All sorts of clever experiments have demonstrated the limitations of the tongue. It turns out that expert wine critics can be tricked into confusing cheap and expensive clarets, that we prefer beer laced withbalsamic vinegar (as long we don’t know it’s been added), that most people can’t tell Coke from Pepsi (but still have strong preferences) or pate from dog food. My favorite, though, comes from the mischievous Frederic Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. In a 2001 experiment, Brochet invited 57 wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn’t stop the experts from describing the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its “jamminess,” while another enjoyed its “crushed red fruit.” Not a single one noticed it was actually a white wine. Because the tongue is vague in its instructions, we are forced to constantly parse its input based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface. As Brochet himself notes, our expectations of what the wine will taste like “can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.”
And this is why the ambience of a restaurant matters. All those rituals of the table are not mere routines. Instead, they help us make sense of the incomplete information coming from the tongue. For instance, when we eat a meal in a fancy place, full of elaborate place settings, fine porcelain and waiters wearing tuxedos, the food is going to taste different than if we ate the same food in a cheap diner. (This helps explain why people spend more money when restaurants play classical music instead of pop tunes.) Because the music matters, but so does everything else. The tongue is easy to dupe.