The Long Read: “I see red”

by blog on May 12, 2021

Many dozens of books have fully explored the mechanics of taste, its fixities and definites, and there are numerous systems to codify or judge these. Sometimes I wonder if this is not a case of “we murder to dissect”. I would like to propose an alternative romantic notion that wine is a liquid vessel of experience waiting to be tapped by the poet within us, by alluding to the primary imagination, that which Coleridge refers to in his Biographia Literaria as “the living power and prime agent of all human perception… a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. This may be linked to our primary unmediated experiential perception of wine, an imaginative commitment which is creative in that it is inspirational, receptive, and spontaneous. The secondary imagination according to Coleridge “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate” and so we use it to make sense of our primary experiences and shape them into words, culminating in the act of creation or, in our extended metaphor, the moment when wine becomes word. Tasting (wine) can be a sensory conduit through which we explore our memories and emotions and, like the contemplation of art, has the capacity to transform us positively.

The current orthodoxies in wine tasting seem to date back to Locke’s model of the mind as tabula rasa – totally passive in itself, and acted upon only by the external stimuli of the senses. Reducing wine to its material components is like reducing a rainbow to its discrete prismatic colours – a pure function of the mechanism of the eye. But there is a relationship between man and nature to be teased out: a camera-obscura can reproduce the rainbow insofar that it imitates the action of the eye, and, similarly, one can measure the physical contents (acidity, alcohol, tannin, sugar) of wine with laboratory instruments. What the camera cannot do is perceive, which the romantics would define as a sentient act, and therefore an emotional experience, neither do the instruments in the laboratory taste the wine.

So far so obvious. The romantics would further say that the mind was an esemplastic, active, shaping organism with the capacity for growth. If we look at tasting merely as the science of accounting or describing phenomena, we diminish our own role in the process. Without the taster there would be no taste.

Colour Vision

Colour is the aspect of any object that may be described in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation. In physics, colour is associated specifically with the electromagnetic radiation of a certain range of wavelengths visible to the human eye. Radiation of such wavelengths constitutes that portion of the electromagnetic known as the visible spectrum – i.e. light.

Vision is obviously involved in the perception of colour. A person can see in dim light, however, without being able to distinguish colours. Only when more light is present do colours appear. Light of some critical intensity, therefore, is also necessary for colour perception and differentiation. Finally, the manner in which the brain responds to visual stimuli must also be considered. Even under identical conditions, the same object may appear red to one observer and orange to another. Clearly, the perception of colour depends on vision, light, and individual interpretation, and an understanding of colour involves physics, physiology, and psychology.

An object appears coloured because of the way it interacts with light. The analysis of this interaction and the factors that determine it are the concerns of the physics of colour. The physiology of colour involves the eye’s and the brain’s responses to light and the sensory data they produce. The psychology of colour is invoked when the mind processes visual data, compares it with information stored in memory, and interprets it as colour. There are also disconnects, for example: at one point, the idea that a wine could be orange, a false wine colour, notionally, created puzzlement and even doubt, but now, for many wine drinkers, it has become more of a psychological norm.

More on this, anon.

Knowing the way our brains receive, process and transmit information is critical to understanding how we react to, and assess, wine. Information processing commences with input from the sensory organs, which transform physical stimuli such as touch, heat, sound waves, or photons of light into electrochemical signals. We receive these impulses through our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and sense of touch. The sensory information is repeatedly transformed by the algorithms of the brain in both bottom-up and top-down processing.

Bottom-up processing is an explanation for perceptions that start with an incoming stimulus, working upwards until a representation of the object is formed in our minds. This process suggests that our perceptual experience is based entirely on the sensory stimuli that we piece together using only data that is available from our senses.

In order to make sense of the world, we must take in energy, for want of a better word, from the environment and convert it to neural signals, a process known as sensation. It is in the next step of the process, known as perception, that our brains interpret these sensory signals.

Bottom-up processing can be defined as sensory analysis that begins at the entry-level—with what our senses can detect. This form of processing begins with sensory data and goes up to the brain’s integration of this sensory information. Information is carried in one direction starting with the retina and proceeding to the visual cortex.

This process suggests that processing begins with a perception of the stimuli and is fuelled by basic mechanisms developed through evolution. Unlike top-down processing, bottom-up processing is purely data-driven and requires no previous knowledge or learning. Bottom-up processing takes place as it happens.

For example, if you see an image a wine glass filled with red wine, your eyes transmit the information to your brain, and your brain puts all of this information together.

There is a fresh and receptiveness about bottom-up processing, but it has limitations.

Top-down processing happens when our general knowledge guides our specific perceptions. When we utilise top-down processing, our ability to understand information is influenced by the context in which it appears. Top-down processing is the process of using context or general knowledge to understand what we perceive. We use top-down processing to quickly understand the sensory input we take in when we interact with different environments.

In 1970, psychologist Richard Gregory introduced the concept of top-down processing. He claimed that perception is constructive. When we perceive something, we must rely on the context and our high-level knowledge to correctly interpret the perception. According to Gregory, perception is a process of hypothesis testing. He suggested that about 90% of visual information is lost between the time it reaches the eye and gets to the brain. So, when we see something new, we can’t rely on our senses alone to understand it. We use our existing knowledge and what we recall about past experiences to hypothesise about the meaning of new visual information. If our hypothesis is correct, we make sense of our perceptions by actively constructing them with a combination of what we take in through our senses and what we already know about the world. However, if our hypothesis is incorrect, it can lead to perceptual errors. In this sense, top-down processing is a form of deductive reasoning. If we see a wine glass filled with red liquid, we deduce that we are looking at a red wine. Yet, equally, we could be looking at cranberry juice in a wine glass.

Top-down processing plays an important role in our interactions with our environment. Our five senses are constantly taking in information. At any given time, we are experiencing different sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and ways things feel when we touch them. If we paid attention to each one of our senses all the time, we’d never do anything else. Top-down processing enables us to streamline the process by relying on context and our pre-existing knowledge to understand what we perceive. If our brains didn’t employ top-down processing our senses would overwhelm us.

Top-down processing serves a positive function by simplifying the way we comprehend our sensory perceptions. Our environments are crowded places and we are constantly perceiving multiple things. Top-down processing enables us to shortcut the cognitive path between our perceptions and their meaning.

Part of the reason for this is that top-down processing helps us recognise patterns. Patterns are useful because they help us understand and know how to interact with the world. For example, when we encounter a new kind of mobile device, we use our past experiences with other mobile devices to quickly figure out which icons to touch to pull up the apps we want to interact with. Mobile devices generally follow similar interaction patterns and our prior knowledge of those patterns enables us to apply them to the new device.

On the other hand, patterns can also prevent us from perceiving things in unique ways. So, we may understand the pattern of how to use a mobile phone, but if the manufacturer comes out with a new phone that employs completely unique interaction patterns, we may not be able to figure out how to use it. That’s where top-down processing can have negative results.

Our knowledge is limited and biased in certain ways. When we apply our knowledge to our perceptions, it similarly limits and biases our perceptions. So, for example, if we’ve always drunk and enjoyed red wines and we are suddenly presented with a new kind of wine (say, an amber one), our perception may be that the wine is inferior, even though it functions in a very similar way to the red wine.

Wine appreciation may involve a certain degree of both bottom-up and top-down processing. Individuals may lean more to one than the other. Blind tasting, perhaps being a more inductive process, utilises more bottom-up processing, whereas critical tasting, which employs greater a priori knowledge and filters, is mainly top-down.

Once information is processed to a degree, an attention filter decides how important the signal is and which cognitive processes it should be made available to. For example, although your brain processes every blade of grass when you look down at the ground, a healthy attention filter prevents you from noticing them individually. Those who have specific autistic abilities may indeed be able to hold the image of every detail in their minds, but usually we want to disengage from sensory overload and either home in on one detail, or simply register the whole.

In contrast, you might pick out your name, even when spoken in a noisy room. There are many stages of processing, and the results of processing are modulated by attention repeatedly.

In wine terms, the attention filter, this process of attunement, helps us to focus on a single aspect of wine, particularly when we are smelling or tasting. The filter can be strengthened through practice.

In order for the brain to process information, it must first be stored. There are multiple types of memory, including sensory, working (sometimes conflated with short term memory), and long-term. First, information is encoded. There are types of encoding specific to each type of sensory stimuli. For example, verbal input can be encoded structurally, referring to what the printed word looks like, phonemically, referring to what the word sounds like, or semantically, referring to what the word means. Once information is stored, it must be maintained. Some studies suggest that working memory, which stores information for roughly 20 seconds, is maintained by an electrical signal looping through a particular series of neurons for a short period of time. Information in long-term memory is hypothesised to be maintained in the structure of certain types of proteins.

When tasting wine, we may use one, or all types, of memory. Decoding – the time from the initial apprehension of the wine to the organised verbal or written response – may seem an extraordinarily speedy process. However, each of us have different neural wiring and different triggers, and our responses to a wine will differ accordingly.

There are numerous models of how the knowledge is organized in the brain, some based on the way human subjects retrieve memories, others based on computer science, and others based on neurophysiology. The semantic network model states that there are nodes representing concepts, and that the nodes are linked based on their relatedness. For example, in a semantic network, “chair” might be linked to “table,” which can be linked to “wooden,” and so forth. The connectionist model states that a piece of knowledge is represented merely by a pattern of neuronal activation rather than by meaning. There is not yet a universally accepted knowledge organization model, because each has strengths and weaknesses.

What are the wine associative connections? Clear might be linked to clean and then to light, to easy-drinking. Opaque to viscous to heavy. But smells are more evocative, because of the neural link between the olfactory bulb and a part of the brain that stores memory.

Once stored, memories eventually must be retrieved from storage. Remembering past events is not like watching a recorded video. It is, rather, a process of reconstructing what may have happened based on the details the brain chose to store and was able to recall. Recall is triggered by a retrieval cue, an environmental stimulus that prompts the brain to retrieve the memory. Evidence shows that the better the retrieval cue, the higher the chance of recalling the memory. It is important to note that the retrieval cue can also make a person reconstruct a memory improperly. This is one reason why two different people have entirely different memories of the same event. It is why two tasting notes for the same wine, perhaps tasted at the same time, can veer off into wildly different directions. If two individuals can’t even agree on the colour of something, then our taste is liable to diverge considerably. In a way, our imperfections are what make us individual, and therefore human.

The brain thus is a cellular matrix, a complex structure of interwoven neural nets. The act of processing data creates a consciousness that is an emergent self-determining intelligence.

Our first encounter with the wine is normally a visual one and involves a response to its colour. Our training habituates us to separate colours into broad (shorthand) categories. This wine then is deemed a white, this is a red, this is a rosé/pink. Simples. The colour is less a shade on the ROYGBIV spectrum than a semantic construct. Further visual investigation and interpretation will break down the idea of white or red into subtler hues until we arrive at a concrete description that satisfies us aesthetically and scientifically. The surface appearance of a wine tells us very little. We may think of a wine as white, but that is not, in itself, an accurate sensory description. It is a grouping into which we mentally pour all liquids derived from grapes that are not red nor pink nor sparkling.  The wine in question may be green, lemon, straw yellow or golden according to the light. The brain will use the retrieval cue to bring forth memories of that the specific shade of colour, filtering out those which are least relevant in communicating about that colour. Whereas our training may allow us to deduce that a golden colour denotes a potentially rich wine and alert our senses to the probabilities of smelling and tasting qualities associated with richness, if that colour is also associated with a deeper experience – perhaps one with a particular emotional resonance –those areas of the brain where memories are stored will be stimulated and particular associations brought to the fore.

After the first impression of colour qua colour, we may examine the quality and the depth of the colour in question. This deeper, more focused investigation may trigger the retrieval cues to recall memories, stimulate different parts of the brain and bring further experiential responses into play.

The quality of colour may be denoted by its intensity and quality. A wine that appears to be shiny or glossy or show depth as opposed to a wine that is dull, or lacks these attributes.

When I did my higher certificate, students were inculcated to examine wine in terms of its clearness and cleanness. It was almost presented as a simple duality – clean equals good, cloudy/hazy/bubbly is indicative of a potential fault. I subsequently realised that quality was nothing to do with technical clarity, and that hazy, unfiltered wines had just as great, if not greater, merit. The point is that now if I see a very clean wine, I instinctively distrust it and may be instantly dismissive qualitatively-speaking, because my brain now easily recalls memories of many innocuous milquetoast wines of similar appearance, whereas deeper-coloured, tonally-complex wines have intimations of possibility and evoke a more “detailed” and curious response.

The colour may be a property of the wine, but our perception is also dependent on light, and our interpretation of colour. Certain colours may have greater personal resonance than others. Expectation, moreover, plays an important role. Were we to be given a wine blindfolded, or in a darkened room, a part of the experience (and pleasure) would be removed. Our visual sense, although less important than smell and taste, is still a significant part of our enjoyment of wine. It is part of the tasting, and a contributing element to wine epiphanies. Interestingly, there was a demand for glass in Roman times, as people were said to like looking at wine, otherwise we might still to this day be drinking out of cups.

There is no doubt that many of us begin to judge the wine from the moment we first clap eyes on it. This is part of our natural programming. We seek clues – is it safe to ingest? (We use our basic senses – sight, smell and taste – to look for “self-preservation” clues which will tell us that it is safe to proceed and assay the wine.) Although what we see will only give us a certain indication as what the wine might taste like, it is still an impression that matters, and will trigger a series of reactions in the brain. Our wine education – in whatever form it takes – shapes these instinctual reactions into value judgements.

Wine courses often instruct us how to examine a wine, and deduce how it might taste by using the evidence of our eyes. This is a flat analytical approach as it measures appearances against preconceived standards, just as a machine might optically sort fruit and vegetables according to size and shape. Cleanness and clearness are so valued because they are synonymous with consistency, which is a minimum rather than a maximal standard. Rather than inherent to the wine, such properties, however, may be the result of chemical stabilisation. Colour stabilisation tells us the process used to sterilise the wine (say double filtration and fining), not about the wine itself. Colour is far more than the clear/not clear dichotomy, it is a spectrum, it is off the spectrum, it is subjective judgement, it is the unique appeal to the imagination and memory. Colour can convey a certain amount, but looking “into” the colour and receiving its energy can be the start of a far more consuming wine-response. So, rather than white, red, yellow, pink, we can be reacting to depth, density, intensity, shininess, and even where the colour seems to hold the light in a particular way, because these intrinsic properties challenge our brain to search for words (similes or metaphors) and dial up previous experiences in order to put into words to describe the complexity of the appearance.

There is play called Red about the painter, Mark Rothko. Rothko asks his assistant to describe what is going on in the vast pulsing canvas of colour hanging on the wall in the studio. The assistant gazes at it for a moment and says: “I see red”. I am sure that most commercial wine is as shallow as the functional paint colour. It is as if we say that red is the opposite of white with all that that entails. Or white with fish, red with meat. As one Austrian grower said to me: we are colour blind. It is about the material of the grapes that give the wine and the wine is the colour of those grapes. It is what it is.

In the Rothko play, Red has deeper connotations. It is not just the colour of the paint; it refers to a concept of redness. Rothko’s paintings are shades of red, and not a monolithic matt colour. They vibrate, the layers of paint seem to move, melt and infuse each into one another. We are captivated by this primal shade. Red becomes everything that colour has come to represent – blood, passion, pageant, sunset, and with elements bleeding into each other, and overwhelming sensations of “viscous fluidity.”

If our senses only perceive flat motionless unemotional colour, our responses will be necessarily shallow. If we perceive properties beyond the shallow norm, then we are opening up more areas of our brain to help us maximise our appreciation of this experience. This is Coleridge’s active shaping organism capable of growth. If we are not engaged, then we do not perceive the inner colour of the wine; we register at the most basic level that it is red – as opposed to white or pink. There is a part of our brain that needs to put things into convenient boxes; the most easily-retrieved information, but paradoxically the least memorable. Here we find where the physiology of colour merges into the psychology of colour, where red exists as a colour that is perceived and then actively perceived.

“A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.”

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