Berkeley Bites: Fearless critic Robin Goldstein

Robin Goldstein: anything but a toffee-nosed gourmand. 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, 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 and up) 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.


Goldstein is rediscovering the joy of cooking at home. Photo: Sidney Kwiram

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 its 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 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.

 

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.

Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing. Henry muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to sarahhenry0509@gmail.com or leave a comment here. To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.