Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Tar, cat pee, and why you cannot tell white from red with your eyes closed...the last word on flavor

Posted by Richard Foxall, Jun 4, 2012.

The New York Review of Books is not the first place most of us turn (or even the third or tenth) for wine talk, so, as a subscriber, I thought I'd bring attention to this terrific review of Neurogastronomy, a new book by Gordon Shepherd--who is not a wine reviewer with a blog to promote but a neuroscientist.  Although the review title is a bit misleading--the book and the review are about flavor, good or bad, and makes the distinction between flavor and taste--both will put to rest a lot of discussion about why something can taste like the aforementioned tar, or forest floor.  More accurately, it can have a flavor of tar, since taste is a pretty blunt instrument for understanding the world.  Unfortunately, there's a pay wall, but I went behind it and pulled some quotes. Here's one from the book:

 “A common misconception is that the foods contain the flavors. Foods do contain the flavor molecules, but the flavors of those molecules are actually created by our brains.”

The reviewer goes on to talk about how there are only five tastes we can sense (sorry, dmcker, but I think umami  is now accepted universally, by all but the most hardcore umami deniers) and the perception of them is innate, but our sense of smell can detect thousands of different smells and put them together in combination.  Those combinations are made into a "two dimensional map," combined with the tastes and other associations, and create flavors that we can detect, recall, and compare.  Hence tarry nebbiolo, leathery Bordeaux, violets and meat in our Syrah.

There's a great bit about how retronasal smell plays a role--this is something we have discussed elsewhere when I defended the description of wines as "tarry":

"There are two ways that we “sniff.” We take in the “odors” of wines, flowers, perfumes, and smoke by inhaling air directly through our nasal passages. This is called orthonasal smell. But a second source of the smells we recognize comes from the back of the mouth. When we chew bread, meat, and other foods, the chewing releases molecules on our tongue surface and into the back of our nasal passages, and the resulting smell contributes significantly to the flavor we experience.

"This is called retronasal smell. Unlike simple tastes, which are hardwired from birth, our responses to retronasal smells are learned. This is what accounts for individual preferences. Since eating things with noxious smells and tastes can kill animals and people if they are not detected rapidly, our taste and smell receptors, which warn us of noxious substances, send both taste responses and the two kinds of smell responses directly to the highest cortical centers of our brains without passing through any intermediary cortical areas. Visual, auditory, and touch stimuli, although important in warning of danger in the environment, take a slower path, and go first through a central relay station in the brain, called the thalamus, before arriving in the higher centers of the brain, such as the cortex."

Foxall here again... Of course, alcohol and other compounds in wine are volatile, meaning they are more available as air-borne compounds, so they are quick to be carried into our nasal passages, and to carry other aromas with them.

One of the most interesting things in the article is the role unexpected senses like sight play in our perception of flavor: 

"Similarly, in a famous experiment from 2001, wine tasters used very different terms to describe the flavor of a red wine as opposed to a white wine. The experimenters then colored the white wine with a tasteless red dye. When the tasters were then asked to describe the result, a panel of fifty-four undergraduates enrolled in the Faculty of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux—all of whom had much experience in tasting wine—described the artificially colored wine using the same terms they had previously used to describe the true red wine."

So now I guess double blind means with an actual blindfold on.  (And adding new meaning to the term "gettling blind drunk.") Take that, Bordeaux-trained enologists!

The book's description of wine tasting is really on the mark: "All wine descriptive language is in fact organized around wine types…. What a wine taster does in front of a wine is not an analysis of its separate sensory properties but a comparison of all the cognitive associations he or she has from the wine (color, initial aroma, and taste) with the impressions he or she has already experienced when tasting other wines." Which is why your beginning wine drinker feels frustrated at not tasting that tar, leather, forest floor, what have you.  Probably some of Parker's (alleged) ability to name Bordeaux by maker and year stems at least in part from the intensity of his initial experiences in the region... experiences that he did not have in Burgundy, for what that's worth. (There, that prevents hijacking the thread into a rant about Parkerization--I've already done it!) So if you had YellowTail with the hottest date of your life, I don't blame you for thinking it tastes great.

I doubt Neurogastronomy  is going to rise to the list of must-haves for wine lovers, even for wine geeks, but the review and the book answer a lot of questions and put wine tasting on a higher plane of cerebral activity than one might imagine.  I found a little something to explain my own tendency not to buy cases of wine in this passage:

"We can rapidly become accustomed to tastes, and our desire to continue eating, say, chocolate cake or raspberry ice cream can accordingly rapidly diminish. Producers of fast foods are well aware of the need for new tastes, and therefore they often change the flavors of the foods they sell to the public."


Reply by dmcker, Jun 4, 2012.

"the last word on flavor"

I doubt it.

Great post, Fox, and plenty to discuss. Unfortunately no time to dive in on a workday over here. I'll look forward to reading the others who do....

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 4, 2012.

Yeah, when is it the last word about anything around here? 

Reply by Terence Pang, Jun 4, 2012.

Thanks for this post Foxall, as a neuroscientist who does alcohol-emotionality research, this will be a fascinating read. I need to hunt this book down!

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 4, 2012.

Too cool! and what were the odds of that!

Reply by dmcker, Jun 4, 2012.

"Yeah, when is it the last word about anything around here?"

So is that something the wife says?   ;-)  ;-)


"So now I guess double blind means with an actual blindfold on."

Read the first paragraph of my first post here.  ;-)


Sorry, still don't have real time to properly discuss (too many product planning skype conferences, one after the other), but couldn't resist sniping away.  A pleasant interlude, sniping on Snooth...

Reply by EMark, Jun 5, 2012.

Excellent, Fox.

Quite a bit of information for my handicapped brain to absorb, but it is definitely very interesting.

One thing that struck me from a personal view is that I know that I have very poor sensory memory.  I might be able to remember a great wine that I had in 1994, but I really do not remember the characteristics of that Franus Cab.  On the other hand, I do remember the circumstances of the event, and, surely, that enhances my memory.  I feel I am not alone.  My guess is that very few (there might be some are some but maybe not) have good sensory memories.  That is why many wine tasters take notes and refer back to them.  I, generally, do not take notes, and that is one reason why I have the difficulty.  

Reply by shsim, Jun 5, 2012.

Great job Foxall! On my to read list.

Hmm I agree with you EMark, I have plenty of trouble remembering but I do take my time to take notes. It is fun to taste wines you had before and compare new notes with previous notes. A good test on consistency.



Reply by GregT, Jun 5, 2012.

Nice job Fox. I think he's right on in that we create the taste maps in our heads and a lot of it is based on our experiences. As a child, my grandparents would send us a kind of incense at Christmas from East Germany.  I've never smelled it since but when I taste certain wines from Saumur, or less frequently the Rhone, they remind me of that smell and they appeal to me immensely because of it.

And surely Parker's ability to tell one wine from another has to do with familiarity - I think we've all experienced that. It is exactly why people who have little experience can be frustrated or confused, but once they've created enough of a base memory, they'll more easily be able to remember a particular wine or another.

I disagree about the conclusion regarding familiarity leading to a decreased desire to eat something.  In fact, I think that's dead wrong. We're on a wine board for God's sake! Does anyone have an inclination to drink LESS? 

I think the better explanation is that most fast food just isn't very good anyway and people who eat it tend to followers of fashion. It's the salt, fat and sugar that primarily lures people and those are mostly in the sauces and condiments. One fish sandwich is the same as another and they're not really all that different from the chicken or even the burgers. So adding cumin makes them seem really different, and next year adding anise makes them seem brand new again, and as such, they'll attract a few curious buyers, but the fiasco with New Coke and the unchanged-since-its-creation MacDonald's hamburger argue convincingly against the writer's conclusion. 

Still, it's a pretty interesting post and one of the few I've ever seen anywhere that actually makes me interested in going out and purchasing the book.  Nice work!

Reply by Craig Bilodeau, Jun 5, 2012.

Great post!  I'm with Emark, I don't take notes.  Too much work.  I drink wine SOLEY for the enjoyment, and I don't enjoy taking notes.  :-)

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 5, 2012.

GregT: We may drink wine, but we drink a lot of different wines from different vintages.  Novelty is a big part of what we do, and we often comment that one thing we enjoy about wine is that even the same wine tastes different as the night goes on, as the years go by, and as we drink it with different foods.

I don't take notes as I drink, but I have a fairly intense sense memory and can recall things later.  I have a "3-D" memory (there's a technical description I won't get into) that is helpful for wine, bad if you have PTSD.   It can lead to very specific kinds of recollections that involve sounds, smells, and sights.  As I get older, it's harder to access, which I assume is a result of dying neurons and just the limit on how much the brain can store.  But what's been cool is how my ability to "taste" something that I see has increased.  Except when I'm eating something else and the taste of the thing I look at is disgusting when paired with it.  I think most chefs have a variant of this ability that allows them to create new recipes.  In any case, I work with a lot of people whose brains aren't wired quite right, most of them schizophrenics or schizoaffective, and I am endlessly fascinated by what we have learned in the last few years about perception and the brain.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 5, 2012.

BTW, Greg, I love the story about the incense from E. Germany.  Next time I'm in NY, I want to hear the whole story.  You're on my speed dial, so expect a call.

Reply by Terence Pang, Jun 5, 2012.

Foxall, there was an interesting paper published by Kamath et al in Schizophrenia Research this year that suggested olfactory deficits in youths with prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia. I wonder whether taste perception is also altered in this patient group?

Reply by Lucha Vino, Jun 5, 2012.

Here is a link to a recent interview I read with a family member from Castillo de Feliciano that describes how sense of smell and memory played a part in naming their winery.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 6, 2012.

Terence, I'm in over my head, but it makes sense that people whose sense of the outside world is impaired would fill their minds with the kinds of vivid delusions that schizophrenics suffer.

LV, no doubt that a strong sense memory would make one love wine and want to get into the business.  Definitely not a rational decision. Or, at least, not a profitable one.

Reply by Terence Pang, Jun 6, 2012.

Couldn't resist and did a bit of searching of the scientific literature. There is some evidence of olfactory hallucinations in schizophrenia although it is acknowledged that self-reporting by this group needs to be cautiously interpreted (Langdon R, 2011). But thus far, I haven't come across anything indicating a taste perception difference. Maybe taste (as indicated in the contents of your original post) is such a individualistic entity that it is impossible to quantify.

Reply by JonDerry, Jun 6, 2012.

I've experienced both sides regarding getting used to a certain taste, then losing desire for it. There's definitely validity to what GT says about fast food delivering salt, fat, and sugar, especially with the gigantic fountain drinks they serve. Can also remember buying my famous 1999 Rodney Strong Cabernet by the case...drank them all up in less than a year and they were all very satisfying.

Alternatively, I think that many of us types love exploring wine, and we know that we'll never be able to taste all of the wine out there, so covering the same ground over and over is unappealing, especially if the wine isn't especially profound or complex. Good wine or food sometimes has an element of surprise that comes along with it if our expectations were low enough going in, and this of course would dissipate with repitition. It's also hard for me to dismiss the basic point of becoming accustomed to tastes resulting in loss of desire.

That 2001 experiment with the red dye is really a classic, someone told me about that who wasn't very much in to wine at all a couple years ago.

Reply by Anna Savino, Jun 6, 2012.

Thanks for such an interesting post. I am still trying to get that retronasal smelling down but I think the psychological aspect is so interesting in determining the flavors. I will definitely check this book out. 

I am just starting out and wanted to buy the aroma kit to learn how to better identify smells but a dear friend of mine told me not to waste my money and just SMELL everything around me! The other day on my italian hillside walk, I closed my eyes and focused on the smells around me like wildflowers, muddy water, bakeries, hot asphalt..etc. I think if we all just pay more attention to smells around us we can come up with some pretty wild wine descriptions!

Thanks for starting such a great topic!


Reply by Eric Guido, Jun 6, 2012.

This is an excellent post.  I agree 100% about the past experiences of your life.  More reason to find a wine-reviewer that has a similar palate to your own.  Certain things bring me instant gratification in a wine because they are dear to me.  I also tend to judge each kind of wine by the best example that I have had of that wine.  For intense, a 2004 Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto, which blew my mind, is still my benchmark for Dolcetto.  What it smelled like, is what I want Dolcetto to smell like and the same for the taste.  My biggest problem has always been that I smell odd foods and ingredients in wine that I often leave out of my descriptions.  I feel I'm not helping anyone if I'm listing a bunch of smells and flavors that the majority of wine drinkers won't recognize.


Anna, that's great advise from your friend.  I've made a habit of doing this for over 7 years now and it greatly improves your sense of smell (not just with wine).  You'll find yourself walking into rooms and being able to smell the powdered sugar in the air from a doughnut someone ate a half our ago.

Reply by Eric Guido, Jun 6, 2012.

PS: I've read about the Red and white blind fold comparison.  I'd love to do this with a blind group one day.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jun 6, 2012.

I'm going to check Amazon and see if sales of the book are up.  Or, for that matter, subscriptions to the NY Review.

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