Is wine tasting perception or hallucination?

In 2001 I read in a Business Week magazine about some Hindu nationalists who trashed a couple dozen McDonald’s locations in India. This, in spite of the fact that out of respect for Hindu dietary restrictions, McDonald’s sells no beef products in India; only vegetable and lamb burgers. So what raised the Hindus’ ire? They had heard about a lawsuit in the U.S. brought by a group of vegetarians against McDonald's for flavoring their fries with a "natural flavor" derived from beef extract, which they unknowingly consumed.

What I found interesting about this is not so much the fact that the actual percentage of beef extract in a super-sized package of fries is reportedly just 0.000000000003%, but the fact that it was put into the fries precisely because the average person can perceive this flavor. The vegetarians and Hindus may have been upset because there was a negligible percent of beef in the fries, but they were also angry because McDonald’s was getting them to eat them by appealing to their raw, unconscious desire for beef!

In his book, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes "flavorists" -- scientists who develop the miniscule chemical compounds used to flavor fast foods such as McDonald's fries, and virtually all the processed foods we consume today -- as "discreet, charming, cosmopolitan, and ironic." According to Schlosser, these are the sort of people "who not only enjoy fine wine, but who can also tell you the chemicals that give each vintage its unique aroma."

Like Schlosser's flavorists, oenologists – scientists who make wine – have long been aware of the fact that the aromas and flavors which distinguish a cabernet sauvignon from a merlot can be attributed to natural chemical compounds amounting to barely a few parts per trillion. For instance, the minty, often herbaceous character of cabernet sauvignon has been isolated to flavor components (grouped as methoxpyrazines) also found in bell peppers that the human palate can easily detect at approximately .02 parts per billion.

Ask an oenologist what gives the chardonnay grape its recognizable “apple” taste, and his answer might be ethyl-2-methyl butyrate. The taste of chardonnay after it goes through its natural malolactic fermentation and is barrel aged on its lees (spent yeast cells) probably derives its current popularity from minuscule proportions of diacetyl (the taste of "butter") combined with methyl-2-peridylketone (“popcorn”). This, in fact, is how many of the world’s chardonnays taste (albeit naturally, as opposed to being developed in the lab), and probably why so many people like it.

Whatever the case may be, even with little or no experience with given wine types, anyone who can enjoy the taste of McDonald's fries can learn to distinguish the various tastes of wines. All it takes is a nose, a decent memory and an interest fueled simply by your growing pleasure.

Or does it? The fact is, much of what we perceive as taste, particularly through the nose, may not actually be real, but illusory. In fact, recent research strongly indicates this; re:

• A paper published by Jeannine Delwiche of Ohio State University, conclusively demonstrating the difficulty of accurately distinguishing or describing wine through a study that showed how red and pink food coloring significantly altered the perception of a single, chardonnay based white. When we see a white wine, we think one thing; and when we see a red or pink wine, we think other things, even if they’re the exact same wine.

• Work done by Livermore and Laing in Australia (Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 65, No. 2) demonstrating that humans have great difficulty discriminating and identifying more than three odors at a time when aromatic compounds are mixed together.

So the question is: does someone who describes a pinot noir as exhibiting “smoky, gamy, forest floor, herb, fresh mushroom, meat, plum, fig and cherry characteristics” (to quote directly from a famous critic, reviewing a Sonoma grown pinot noir by Kalin Cellars) actually smelling every one these qualities, or merely hallucinating them?

Hold that thought, while I cite another study conducted and released in early 2008 by Antonio Rangel, an Associate Professor at the California Institute of Technology. Rangel asked twenty-one volunteers to blind-taste five different bottles of cabernet sauvignon and rate their preferences. The taste test was run fifteen times, and the wines presented in random order.

The only information given to the volunteers was price tags. However, two of the wines were presented twice; one with its true retail price, and the other with a fake price. They also presented one bottle that actually retailed for $90 as $10, and still another bottle that retailed for $5 as $45. To top it all off, according to the story, the dastardly researchers scanned the test subjects’ brains to monitor the “neural activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex – an area of the brain believed to encode pleasure related to taste, odors and music.”

The results? Inflation of the price of a bottle consistently enhanced the subjects’ experience of it, as shown by the neural activity, and the volunteers consistently gave higher ratings to the more expensively priced wines. To quote Professor Rangel, “this study shows that the brain’s rewards center takes into account subjective beliefs about the quality of the experience… if you believe the experience is better, even though it’s the same wine, the rewards center of the brain encodes it as feeling better.”

Fact is, I do feel that experienced critics and wine judges can smell more than three things at a time, but at what point are even they simply influenced – involuntarily, like the volunteers in Rangel’s study – by their overactive imaginations rather than actual perceptions?

The answer: if a brain is sent pleasurable sensations related to, say, mushrooms, meat, and fruits or flowers, to a very large extent this plethora of sensations is very real indeed. Real enough, that is, for this individual judge or that particular critic; but more likely than not, probably not for you or I. Because when we taste the same wine, we are more likely to perceive different sensations, based upon our own neural proclivities and memories of previous tastes. Which is why the best way to evaluate wine is to keep an open mind, and judge for yourself. Sure, it’s okay to follow suggestions or recommendations; but in the end, the only valid perceptions and judgements are the ones that you make on your own.


le bon Tom said…
The Livermore and Laing Study is very interesting and the most incredible lesson from your article about it is that all wine tasting is extremely subjective. Trends develop because people tend to go with other people's suggestions instead of trusting their own palates and judgement, because they're afraid they'll seem wrong for using their intuition. Good stuff, man.
Melisa Marzett said…
I learnt a lot from this article. To be honest with you, I like to drink wine (no other different alcohol drinks), but these facts shocked me a bit:) The process of custom essay writing is daunting but it's required for academic assessment!

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"I fought against the bottle," as Leonard Cohen wrote, "but I had to do it drunk"... specializing in wine as a restaurateur, retailer, wine judge, journalist, frequent flyer and mental traveler. But to me, wine is a food like a rose is a rose. So why all the fuss? Currently: Editor-at-Large/Bottom Line Columnist, The SOMM Journal; Contributing Editor, The Tasting Panel. Awards: Sante's Wine & Food Professional of the Year (1998); Restaurant Wine's Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 & 1999); Academy of Wine Communications (commendation) for Excellence in Wine Writing and Encouragement of Higher Industry Standards; Electoral College Member, Vintners Hall of Fame at the Culinary Institute of America, Greystone.