Hobgoblin

Wine and Chocolate

I don’t drink wine, but I’m fascinated by it. The rituals, the industry, the marketing.

I do drink chocolate, because I decided I need some sort of vice, and after all, chocolate is about as perfect a vice one can have. And I showed up just as the chocolate industry started down the road to being as much like wine as they can be.

Hang in for just a few paragraphs, I’ll bring it back to audio. Thanks for your patience.

Twenty years ago, John Scharffenberger launched the first bean to bar chocolate in the United States. He was the only maker (not Nestle, not Hershey, not anyone) who was buying beans directly from small farms and then, using vintage equipment, turning them into chocolate. John was a winemaker, and he fully understood terroir and floral notes, as well as storytelling, branding and culture.

It took a few months, but his team discovered that chefs didn’t see a real need to switch from big blocks of the French chocolate they’d always used, but that consumers were eager to embrace this new hobby.

Because they were buying a story, a lifestyle and a set of expectations.

Fast forward to today, when there are more than a hundred bean to bar companies in the US. And every bar tastes different, every bar has a story. We’ve gone from the banal dollar Nestle milk chocolate bar to the $14 Rogue Porcelana 84% dark bar, made in batches of a few hundred at a time.

Right about now, the ‘shoulds’ start to appear.

You should like this one more than that one.

I was sitting with Carlos, the head of Cacao Hunters, a new bean to bar venture in Colombia, and we were tasting his stuff. I couldn’t help it–part of me started worrying that I wasn’t tasting what I was supposed to taste. After all, Carlos is a pro, this is what he does. How dare I speak up and say what I tasted?

What if I was wrong?

The wine folks figured this out a very long time ago. A large number of well-heeled people don’t want to be wrong. Being wrong isn’t what got them to be well-heeled, after all.

And so they await instructions. They look for clues (like price!) to help them figure out if they like something for not.

So that’s my first point: if you go into a hobby seeking reassurance, you’re likely to find it. There are plenty of people happy to tell you what you should like.

And it turns out that more often than not, being told you should like something makes it more likely that you will like it! This alone might be enough reason to read stereo magazines.

The second thing: After six or seven bars, Carlos and I took a break. We spent about an hour talking about his marketing strategy and drinking tea. Then I grabbed an unopened bar from a small experimental batch, tasted it and said, “wow, this is the single best thing we’ve had all day.”

With chagrin, I realized that it was the very same varietal we’d tasted two hours earlier.

But here’s the kicker: we went back to that first bar and compared it to the second one, the one I had just opened. They didn’t taste at all alike. Same beans, different taste.

That’s because, like music, like room tone, we’re dealing with something that’s really hard to quantify. That’s because beans grow on trees, and one tree is in fact going to taste really different from another one.

The should on the table: They both should have tasted the same, and my taste buds should have realized that they were the same. The truth, though, was quite different.

In this case, my taste buds were confirmed by others. They did actually taste different (to us, anyway). But it’s not that simple.

In research in the Journal of Wine Economics, researchers found that among judges at wine competitions (judges!), blind tasting of wine led judges to say a glass of wine was different 90% of the time when it was actually the same wine. Nine out of ten times, they didn’t taste what they should have.

I was thinking about this when I was sitting in the listening room of one of the most famous audio reviewers of this moment. And I thought his stereo sounded lousy. Of course, I didn’t say anything, because I shouldn’t hear that, and because who am I to question the emperor and because, hey, bad things happen in basements.

You are welcome to sign up for ‘should’. Or, if you want, you can just enjoy what you listen to.

If you like it, that’s good enough for me.

Originally published in Copper #2.