Fearless Critic Brings Blind Tasting To UC Berkeley

by Sarah Henry on September 17, 2010 · 22 comments

in berkeley bites,food books,restaurants

Photo: Heeb Magazine

Robin Goldstein has the kind of pedigree that might make you expect him to be, frankly, a bit of a wine and food snob. He studied neuroscience and philosophy at Harvard University, earned a law degree from Yale, picked up a cooking credential from the French Culinary Institute and added a certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust for good measure.

Oh, and did I mention he’s explored the world, and in the course of his globe-trotting written for more than 30 Fodor’s travel guides?

But Goldstein, currently a visiting scholar in the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley, is anything but a toffee-nosed gourmand. Under the auspices of his Fearless Critic Media company he’s edited nine books on eating and drinking with a focus on consumer-oriented food and wine reviews.

His restaurant guides feature what he calls brutally honest reporting from a team of independent experts who dine undercover.

The Fearless Critic Austin Restaurant Guide, in its 3rd edition, is the largest to date, with 500 entries (an app is on the way). Portland is the latest tome, a Seattle version is in the works, and a Bay Area book may not be far behind.

Goldstein is also the mastermind behind both The Beer Trials and The Wine Trials, bestselling guides to cheap but good-tasting booze.

Goldstein’s schtick: Brown-bag blind tastings by a panel of experts of low-budget buys (under 15 bucks) up against more expensive ($50 +) well-known brands with often surprising outcomes.

In the soon-to-be released 3rd edition of The Wine Trials, for instance, J.P. Chenet, a $12 French sparkling blend, beat out Champagne’s $150 Dom Perignon in blind tastings by more than 500 wine experts and everyday drinkers.  You can almost hear a collective gasp from French oenophiles.

This wickedly witty taste tester has developed a theory, based on his data, that the power of price-based expectations dominates people’s imbibing experiences. In a nutshell: If you’re pouring an expensive, brand-name drop you may already be predisposed to respond positively to it before you take your first sip.

But his research also suggests that people don’t necessarily appreciate expensive wines more when they’re unaware of the price. Goldstein is fascinated by these behavioral consumption tics and encourages drinkers to take the blind tasting challenge and figure out their own palate preferences rather than falling pray to marketing strategies.

Goldstein is no stranger to cultivating controversy with his offbeat academics and conclusions about consumer behaviors.

The 33-year-old is perhaps best known for a brouhaha that rocked the wine world when he decided to do a little experiment to determine the validity of the “Award of Excellence” for wine restaurants handed out by the influential Wine Spectator magazine. Suspicious of such honors, this epicurean sleuth set up a restaurant in Italy that didn’t exist — except on paper.

Still, Osteria L’Intrepido won the sought-after award, as reported in the August 2008 edition of the magazine, despite the fact that there was no such place and it’s expensive reserve wine list was mostly composed of wines from among the lowest scoring recent Italian vintages, according to reviews in, you guessed it, Wine Spectator. (Think hilarious tasting notes, such as “smells like bug spray, “too much paint thinner and nail varnish character,” and “tastes decayed.”)

Goldstein garnered his requisite 15 minutes of fame when the story of the award-winning imaginary eatery was picked up by media around the world, including the New York Times, London Times, and La Repubblica. The hoax sparked headlines like “Wine Spectator drinks a hearty glass of blush,” in the Los Angeles Times, though it was not without its own critics.

I first heard about this bon vivant‘s adventures at the recent International Food Blogger Conference in Seattle, where Goldstein was a panel presenter.  He moved to Berkeley two weeks ago; for now, the peripatetic critic calls a place on Panoramic Way near the football stadium home.

1. According to your site your UC research will focus on “sensory experience, price signals, and consumer susceptibility to bullshit.” Please explain.

In my experiments, including in the Journal of Wine Economics, I’ve discovered that consumers who are unaware of price don’t derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. I want to continue this research in an academic setting and produce more scholarly work on the impact of economics on behavior in relation to wine and other consumer products.

2. What kind of food education did you get in your travels for Fodor’s through Europe, South America, and Asia?

I learned that some of the best food come from unlikely, often inexpensive, sources. Street food is a great example of that. Traveling also teaches you to be open to new and different things, such as insect cuisine. I found myself in Thailand eating fried ants with Kaffir lime and salt. Turns out they’re delicious. People in other countries are in touch with ingredients in a way that many Americans are not. They’re used to seeing and using a whole animal, for instance, rather than buying pieces of meat sealed under plastic wrap that look nothing like the creature they came from.

3. How did you come up with the blind tasting concept?

It really got started when I was sharing a house with other students from Harvard and we set up a bar in an extra room. We began doing blind tastings of beer and found that people did badly at identifying expensive brands over cheaper ones. We also refilled spirit and wine bottles with cheaper versions and no one noticed. It got me started on thinking about what’s really behind brand names. Blind tasting is a way for someone to figure out what he or she really likes, what truly pleases his or her palate, regardless of external influences, such as marketing, advertising, and price.

Photo: Sidney Kwiram

4. What are your initial impressions of the Berkeley food scene?

I’m blown away by the breadth and diversity of what’s available in the farmers’ markets. The vendors at the markets here are extremely knowledgeable about what they grow and make. And they’re willing to talk with you about their goods on a deep level.

5. What are you most enjoying about food in this town?

Rediscovering the pleasures of cooking at home. I hardly ever got the chance to in New York. Everyone eats out most of the time.

What say you readers: Could you tell the difference between two buck chuck and Dom Perignon champagne in a blind tasting? Are your wine buying choices swayed by fancy labels, appealing ad campaigns, or price tags? How do you decide what wine to drink?

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

MarthaAndMe September 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Love the idea of blind tastings so much! And I agree with him that some of the best food comes from the most unexpected places when traveling.

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2010 at 4:25 pm

And, conversely, sometimes very expensive, so-called fine dining places are awful.

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Alexandra September 17, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I learned to drink and appreciate wine in France, where I lived for 25 years. When I visited my parents, I could not stand the cheap wine they bought. It was awful. Now I have found some cheap wine, not from a factory winery, that is great.

Thanks for interviewing Robin Goldstein.

Yes, I think I could tell the difference, but only because I lived in France for so long and champagne was served on a regular basis to celebrate whatever there was to celebrate: summer, spring, new year’s, a baptism, a wedding, an anniversary, an engagement … you get the idea.

My ex-husband had an excellent wine cellar and brought out the most amazing wine from the same year as my birth. Now that was an experience!

So, living in a country with true wine culture, really taught me a lot ….
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Whats Happening this Weekend

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Makes sense, Sandy, though it sounds like you’ve found some low-price options locally as well.

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Alexandra September 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

PS. Sorry! Make that my ex-husband’s godfather. I typed too fast!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Whats Happening this Weekend

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Duly noted!

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Sheryl September 17, 2010 at 5:12 pm

My husband got a few bottles of really expensive wine as a gift for a special b-day. I couldn’t imagine how they could taste so much better than a much more reasonable bottle. When we finally opened one, I DIDN’T EVEN LIKE IT. It was hard for me to believe someone would spend all that money on it, in fact. So, I’m a believer in what Robin is getting at here. Very true!

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Sarah Henry September 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Just as long as you didn’t tell the giftee you didn’t care for the exxy plonk. Although, maybe someone should.

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Christine September 17, 2010 at 10:55 pm

I really like the idea of a blind tasting – it makes so much sense. I have a vague sense for what I prefer, but I would love the chance to refine my tastes more and really understand what appeals to me.
Christine´s last [type] ..Creative toy play- part 1- building blocks

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Sarah Henry September 18, 2010 at 10:58 am

You got it in a nutshell, Christine.

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Ruth Pennebaker September 18, 2010 at 8:07 am

My husband, an academic psychologist and all-around gadfly, has also done blind tastings at gatherings — with the same results. One nouveau-riche guy, who’d recently acquired a wine cellar, was crestfallen by the results. The only participant who wasn’t surprised or abashed he couldn’t pick out the most expensive wine was the only real wine connoisseur among us; he agreed that marketing and expectations usually win the day.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Upstaged at our Own House

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Sarah Henry September 18, 2010 at 11:01 am

Ruth, Thanks for adding this fascinating and first-hand anecdote. It’s human nature, I think, to want to like something that you’ve plonked down a big chunk of change for — you can’t help but have the expectation (or is it hope?) that it’s going to bring you a good deal of pleasure.

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Jane Boursaw September 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

Even though I live in Northern Michigan wine country, I’m not much of a wine aficionado. I probably couldn’t tell if it came out of a box or a $50k bottle. I could probably nail down good and bad chocolate, though (or perhaps chocolate-covered cherries).
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..New Movie Friday- Alpha and Omega- Devil- Easy A- The Town

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Sarah Henry September 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Identifying chocolate you like is a very important skill in my mind, Jane.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 18, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Love the idea behind the Fearless Critic. And I’m with Goldstein–some of the best food around is street food. I’m going to have to check out his series. Thanks for this interview Sarah.

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Sarah Henry September 18, 2010 at 5:18 pm

In addition to Austin, Portland and Seattle (in the works), the Fearless Critic series includes guides to New Haven, the DC area, and Houston. Anyone used any of these for restaurant hopping in any of these places?

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey September 19, 2010 at 2:58 pm

This approaches sounds equally interesting and fun. What a great idea. I bet it’s a hit at UCB.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Literary Agent Interview- Jenny Bent

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Jennifer Margulis September 20, 2010 at 7:40 pm

My choices are definitely influenced by fancy labels, I fear. But that said, I often really enjoy an inexpensive bottle of wine. Our Daily Red is one of my fave organics, and it’s really cheap (and delicious!).
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..Big Island on a Budget

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 20, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Someone is a bit of a dag, isn’t he! I’d know super cheap wine from $20/bottle wine, but much more than that, I doubt.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..A Question of Feet

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Stephanie - Wasabimon September 24, 2010 at 9:13 pm

“toffee-nosed gourmand” – I like that. I’ll have to use that!
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..The Herbfarm’s 100-Mile Dinner

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Sarah Henry September 24, 2010 at 11:22 pm

please feel free

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