You sit down at your table and order your meal. The waiter then comes back with a bottle of wine and tells you that it’s on the house. They’re running a promotion for a new cabernet from, of all places, North Dakota. You haven’t heard of the wine but what the heck, it’s free. What would you think of it? Not much, as it turns out. At least not as much as if you were told the wine was from California. In fact, thinking the wine was from North Dakota, you’d drink less of it, and would even eat less of your food.
This sneaky experiment was conducted by Brian Wansink and his colleagues, and it’s not alone. There are now many experiments showing that your impressions of a wine can be influenced by information far from your tongue. In one particularly entertaining example, French wine experts were asked to sniff the same white wine twice, once when presented the wine with its original color, and then again, after the wine had been secretly tinted red. Despite smelling the same wine twice in a row, the experts described the red-tinted sample as having characteristics typical of red wines (raspberry, spicy, peppery). This is good to know for the next time you have red wine fans visiting, but only have white on hand.
Being fooled by wine trickery isn’t your fault, it’s your brain’s. Last year, a brain scanning study showed that when subjects sipped what they thought was an expensive ($90) cabernet, they not only enjoyed it more, their brains’ “pleasantness centers” (medial orbitofrontal cortex) reacted more strongly. You drink what you think.
But what you think can have more productive influences on your impressions of wine. Just ask Steven Poe. Poe is a Master Sommelier – a title currently held by less than 200 people worldwide. Master Sommeliers are considered the world’s most knowledgeable wine experts, and go through years of training on wine taste, theory, and serving decorum. The master exam is particularly daunting and usually takes four or five attempts to pass. It involves a blind tasting for which the candidate must recognize the grape variety, region of origin, and vintage of six unlabeled glasses of wine. Steven Poe remembers it well: “There’s a lot of pressure. You have twenty-five minutes to taste, describe, and recognize all six wines —which can be from any wine region in the world. You also need to verbalize the exact rationale for your descriptions. And there are these three masters sitting in front of you, writing down everything you say. You’re totally under the gun.”
So how did Poe pass? What he thought strongly informed what he tasted. “I remember that I was working to identify the last of my six wines. Time was running out. I had looked at the wine’s legs, inhaled its bouquet, and taken a sip. I was trying to describe it as if it were an overripe cabernet-syrah blend –probably from Australia. But something just didn’t seem right. I thought hard about its characteristics: it was a little bit off-dry, it had high alcohol, it had spiciness, and it tasted a little of dried raisins. And then it just clicked! I realized this is Amarone! [a red wine from Veneto, Italy] It was one of those situations where the studying and the focus just took over.”
Poe’s insight is consistent with what is known about true wine expertise. Research shows that contrary to common thought, wine experts do not have more sensitive palates, per se. They don’t, for example, have lower thresholds for detecting a wine’s tannin and alcohol content. Experts are also no better than novices at tasting whether two wines are the same or different.
What makes Steven Poe an expert is how he brings his formal knowledge of wine production to what he tastes. For example, Poe would be familiar with the flavor outcomes of malolactic fermentation —a process of secondary wine fermentation. In a blind tasting, he might notice one of the flavors associated with the process—a buttery texture, for example—and then attend to the other likely flavor results of malolactic fermentation including hints of yogurt and sauerkraut. This could help Poe narrow down a wine’s region and vintage.
The analytic, explicit knowledge component of wine expertise is consistent with recent brain imaging research. This work shows that relative to novices, when sommeliers sip, their brains show greater activity in regions associated with the higher cognitive functions (memory, language, and decision making). Increased activity in these regions likely reflects the expert’s analytic tasting experience.
This is all good news for you. You may currently be tricked by a wine’s label, price, and even color. But with some serious studying of wine production, along with practice in tasting, your brain can start lighting up like that of a Master Sommelier.
Lawrence Rosenblum is a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. He studies multimodal speech perception and general auditory perception. He is the author of “See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses” (www.lawrencerosenblum.com).
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