Merlot and the decision making process

Should you trust your gut when ordering wine?


Gut-instinct has driven most of my major choices. Moving to Hong Kong as an English teacher with three days’ notice in 2010. Deciding to apply for a Master’s programme within half an hour (twice). Quitting a corporate city job to take a pay-cut and a lifestyle change in a rural community. I have never made a pros and cons list in my life.

Of course, not every decision has been a flawless success. The key is to make a choice and then move forward. Take it on the chin, learn what works and what doesn’t, apply your new knowledge to the next thing. 

At around nineteen or twenty I started going to restaurants outside of my budget (my budget was whatever wiggle room was left on my tab at the pub). I was, admittedly, a little pretentious. I liked the look of myself in a black dress with a red lip, martini in one hand, cigarette in the other – Very dry vodka martinis, extra olives. White-filtered Marlborough lights, imported. A bit of a prat, yes.

"It made me feel confident, as though I had my shit together. Neither was true"

I was keen to impress the sommelier. I could not even pronounce sommelier. I could pronounce merlot, though, and that was my single reason for deciding to ask for “a large merlot.” 

The image of myself snapping the wine list closed decisively, a smile playing about my lips, was positive. It made me feel confident, as though I had my shit together. Neither was true. I was faking it. Merlot became my go-to in every establishment that didn’t offer two-for-one beers, whether my dining companions were friends, my future in-laws, or strangers. 

I hadn’t the slightest idea about wine, but was certain that ordering with panache was better than squeaking out a wishy-washy “house red, please.” 

Wishy-washy is bad. Wishy-washy is the group chat where you suggest a holiday “in the summer.” Nobody has the same three days free, nobody makes a commitment, you send the same listings for AirBnBs and glampsites back and forth ad infinitum until finally it’s October and the heating’s back on. 

Wishy-washy is any meeting that could have been an email. It is agreeing to a strapless bridesmaid dress. It is debating back and forth about whether you want Indian or Chinese and compromising, again, on the awful Tex-Mex that always turns up somehow both soggy and burnt. 

I have no time for wishy-washy.

Decision time

We start to hone our decision-making ability early on. Modern parenting manuals often discuss giving children a choice. A key Montessori principle is offering a small child two or three options. The adult retains control, having selected only suitable choices, and the child feels empowered by the decision-making process. 

Important to remember: these decisions do not matter. It doesn’t matter if the three-year-old opts for the pink or green jumper, the apple or banana. What does matter is how the process feels to them, and how they learn to be comfortable making a decision.

Self-image is important. Authority comes from knowledge and experience. Feeling authoritative on a subject can give us confidence, and vice versa. Taken with a pinch of humility, this is a super-power. Decisive people get things done. They move up the food chain, they meet their goals. They are self-actualised, or as close to as makes no difference. 

Michael Padraig Acton, a Psychological Therapist, spoke to me about self-image and decision-making. 

“Once our basic needs of food, shelter, safety and belonging have been met, we turn our attention to making our mark in the world,” he said. 

“This requires making positive, life-affirming decisions. As we succeed, our self-esteem grows.” 


We become skilled decision-makers through those low and no-stakes decisions. In a 2013 study at Cornell, Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir found that children who were given difficult choices tended to share more fairly, divvying up more valuable resources instead of keeping them for themselves. Pre-schoolers empowered in an earlier stage of the study tended to make tougher, more altruistic choices than their peers who were not given autonomy in the decision-making arena.

“Making any type of decision, providing the outcome is positive, will build our confidence,” said Michael.

“The act of deciding itself breaks the cycle of overthinking that we can get stuck in. The more success we enjoy, the more confident we become and the easier it is to make future decisions. It’s a positive feedback loop.” Making low-stakes decisions grows our ability to make high-stakes ones. 

He added: “Not every decision will play out the way we want it to — such is life. The benefit of small, no-stakes decisions is that we won’t have our confidence crushed if we get it wrong.”

"We learn from our mistakes, which is why it’s useless to waste time regretting decisions"

So. Back to the Wine.

I have ordered and drunk more bad wine than should be possible. An insipid, sweet red in Italy — an entire carafe, actually, because I’d already paid for it — and in France, a bottle of otherwise delicious Beaujolais that was ruined by being overchilled. What were the consequences of these choices? Nothing. They were no-stakes decisions. I still managed to have a good time. My confidence was not crushed. I just took more care with the next wine lists.

We learn from our mistakes, which is why it’s useless to waste time regretting decisions. Sure, given the chance again, maybe you wouldn’t have danced on that table or ridden that llama. We live and we learn. 

When I decided to ask my boyfriend to marry me it was a gut-based decision, even though it wasn’t spur-of-the-moment. I planned it. I took us away somewhere romantic (and private — flashmob engagements should be a fineable offence). I trusted my gut because of the hundreds, probably thousands, of decisions I’d made prior to that point. My feelings about him were clear, I knew what I wanted our future to look like, and I was sure of my ability to decipher my instincts. And I didn’t want to wait around for him to ask me. That’s wishy-washy.

These days, I’m more knowledgeable. My preference is gin martinis with a twist. I (mostly) no longer smoke. Wine choice is not confined to merlot; a bottle of Argentinian Malbec is more likely. Potentially a Montepulciano if I’m feeling frisky. A crisp, aromatic rosé in the afternoon. I have had the opportunity to learn, to refine my tastes, to try new things. My opinions and choices about wine are, now, based on experience and authority. 

We all start somewhere. Sometimes it starts with merlot. 

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