Bottoms Up

Jamie Goode and his scientific exploration of wine tasting

Do they really make this wine with blueberries? It’s a question that comes up when people read tasting notes on shelf talkers in retail shops, or surf past a wine blog. And it’s not necessarily new. Communicating about what we taste when we taste wine has been a challenge for centuries, brought to a head by new markets for wine exploding here in the US, in China and in other countries where wine was once the beverage of a small elite.

Jamie Goode, the author of I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, trained as a scientist, earning a PhD in plant biology and working for years as an editor of scientific books before establishing wineanorak.com and writing The Science of Wine in 2005. (Goode is also a regular contributor to this magazine.) Dogged by what must have been persistent nips from the scientific community about the absurdity of tasting notes, the subjectivity of the sense of taste and smell, and the practical matter of his role as a wine critic, Goode set out to investigate just what it is that’s happening when he, or anyone else, tastes a glass of wine.

He starts with synesthesia, the phenomenon some people experience of their senses being crossed—hearing the taste of yogurt in a hard g, or tasting the color red—then relates it to the cross-modal perception we all employ when tasting wine.

The book expands into an analysis of how our senses function and how we have, as a culture, treated the senses of smell, touch and taste, exploring why we are comfortable, philosophically, with criticism based on sight and sound (visual arts and music), and less certain about endeavors like wine criticism. Goode attempts to present the neuroscience in lay terms; he succeeds in some places more than others, but overall, this is not as hard going as a purely scientific text. Anyone who has struggled to understand what’s happening when they react with joy or disgust to a glass of wine (or to a plate of food, for that matter) will find it well worth the concentration required to understand contemporary research on taste and scent perception.

Part of the current thinking about scent is that we construct our reality around odor objects, just as we build a visual reality around objects we recognize—like cars, trees and houses. Goode starts off the book investigating this idea, then dives into the opposing argument, that we perceive the odors through individual chemicals.

For the student of wine (or, in my personal case, the wine critic) there is plenty of fodder in Goode’s discussion of how we taste, whether top down, as prescribed by academic courses that teach students to dissect their taste perceptions by ticking them off in boxes, or bottom up, just drinking the stuff and saying “yuck” or “yum.” When Goode is not caught up in the discussion of objectivity in wine tasting, he brings out some brilliant concepts, such as considering what we call subjectivity as the “improvisatory element that is highly individual,” a work of the imagination as described by John Dilworth, a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University. Dilworth objects to the widely taught two-part process of wine tasting. Here’s how Goode describes his argument: “First, we have the analytical part, where we actually perceive what is there. Then we have the bit where we interpret what is there, and react to it, bringing our perceptions into the equation. Dilworth argues that this is wrong: Wine tasting is a single, imaginative experience that includes all the flavors and aromas, and their enjoyment.” First we have to allow ourselves to experience the wine; only then is it worth reflecting on what we might just have experienced.

Where Goode’s argument may need expansion, if it is possible to expand without the use of artificial intelligence or our brains blowing up, is in his focus on the act of tasting one individual wine, and whether or not that is a subjective or objective experience. Most people who disagree on how individual wines taste may, in fact, agree when comparing the tastes of two different wines. Is one more bitter than the other, is one sweeter, or fruitier, or does the flavor last longer? Are the answers to these questions more consistent, and are they the building blocks of how we come to understand wine, how some scientists now believe we build odor objects in our memories, and how we communicate about them? While there’s nothing simple about the research in Goode’s compendium on the state of our senses, adding this comparative approach to perception might enrich the conversation, even if it might double the complexity.

The scientific understanding of the joy we experience in a great glass of wine is still in its infancy. But by the end of this fascinating book, a reader may well see, smell and taste the world with a completely different perspective.

I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine, by Jamie Goode (UC Press, 2016; $29.95)

Reviewed in W&S Winter 2016.