Wine Tasting for Neuroscientists: Is Aroma all in your Head?

A seminar titled “The Neuroscience of Wine,” at the Wine Bloggers Conference in August was so boggling I haven’t been able to get it off my mind.

This study of how the brain works when tasting was presented by Tim Gaiser, the Education Chair at the Court of Master Sommeliers of America. His premise is that we all have different neurologies, memories and life experiences which we bring to the tasting table. His goal is to establish commonality so students can learn by using their own internal maps, memories and neurology.

Using tapes of tasting sessions with some of the world’s top wine tasters, Gaiser discovered that eye positions and patterns are vital to cognitively sniffing juice, and that there is a direct connection between olfactory memory and images.

Color

Visually, one can tell a lot about wine from its color: its age, skins, alcohol, tannins, extraction, storage. Gaiser found his tasters identified wine by using internal color swatches created from memories of bygone wines, segmented like paint samples in their minds. Like the Benjamin Moore of wine. One taster, Evan Goldstein said he visualized a 2×3’ flat panel of color gradating from light red on the left to deep purple on the right. I’d like to have what he tasted.

Eye Positions

A major finding was how the position of taster’s eyes affected their impressions. All tasters use the same starting position. After an auditory prompt, “What’s that smell?”, the study’s tasters drifted in different directions, with one guy’s eyes becoming a pinball machine of activity.

Eye Accessing Cues, we learned, are the patterns of eye movement associated with activation of different parts of the brain. Everyone’s eyes move the same way every time. For visual, your eyes go up and left or right. For auditory, your eyes go left and right laterally. Kinesthetic moves them down and right. Internal dialogue moves them down and left.peter marks, wine tasting for neuroscientists, tastingroomconfidential.com

In an exercise, Gaiser had us pair up and watch each other sniffing a glass of wine, in this case, an Australian shiraz. My partner told me that my eyes definitely flowed down and to my left as I nosed, making me wonder if a voice in my head made me do it.

In another exercise, Gaiser asked us to nose the wine, looking wherever we tend to, and then he suddenly told us to look at the ceiling.

“What happened?” he asked. “How many people’s nose quit working? I would say 70% of people couldn’t smell anything.”

He was right. When I looked up, the wine’s aroma decreased significantly. Somehow, turning one’s eyes to the skies has a way of plugging up a tasters nose. It was weird.

Gaiser posits that all tasters see aromas as both stills and movies, as well as words. The more intense the aroma, the stronger the image. Tasters form an internal map or grid of these images, which can vary wildly. Karen McNeil steps into a spice market. Even Goldstein sees fruit and colors before storing them to the side. Emily Wines sees flavors as Tarot cards. Peter Marks sees fruit framed by an oak barrel.

That pinot noir I had last night was definitely a scene from Avatar.

Palate

A taster’s image map will also change between the nose and palate, according to Gaiser. His findings were that big flavors prompt well-structured images. When the taste is bigger than the smell the image size increases in size, brightness and proximity. If the palate is smaller than the nose, you’ll need a mental magnifying glass to find it.

And everyone measures taste differently in their minds. My favorite example from the study is of taster Emily Wines who imagines a foot-long ruler to measure acidity, a 2-foot ruler for alcohol, a length of stretched wool to gauge tannins, and a distant horizon as the finish. That makes so much more sense than my vision of a protractor and calipers.

Check out Gaiser’s Powerpoint presentation online.

If you want to try these experiments at home be sure to adhere to the six things you need to properly taste wine: Adequate light, a quiet, odor free environment, tasting in batches, wines at proper temperature, and good glassware. So if you’re tasting wine with Bell jars in a hot, dark room with the radio on while wearing perfume, you’re not going to get it.

Happy tasting!

Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.