The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting: Dissecting the Intricacies of the Minds’ Eye

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Last week, I attended the annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Oregon, which you may read all about in my two part summary series here: Part I and Part II.  I wanted to take one particular experience from the conference and elaborate a little more.  Specifically, I’d like to present to you the fascinating research by Tim Gaiser on the Neuroscience of Wine Tasting and some of the interesting findings that have come out the study.

What is the purpose of this research?

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The most important implication for this research is in the art of teaching tasting.  According to Gaiser, the challenge of teaching wine tasting to individuals is complex: 1) we have to try and present to students our own vocabulary and experiences for wine, which may or may not resonate with each individual mind; 2) each individual student has a different neurology from everyone else, as well as different memories and experiences; and 3) we have to come up with a way to find the common denominator for tasting, so that each student may more easily learn using their own personal experiences instead of using other people’s experiences that have been impressed upon them. Thus, the overall goal of the research is to improve upon the way we teach wine tasting so that the students learn in a shorter period of time and learn to utilize their own memories and experiences.

How did he do it?

In order to find this common denominator, Gaiser set out to examine the strategies/neurological connections of some of the best wine tasters around the world.  What were the individual strategies of these professional wine tasters?  How are their neurologies connected to allow them to pick out intimate details about the wine?  How can we use this information obtained from the experts to teach others how to taste?

2009 Film Session Results

In recorded tasting sessions with Tim Gaiser in 2009, with the help of Behavioral Scientist, Tim Hallbom, it was found that eye positions and patterns are critical to experienced tasters, and olfactory cues (smells) trigger a specific image memory connection to the tasters which allow them to identify a particular smell or taste from the wine. 

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After the film session results, Gaiser set out to repeat the 2009 Film Session experiment with several wine experts. What he found is that these positions and images are unique for every single individual taster, which means finding the common denominator for teaching purposes even more difficult.  In order to find this commonality, each experience needed to be broken down in a sort of sequence, in order to perhaps create a teachable sequence for new and training tasters.  Specifically, the experience was broken down into the following categories: language usage and patterns, eye movements and patterns, olfactory images, internal image maps, and visual constructs for calibrating the structure of the tasting experience.

What were the findings?

One interesting outcome of these tasting sessions was that not only to do individuals make different connections and have different experiences during tasting, but they also taste differently depending upon the reason for tasting.  Were they tasting for pleasure? As a buyer? As a wine reviewer? For teaching purposes?  Depending upon the reason for tasting, the individual strategies of each taster was slightly modified.

One of the first things each taster would notice prior to tasting the wine was the color.  This visual cue gives hints as to how old the wine is, possible grape varieties, and possibly the style of winemaking used.  The tasters were able to identify these characteristics by referencing internal color swatches in their memories from previously experienced/tasted wines.  Often, an internal auditory prompt (such as “what color is this?”) would initiate the image recollection process for identifying certain characteristics elicited from the wine.

Moving on to smelling the wine, Gaiser noted that all of the tasters used an extremely consistent starting eye position or pattern when smelling the wine.  Most tasters had a sort of forward and down eye position while smelling the wine, while one taster appeared to have a darting around-type eye movement position.  This starting position is the place of focus and concentration, and the position which elicits the olfactory image recollection connections in the brain.  Similar to the color, nearly all tasters experienced an auditory prompt in addition to the eye positions to get the tasting started (i.e. “what does this smell like?”).

EXERCISE
How about you?  Where is your starting eye position? 
Take a glass of wine (in a standard wine glass).  Now, simply go about your usual method for smelling the wine.  Where do you notice your eyes are? This position is imprinted in your neurology and wherever you notice your eyes are positioned is the position that elicits the olfactory connections in your brain.  For me, this position was down and slightly centered in front.  You are allowed to close your eyes if that is more comfortable, but note your eyes are still in a particular position.
Once you find this position, keep smelling the wine while moving your eyes in a different position.  Do you notice any change in the aroma?  For me, I noticed that the smell almost went away completely when I changed the position of my eyes.  What did you experience?

Eye Assessing Cues

This study of eye patterns is not new to the study of neurology, as many books and scholarly articles have presented results showing relationships between eye movements and internal memories/representations.  During the 1970s and 80s, several collaborating researchers found that eye pattern movements were associated with the activation of different parts of the brain.  These patterns are near consistent across many individuals, however, for left-handed individuals (such as myself), these patterns can be reversed.  Even if an individual recalls visual cues in a different pattern, this pattern is at the very least consistent and repeatable.  Read this article by Robert Dilts for a more detailed analysis on this research by clicking here.

Courtesy: Robert Dilts (see link above)

Olfactory Image Connections

Another interesting finding from Gaisers’ research is that all tasters represent specific aromas and flavors of the wine with internal images or words, or a combination of the two.  These images were both still or moving, depending upon the individual taster.  Also, these images varied in size, location, color and brightness.  Gaiser also found that there was a relationship between the intensity of the aroma and the structure of the image.  These images are presented in a particular sequence for each individual taster, which combine to be what is referred to as an “image map”, which was found to be unique and vary dramatically from individual to individual.

EXERCISE:
After finding your eye position, go ahead and smell the wine.  What do images do you see?  What sort of pattern do you see these images?  How about the size of the images?  Does the main characteristic of the wine present itself as a very large image? Or perhaps not large but maybe very brightly colored?  What do you see in your minds’ eye? 
For me, I only saw words, which was relatively frustrating since nearly all of the others in the room saw bright and vivid images.  I wonder if my experience was so different because I’m left-handed, or maybe I haven’t had the experiences necessary to elicit the appropriate image for the aroma of that particular wine.
Now, try changing these images.  If you see the image as large and up close, try shrinking the image by moving it further into the background.  What happens to the aroma?  Does it change?  Does the aroma become less pronounced and harder to smell?  Is the image in color?  What happens when you change this image to black and white?  How did the aroma change?

Altering Images

Interestingly, this research found that changing the images in one’s mind changed the tasters’ experience of the wine.  Related to the palate versus the nose, a stronger intensity on the palate versus the nose resulted in the image increasing in size, brightness or location.  As one would expect, a lower intensity on the palate versus the nose resulted in the image decreasing in size, brightness or location.

Structure of Wine

The structure of the wine also elicited image recollection for each individual taster.  For some tasters, a sort of ruler or other calibrating image was presented in the mind, and depending upon the structure of the wine, the focal point of the image would change.  For example, for acidity, one taster saw a 12-inch ruler with marks on it for low, medium, and high. After tasting the wine, the taster was able to focus on and point to a particular point on the ruler in order to identify the acidity of the wine.  Similar mechanisms were found for alcohol content, tannin, and finish.

Example of an image elicited for structural identification in wine tasting

How do these results help us teach others about tasting wine?

According to Gaiser, the results of this study indicate that we should teach students to identify color and age in wine using color spectrums and swatches.  We should also help students become aware of the aroma-to-image connections they already have in their mind, and to utilize these images to identify aromas and flavors in the wine.  The students should be presented with images in order to create new memories in their psyche, particularly if they’ve never experienced a particular aroma or flavor on their own.  Finally, Gaiser claims we should teach students how to taste without wine, as well as teach students to calibrate the structural elements of wine by using internal visual scales.

What are your thoughts?

What do you all think of this research?  Of course, it was not a controlled experiment, thereby the results have to be taken with a grain of salt, but regardless, I found the results very fascinating and worthy of future experimentation and research.   I think it’s a great idea to teach students to utilize their own memories and experiences when tasting the wines, and when these memories and experiences do not exists (say, if they’ve never had a fig before and the main flavor component of the wine they are tasting happens to be fig), they should be given the opportunity to create new image maps in the mind by tasting these elements outside of the wine format.

I did leave slightly frustrated, however, in that I never saw images when smelling the wine.  Gaiser noted later in a question-and-answer session that these images are moving at an extremely fast pace, so perhaps I have not yet learned to slow down these images to a point where I can see them.  I did, however, see words pop up instead of images, which perhaps may be the way my neurological connections function in this type of olfactory recollection.  He mentioned left-handers may experience things differently than right-handers, so perhaps this is another reason why I wasn’t seeing what most others were seeing.  A controlled experiment may get at these types of questions.

I am very interested in hearing what you all think of this research.  Please leave your comments below!

References

“The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting: Unlocking the Tasting Strategies of Genius”. Tim Gaiser, MS. Presentation at the Wine Bloggers Conference August 18th, 2012, Portland, Oregon.

“Eye Movements and NLP” by Robert Dilts: http://www.nlpu.com/Articles/artic14.htm Accessed August 26, 2012.


I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!

17 comments for “The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting: Dissecting the Intricacies of the Minds’ Eye

  1. Steve Slatcher
    September 15, 2012 at 9:10 am

    There are certainy some interesting ideas here, but they are just that – ideas. Unlike most of your blog posts, there is no peer-reviewed research underlying them, and Gaiser is a sommelier selling his ideas – not a scientist. Yes, LITERALLY selling his ideas – £39 for a ‘strategy blueprint’ and DVD. The reference to NLP does not fill me with confidence either! It may be true that some people can visualise flavours, and some might be able to be convinced that they can. But like you, I do not – I have the flavours themselves in my head. Likewise, I do not visualise a ruler – I image intensities of the various dimensions. But thank you for bring this to my attention – I shall be interested to see how much momentum the ideas get.

    • Tim Gaiser MS
      September 15, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Hi Steve, thanks for your comment. My DVD is a tasting primer geared to beginners with elements from the project and comments from Tim Hallbom. It sells for $40 American on Amazon. As I’ve taught thousands of people how to taste for over 25 years I think it’s a pretty good product. The “ideas” you mention are actually findings from the project and don’t come from me, but are taken directly from colleagues who I worked with in the project thus far. The group includes Brian Cronin MS, Doug Frost MS MW, Evan Goldstein MS, Tracy Kamens Ed.D., DWS, CWE, Karen MacNeil, Peter Marks MW, Emily Wines MS and me. Needless to say, this is a pretty rarefied group of tasters and to find commonality of strategies was and still is the goal.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Thanks for commenting, Steve!

      I agree, these are just ideas and not hard science. I would hope the ideas would spur someone into performing a controlled experiment, but for now, we need to take these results with a grain of salt. There were a total of 8 wine experts involved with this analysis, which is certainly not enough for statistical analysis of any kind.

      The ruler image statement wasn’t meant to say that everyone will see this image, as it actually only occurred for one individual. Like you, all 7 of the other experts saw something else in their mind which led them to identify the structural elements in question.

      I’m going to keep my eyes locked on the neuroscience/neurology journals for a while to see if anyone is currently working on a legitimate study related to these ideas, for sure! The research has been done on similar topics in the past, but not these ideas directly. I’ll certainly keep you all posted!

  2. SUAMW
    September 15, 2012 at 9:12 am

    Tim’s a great guy, However, the assertion that we all have a different neurology is absolute bunk.
    Thus, as much as it pains me, the fundamental premise of this research renders the rest of the study invalid.
    Just talk to Alexandre Schmitt.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

      Thanks for commenting! Technically, I agree the whole thing is invalid since it was not a controlled experiment. I thought it was interesting to hear about what Tim found when he “interviewed” these experts.

      Tim refers to these mechanisms and the differences between these mechanisms as each individual having a different neurology–what term/s would you prefer to use? I’m curious! (Also, I’d love to see you two debate this ;) ).

    • Tim Gaiser MS
      September 15, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Thanks for your comment. I stand corrected on the everyone having a different neurology comment. However, to your point this was not a controlled experiment but a “project” I’m working on. Huge difference in nomenclature and meaning. Does that make it invalid? Hardly. The ideas I’m putting forth come directly from some of the country’s top tasters are hard to ignore given the context of trying to improve how we teach people to taste wine. Will the ideas be picked up by neuroscientists? I think so. I’m meeting with Dr. Adam Gazzaley tomorrow. He’s one of the top people in the world in terms of aging, the brain and neuroplasticity. He wants to discuss the project.

  3. SUAMW
    September 15, 2012 at 9:13 am

    We all have the same neurology. PERIOD. Functionally, our brains are pretty much the same. The only time when this function is “different”, is in pathological states. But even then, dysfunction follows predictable patterns (kind of how all snow flakes all follow the six-pointed star pattern…).

    But we have been told that is poetic, artistic, etc, and the experience of its organoleptic qualities is somehow different for every single individual. Thus, information about the chemical composition of wine and neurophysiologic basis of its perception has been marginalized in favor of this Subjectivity of Wine Myth (what the hell does taste bud receptor have to do with sensitivity to spices, when the two are derived from different embryological tissues, innervated by different nerves and fed to different central nuclei – something that would have come to better light if the research was done by a real neuroscientist and not an “experimental *psychologist* who curiously is no longer affiliated with the Ivy League institution where the aforementioned work was done). Subsequently, nobody has compiled the available data into a comprehensive instructional course. The reason for this is twofold: first, is the prevailing assumption, incorrect as it is. Secondly, Organoleptic assessment is a lot like language and music. And there are a lot of people who are not deaf but are tone deaf. (This has far more to do with their cortex than olfactory epithelium.) And they would rather get offended and indignant when told they are wrong than commit the time and effort to train themselves properly.

    So the term I would use is: inexperience combined with ignorance and individual attempts to make sense of an experience in the face of the aforementioned inexperience and ignorance.

    I’ve fought this fight for some six years now. It’s become clear I’m dealing with a case of ignorance being bliss on the part of those who just refuse to see.. I’d rather have a drink with Tim than debate him.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

      Great points!

      I think the differences boil down to more experience, which sounds like you are in complete agreement with. If you’re tasting a wine that has the predominant aroma/flavor of blueberry but you’ve never had a blueberry, you would not be able to make that connection. If you have had a blueberry, the aroma/flavor should trigger a memory of you eating that blueberry and you’re thus able to identify it as such.

      Some of the interesting things that come out of this are how those images/recollections are conjured up from individual to individual. Well, I’m certain not everyone thinks this is interesting, but for the audience the presentation was designed for (see Tom’s comment below), it surely was!

      • SUAMW
        September 15, 2012 at 9:17 am

        :)

        Yes, Experience. But, to use an analogy, experience means that one has had a multitude of partners, but is not necessarily a good (or even proficient) lover…..

        :)

        At a seminar led by Alexandre Schmitt, one of the participants (a known blogger and print author) was told he was wrong. At the end of the event, he told Schmitt that not once during his college career did a professor tell him he was wrong.

        Clearly, he was not a science major (Poly Sci does NOT count, btw).

        • Becca
          September 15, 2012 at 9:19 am

          That is a perfect analogy….love it! ;) I’ll have to check out Alexandre Schmitts’ work!

  4. Tom
    September 15, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Thanks for getting this done so quickly — a good reminder of the presentation. I don’t know why people think this has to be one-size-fits-all blueprint. I got some good ideas I can use when leading a wine tasting, and the presenter didn’t represent the small study as being in any way definitive or controlled, or even hard science. Honestly, it was pitched perfectly for the audience at the conference.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:15 am

      My pleasure, Tom! I wanted to get this out before my brain lost too many of the details to time!

      Certainly everyone tastes differently and learns to taste differently, and finding what works for you is key to maximizing your experience.

      I agree, for the audience the talk was designed for, it was great. However, being the scientist that I am, I would still like to see some sort of controlled study come out of this!

  5. Michael
    September 15, 2012 at 9:13 am

    After reading Tim’s article in the Somm Journal I feel dismayed not to have the “visual acuity” Mr. Goldstein seems to possess…I don’t have a colored control panel or a ruler in my mind’s eye (not sure I have one of those either, just a mind), so I simply taste flavors- not that the chemistry and physiology are anything short of fascinating. Having said that, I do find it helpful occasionally to graph my taste impressions: ‘disjointed’ looks like the Dow on a turbulent day and ‘lift’ an array of upward arrows. If, as many experts claim, the length of the finish is THE objective standard for wine quality (given that my 30 seconds might be your 20 or 45), then winemakers (and their friends at Monell) should be researching the chemical properties of length. In the meantime I will continue to pursue the gustatory pleasure of “multi-orgasmic sex in a glass”.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:16 am

      Thanks for commenting, Michael! Like you, I was frustrated in that I didn’t have this “visual acuity” either, but merely saw things as words in my brain (i.e. if I tasted cherries, I thought of the word “cherry”). This whole concept, I believe, is very subjective, meaning we all will experience something slightly differently than everyone else.

      I will raise a glass to your “multi-orgasmic sex in a glass”! Here here! :)

    • Tim Gaiser MS
      September 15, 2012 at 9:18 am

      Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. No worries about not being able to see some sort of “graph” when trying to ascertain color. I think what’s important for anyone reading this post is to remember that everyone involved in the project (including me) has decades of experience tasting many thousands of wines; and that means unconscious competence at a remarkably high level. When we as a group taste wine we process the information so quickly that it literally takes someone standing next to us to help slow the whole sequence down so we can even begin to be aware that it exists, much less the components of it. The biggest surprise to me from working with these colleagues was that the tasting experience for all of us is predominantly visual—that we literally use visual constructs for practically every aspect of tasting. And that’s good news. I’m already teaching beginners certain aspects and they learn quickly.

  6. Tim Gaiser MS
    September 15, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Hi Becca, Tim Gaiser here. Many thanks for your thoughtful and well-written post. The of my presentation at the conference was agreed upon without my knowledge by my speaker’s bureau contact and someone organizing the conference. The actual title of the presentation is “Olfactory and Submodalities.” Per comments above, this was NOT an experiment but a project–small change in terms of a single word but enormous difference in terms of meaning. The project involves modeling internal strategies of outstanding tasters with the intent of discovering how we do what we do when tasting wine with the goal of improving how we teach tasting. I am not a scientist and have never even pretended to be one. But I do bring a lot of expertise in tasting to the table and also a lot of experience using olfactory and language modeling. It goes without saying that this is a new approach to tasting wine and there is still lots to be learned. Will this be picked up by neuroscientists? I think that goes without saying because the ramifications of my findings are enormous in terms of sense memory and overall strategies for learning.

    • Becca
      September 15, 2012 at 9:16 am

      Thank you so much for commenting on this post and on some of the questions the other commenters made! I love having this sort of engagement, and it truly allows for great discussion and debate.

      I attempted to make it clear that this wasn’t an experiment by any means, but simply a launching point for further research, however, I failed to mention this until near the end of the post, which I suppose could have been overlooked by readers. I should have mentioned that right off the bat. I appreciate you clarifying things in your comments as well for my readers.

      I am really excited about the possibility of neuroscientists picking up this project and turning it into a full-blown experiment, and hope that happens sooner than later!

      Thank you so much for this awesome presentation to the Wine Bloggers Conference, and thank you again for commenting here on my post!

      Cheers, Tim!

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