It’s happened to all of us.
We’re out to dinner with friends and one of them orders a bottle of red wine. When served, everyone at the table compliments your friend for his or her selection. But not you. Even as it is poured into your glass, your senses relay a message to your brain: this wine is not pleasing. The color is too light, the aromas are off-putting and the temperature is too warm. Worse, the wine tastes like cherry vanilla cola.
You think you have a reasonable palate, able to discern good wine from plonk. What’s wrong with these friends?
Conversely, when I order the wine, I look forward to opening friends’ palates to a new experience, leveraging off the seasoned (refined?) palate I’ve developed over the years.
I anxiously pre-taste a favorite wine. Ah, sublime. All of my senses reverberate in a crescendo of color, aroma, taste and terroir. I wait for the reactions of my guests, expecting similar responses. But it’s not to be. A tepid response at best, as each one patronizes me with terse comments. Someone corrals the wine server and offers to order the second bottle. Ouch. Here comes another pedestrian bottle to the table.
How is it that our palates are so discerning and unique? I’ve addressed this phenomenon multiple times at wine events I’ve conducted and in several Grapevine columns.
When we savor a glass of wine it is our senses of taste, aroma and, to a lesser extent, sight and touch that create a learned memory which is then triggered each time we approach a glass of wine.
The science of this process is rather ethereal to me. However, a few months ago I came across a TED Talk that pulled this all together.
Camilla Arndal Andersen, a neuroscientist with Danish company DuPont Nutrition and Biosciences, presented her research in a precise, concise manner, transforming a rather subjective phenomenon into an objective discourse. While her point of reference was coffee, it applies equally well to wine.
Here are my heavily redacted quotes from her transcript. For the unexpurgated version, contact me.
“When I drink a cup of coffee, I detect this cup of coffee by receptors on my body, information which is then turned into activated neurons in my brain. Wavelengths of light are converted to colors. Molecules in the liquid are detected by receptors in my mouth and categorized as one of five basic tastes. That’s salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami. Molecules in the air are detected by receptors in my nose and converted to odors. And ditto for touch, for temperature, for sound and more.
“All this information is detected by my receptors and converted into signals between neurons in my brain. Information which is then woven together and integrated, so that my brain recognizes that yes, I just had a cup of coffee, and yes, I liked it. And only then, after all this neuron heavy lifting, do we consciously experience this cup of coffee. And this is now where we have a very common misconception.
“People tend to think that what we experience consciously must then be an absolute true reflection of reality. But there are many stages of neural interpretation in between the physical item and the conscious experience of it. Which means that sometimes this conscious experience is not really reflecting that reality at all. That’s because some physical stimuli may just be so weak that they just can’t break that barrier to enter our conscious mind, while the information that does may get twisted on its way there by our hidden biases.”
The next time you have a conflicting opinion with a friend on a particular wine and your reality is his or her perception or vice versa, don’t fret. Wine is to be savored on many levels, both subjective and objective. Enjoy each experience.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.