Recently, I had a conversation with Bruce Bryant, Ph.D. (Senior Research Associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, PA) as part of my research for a series called “What wine pairs with red herring” (published on PalatePress.com). During that conversation, Dr Bryant reaffirmed a fundamental idea I have repeated (but which has been rejected by internet wine “gurus”): tasting ability is a function of language. Naming something makes it stick out in your memory, makes you able to identify it repeatedly and consistently. This is not at all unlike learning music theory (very few musicians have perfect pitch while most have learned relative pitch and yet there are many excellent musicians in the world).
What’s more, language is not a singular function. There is no singular cell holding a singular symbolic association for every word in a given language (if that were the case, polyglots would have huge heads). Instead, a word is represented in multiple modalities. For instance, the word hammer registers with visual memory (how the thing looks), as well as motor memory (how you hold and move the thing and how you move your face, tongue and vocal cords to pronounce the word), sensory memory (how it feels in your hand, its texture and weight, or when you hit something with it), auditory memory (the sound it makes when you hit a nail, a board, etc and how the word “hammer” sounds), and so on.
In essence, the brain is a parallel processor (not a linear one, like the one in this laptop) with all its parts working in concert to create what we call “awareness”, “consciousness” and “reality”. This multi-modality neural infrastructure also lends itself to more than identification of stimuli or throwing spears at moving targets. It allows for creativity, deductive and inductive thinking, reasoning and logic. It’s a matter of connecting the proper dots in your brain in the proper sequence.
This understanding is what guided my development as a wine evaluator. In short, I made some lifestyle changes and I did a lot of reading and tasting. I read about wine – not so much the kind of stuff that talks about the character of a region’s wines in lyrical terms, but the kind that talks about how wine is made, what the sensory end product of a variety’s DNA is, how that is affected by farming, cropping and harvesting, what can be achieved through different cellar practices, what aromatic (and other sensory) compounds are found in wine, where they come from and what their presence (or proportion to other compounds) means about the wine. I make no claim of complete mastery of the subject, but this approach has served me well and kept me from wandering aimlessly through wine’s landscape without falling into the fallacy of “subjectivity of wine” (wine is objective, opinions about it are subjective) or the notion that wines can only be rated on the basis of a taster’s enjoyment. In short, it has created real, tangible and (yes…) objective benchmarks of quality on which I draw when I review wines.
In the beginning, I would buy a wine and look up its tasting notes, I would literally sit and sniff the wine and the “reference aromas” – a collection of spices, fresh and dried fruit, juices and other things I had collected like scraps of leather, TCA tainted corks, etc. – going back and forth between the two. It was interesting to note that what some critics think of as “black currant” or “pepper”, for example, is way off from the real thing – which brings up the idea of training one’s palate like one trains their ear for music and periodically “refreshing” their training). Later, as I became increasing proficient, I began to notice some commonalities of character among wines coming from the same region or vineyard.
To be honest, I have had rather acute senses ever since I can remember. My ability to know when Irene is cleaning out the cat box a few rooms away or when she’d just freshened up her make up when she walks into the room without looking at her was no better still astounds her. All this is surprising for a guy with chronic allergies and ear and nose problems during childhood.
To those whose hopes of improving their wine chops just sank, I offer this: until I trained myself to identify aromas, flavors and textures with concrete words, I could not tell the difference between one wine and another (save for the color). There is real evidence that much of this sensory ability can be learned. That also is true in cases of people who have dysfunction of receptors for specific aromatic compounds (not that this kind of thing is prevalent to a degree which would validate the “subjectivity of wine construct”). Research has demonstrated that repeated exposure improves the ability to detect and identify those very aromas. This is not unlike some brain injury rehabilitation techniques used with stroke or brain injury patients in which an unaffected limb is restrained in order to force the brain to re-learn to move an affected limb.
The more I learned about wine (not its ephemeral, romantic or historical context, but the nuts-and-bolts of what each variety and region produce in organoleptic terms), the greater was the depth with which I appreciated each wine – not that all the wines I had were had much depth.
It was an opening of my mind’s eye very much like that which occurred when I was in medical school: As I learned about physical manifestation of disease, I became a more informed observer of people. I could see subtle symptoms of disease and dysfunction most lay people would miss. What some would chalk up as “odd” or “weird” about someone they passed on the sidewalk, I recognized as signs and symptoms of their makeup and their internal functioning. That is not to say I pathologized every quirk and atypical feature I saw.
As for those lifestyle changes: I simply made a few changes in my environment and practices. Foremost among them was cutting out the sensory noise around me. I abandoned heavily scented products: I have not worn cologne for years, I use unscented soap, shampoo, shaving cream, etc. You will not find potpourri, scented candles, plug-in air fresheners etc. in our house. These things literally bombard you with intense fragrances. You become so used to these smells, it actually raises your sensitivity threshold for other aromas.
So why am I giving “away the store”? I really don’t think I am. Rather, what I’m doing is what I believe to be the responsibility of any wine commentator: I am encouraging you to develop your wine skills and pointing to simple things you can do in your own life to improve your tasting ability.
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