Taste and the taster
This is the second part of a conversation between Les Caves’s Doug Wregg and Dr. Jamie Goode concerning the nature of taste and the overall experience of “perceiving wine.” We start by examining the sensory processes and how taste is framed by a priori knowledge and filtered through expectation, how the ability to retrieve memories is crucial to understand how our responses are encoded and decoded and simply how we can become better tasters.
Read Part One HERE.
Wine education, comparative tastings, and even sitting down discussing wine with friends – these all assume that we are experiencing the same thing as we taste the wine.
Doug Wregg: Does a wine qua wine possess objective physical properties?
Jamie Goode: A wine has chemicals in it that we can detect sensorially. If it is a red wine, it will have some tannins, for example. If the levels of tannins increase, say through winemaking choices, the wine will taste more tannic. A wine will have a colour, and this can be measured with a spectrophotometer. So a wine certainly has physical properties that can be measured and which are objective. But a more interesting question is whether the taste of wine that depends on these physical characters is objective or not.
Is the taste in the wine, or is it in the observer? There are two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that in the absence of a human taster, the wine has no taste. If we create a perception that is multimodal and includes input from our expectations, knowledge and experience, and also our internal state, then the ‘taste’ of the wine is unique to us, and is a unique event of that moment. For example, you might taste the wine, and then five minutes later take another sip, and experience something different of the wine. On the first taste you might pick up lovely cherry fruit, and on the second notice that under the cherry fruit there’s some spicy oak, or a hint of forest floor. Which ‘taste’ is the taste of the wine? Is the taste of the wine a property of the taster? In this case we would say it is based on the wine, but it is response to the wine by the taster and the actual perception of the wine is unique to the taster. The second way of looking at this is to invent another level in the process. The wine has a chemical composition (1), this gives rise to the taste of the wine (2), and objective property of the wine, and in turn the taster perceives the wine (3), with the perception of the taster a subjective appraisal of (2) the taste of the wine. The objective taste of the wine is that which would be experienced by the average taster with good functioning taste and smell. Without the intermediate level we are lost in a sea of subjectivity.
DW: Some wines never present the same way two times running. Would you define “mutability” as an objective/inherent property of the wine? Or is the mutability within us and our variable capacity to perceive on a given day? What are the core objective properties of any given wine? Is objectivity ever really possible, given that responses are filtered through a human being and all his or her imperfections? And is objectivity not a taught thing, a set of instructions given to analyse wine in a specific way – and is this not itself partial, a kind of cultural conditioning?
JG: We can rescue objectivity if we place the intermediate ‘taste’ of the wine between the chemical properties of the wine and its perception. We bring a lot to the tasting experience, and so our perception will be subjective. But the way that we taste suggests that we believe that the wine does have a taste, and that this taste is an objective property of the wine, and in our tasting we are trying to get as close as possible to this. Wine education, comparative tastings, and even sitting down discussing wine with friends – these all assume that we are experiencing the same thing as we taste the wine. Our behaviour indicates that we consider each wine to have a taste at any one point, and we strive to catch that taste.
DW: Can we respond to wine without verbal language? Can wine make us feel something that we never shape into words? Or does our ability to frame things linguistically define our individuality?
JG: Language shapes experience. Having words for wine allows us to use them like peg to hang our experience onto. And the vocabulary we have guides us in our questioning of the wine. But words aren’t very good when it comes to describing our experience of flavour, especially when it comes to smell. There’s a large literature on this.
Having words for wine allows us to use them like peg to hang our experience onto. And the vocabulary we have guides us in our questioning of the wine. But words aren’t very good when it comes to describing our experience of flavour, especially when it comes to smell.
Having said this, I think there is a whole realm of perception where words are rarely used, and don’t need to be used. I also think that words can easily get in the way of experience if we rush to them, rather than savour the experience of a wine. To appreciate a wine fully, it is almost necessary to make a conscious choice to still our minds and engage other ways of dwelling in the experience than try to name and describe. I think tasting notes are horrible but sometimes we need to use them. Sometimes, though, we need to move away from words into non-verbal contemplation. And then there’s the whole realm of emotions and feelings: we marginalize these in wine tasting, but surely these are important?
DW: Subjectivity. Where (at what point) do our previous experiences (in life, in wine) fashion our assessment of a particular wine?
JG: Think of the way you approach wines from a familiar producer versus those from one you know nothing about. Our experience really does seem to alter how we go about tasting a wine. And then there are familiar and unfamiliar styles of wine. I think previous experiences prime us for our actual tasting experience. We ask different questions of the wine as we taste it. We interpret the tastes and smells and textures through a lens of expectation. We try to make sense of the physical characteristics of the wine on the basis of our previous experiences with that wine, or that style of wine.
DW: Is our response to wine a mixture of left and right side of the brain – analytical, on the one side, intuitive/emotional on the other? Or, is this a bit too pat? Are subjectively-loaded responses to wine less valid than objectively-arrived-at ones? (I am thinking of wine competitions and critical response that create points scale to measure the quality of the wine, the inference being that these are valued measurements).
JG: I think perception is a unity, and this includes our perception of wine. It includes all of these things, but with our choices we can give preference to different aspects of the perception. I suspect people taste differently – both one from another, and also on different occasions. Some dwell in the emotion; others try to be more analytical. Sometimes I taste analytically; at other times I drink and I’m consumed in the emotion of the moment. The wine enters us and begins to transform us, too – intoxication is part of drinking wine. Of course, we tend to value the more analytical, factual-based approach to wine tasting, where words are used to try to capture the experience, and when scores are used to try and measure how good the wine is on some arbitrary scale. But I don’t think a more emotional/feeling based approach is any less legitimate. It might be more meaningful, actually.
DW: Where does like/dislike/neutrality of/for wine come from? Is it again from our prior experience – a hierarchical judgement based on the perception of quality, or is it something more primitive – finding certain tastes inherently disagreeable? How is it that we can also overcome our instinctive responses and come to appreciate quality – even if we don’t actually like to drink the wine itself? i.e. can we be taught to overcome deep instinctual dislike?
JG: There’s the first sort of liking: hedonics. How much do you enjoy the taste of the wine; how much do you like it? It’s the innate pleasure the wine gives you. Most people don’t like the taste of wine when they first experience it. It’s largely an acquired taste. And tastes change with time. It’s a cliché, but enjoying wine really is a journey. We are travellers of taste. Some tastes in wine, though, we do find disagreeable. Perhaps we can learn to like them, perhaps not. Some, like brettanomyces, are initially offputting, and then some develop a taste for it, while others never do.
We need to bring in aesthetics, and the idea that in wine we have the community of judgement – we decide together which wines are good and which are bad.
The culture of wine is very important here. We need to bring in aesthetics, and the idea that in wine we have the community of judgement – we decide together which wines are good and which are bad. So, as we taste together, we are learning to like some wines, and learning to dislike others. In part this is cultural: if you have grown up in the USA you might have followed US critics and grown to like a style of wine that would be considered to be unpleasant by, say, someone who has learned wine appreciation in natural wine bars in Europe.
DW: Can we define “judging a wine” in neurological terms?
JG: It’s far too complicated to define wine judgement using neurology. You can do all sorts of experiments with magnetic resonance imaging and see what bits light up when people taste wine, but this is unsatisfying and doesn’t really define judging wine.