Environment is also not completely responsible for an outcome in personality. An example from Psychobiology of Personality by Marvin Zuckerman is alcoholism: “Studies suggest that alcoholism is ‘inherited’, but if a person with a strong biological background of alcoholism in their family is not exposed to alcohol, they will not be as likely to develop problems.”

Do wines have personalities? Wine suffers a heaving birth. It has a rough, groping childhood. It develops into adolescence. Then if it does not sicken, it matures: and in this it is almost human since it does not mature according to a fixed rule but according to the law of its particular and individual personality. The act which gives it personality is the act of fermentation. In this metamorphosis it is changed from fruit into animal: sometimes even an animal of splendor. Note 1William Younger in Gods, Men and Wine

As the quote above shows, we are often anthropormophic about wine. We say wine has ‘legs’ and ‘body’, is capable of being spoiled and dying. But wine doesn’t have psychology, people do. In Freudian terms we might see anthropormorphism as a form of projection and when we talk about a wine we are really talking about ourselves. Emile Peynaud in The Taste of Wine echoes Roger Sperry when he suggests that the key factor in wine tasting is the taster’s own personality. It is in this interaction that meaning is made and without us the wine tastes of nothing. It appears rational to say that certain properties are in the wines and are related to the chemical make-up of those wines. But we also have properties and it is the interrelationship of the two in a unique context that defines our experience of a wine. Of course some things are wrong (a ‘light wine’ can be defined through measurement and relative scaling when compared to norms so to describe it as heavy would be technically incorrect) but opinions related to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are simply opinions. Some people enjoy a touch of Brettanomyces, others don’t. However wines can produce some commonality of responses among diverse populations. The majority of people tasting a light white will describe it in ways that overlap when compared with descriptions of a heavy red. The fact that we have very different conceptualizations of love does not stop us from discussing what we might view as key elements or experiences associated with it. We accept such things are individual. We therefore need to be more tolerant of individual subjective evaluations of wine and more inclusive of all groups.

Another important figure in the world of personality theory was Karen Horney who is credited with the notion of the 'ideal self'. She believed all people have two views of themselves. The 'real self' is how you really are with regards to personality, values, and morals; but the 'ideal self' is a construct you apply to yourself to conform to social and personal norms and goals. An ideal self would be "I can be successful and run a company" but the real self would be "I just work as an administrator and am unlikely to be promoted". My ideal self has Montrachet as my house white whereas my real self makes do with Macon...

Miles Thomas

The full references for studies cited above can be found at www.winepsych.com and in his forthcoming book The psychology of wine: How we think about the wine we drink which is due to be published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2013.

All rights reserved 2012

References   [ + ]

1. William Younger in Gods, Men and Wine