One of things I always thought remarkable about wine was its employment of four out of five senses all at once. Sight, smell, touch, and taste. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that I need to go ahead and add hearing to the list. I suppose you could listen to bubbles emerging from great Champagne, but I’m more interested in how sound impacts taste, than the sound of wine.
It is no surprise that context influences the way a wine tastes, or that sound impacts the taste of wine. Several studies have demonstrated this, and one need look no further than the field of sensory science in food with their “neutral” environments designed to create as much objective focus on a product as possible (of course is creates its own context, who after all tastes in a white room with red lights and black glasses?). This alone is an admission by scientist in the field that they need to normalize context so that the variable, psychological wacky human being can be used as an objective instrument.
Even with that, it is both amusing and instructive to witness additional nuance added to sensory research. In a Public Radio International report on neurologist Charles Spence, the impetus for this post, it is becoming clearer that synesthesia is not a phenomenon of a select few. Synesthesia can be most simply described as “sensory crosstalk”, or the mingling of sensory perceptions.
Initially Mr. Spence found that people tend to associate sweet tastes with high-pitched notes and the sounds of a piano, and matched bitter flavors with brass instruments and low notes. But going further, they apparently demonstrated that sounds impacted the taste of toffee, made by the Fat Duck in London, resulting in sweeter or bitterer toffee depending on the sounds played during consumption. Yes, the toffee was the same.
Why should wineries care about studies on the influence subconscious perception? Well first of all, we should not pretend that we are uninfluenced by these things. Preventing a house palate starts with being aware that you might have a house palate. However, it is also important to be aware of how context may or may not have impacted your judgment of wine.
If you harvest grapes with more rot than you wanted and for whatever reason were unable to sort that day, you might be predisposed even 6 months later to dislike that wine. Alternatively, you might be predisposed to have a disproportional like for it because of lower expectations. Winemakers should seek to see their wines more accurately than anyone else and yet we have the most temptations to do exactly the opposite. We know too much!
Producers must have a house palate prevention program. At Donelan, our desire is to only bottle what we think represents the best, even if it means lower quantities. We work to frequently revisit what “the best” actually is. We never perform blending trials only once, but employ numerous replications to minimize the impact of context on any individual day. Maybe I had a bad cup of coffee, or an argument with my wife, or heard unpleasant music during a blending trial. Only if patterns emerge after multiple tasting do we begin to make conclusions about how certain wines taste, or how certain components are marrying one another. We even take blending trials home to completely change the context to see if we perceive the wines the same as in the winery.
We utilize our interns, invite family and friends, and have had customers to sit in on trials to get as many “blind” palate comments as possible. It takes time but we see positive results and learn a tremendous amount about our wines and ourselves.
That sound confounds taste is yet another instruction to the winemaker to humbly practice their craft with patience…and maybe to play the right background music in the tasting room! James Petrie, a chef at the Fat Duck, uses sound for one of their current dishes: “sound of the sea”. Providing an iPod with the sounds of the ocean, seagulls, etc. the dish is edible sand made from tapioca and miso oil, sashimi, and edible foam made of seaweed stock. The food has been said to taste fresher as a result of the sounds. What sounds would you pair with Syrah? Pinot Noir?