Does Wine Knowledge Make Wine Taste Better?

bordeaux-wine-region-map-770x536 Does knowledge improve your ability to enjoy wine? Obviously it does if you get enjoyment from knowing about wine regions and varieties. But do you actually taste wine differently having acquired that knowledge? Does it help you experience more flavors or textures in the wine than you might have without the knowledge? In other words, does knowledge improve taste sensations?

Some writers claim it does not. Philosopher Kent Bach writes:

Does discrimination require cultivation? Take the case of colours. If your colour vision is normal, you can, believe it or not, discriminate something on the order of ten million different colours, and without any special training. You can see the colour you’re looking at just by looking at it, and you can see that it looks a little different from very similar ones that are presented to you. You don’t have to do anything special—you just have to look…. So why should flavours, wine flavours in particular, be any different? Being able to describe a wine is a nice ability to have, but do you need it to taste the wine? Being able to explain what it is about a wine that you like is nice too, but you don’t need to do that to like the wine.

According to Bach, the only difference between a wine expert and a novice is the ability to describe and explain. As far as taste goes, the wine expert and the novice taste the same thing.

I think this is quite mistaken, in part, because it contradicts my own experience, which I suspect is no different than that of other wine lovers. When I first started drinking wine, I tasted a pleasing, generically “grapey taste” with some acidity and astringency, but that was about it. And I was puzzled when reading tasting notes that suggested I should be tasting ripe pears and peaches with hints of lychee nectar and orange zest lightly kissed by traces of clove. I just could not taste them. As I learned more about what to expect in a wine, I began to taste more of those characteristics of which I had been formerly unaware. It seems as if my knowledge of what to expect was helping me to taste flavors I could not taste before I had acquired the knowledge.

But of course my subjective ruminations on this matter might be mistaken. It would be nice to have an argument. And my argument is that Bach is wrong about color perception and thus we have no reason to accept his views on taste.

The issue is not our basic capacity to see color or taste/smell flavors. Our basic ability to detect light in a particular portion of the spectrum and the thresholds above which our taste and olfactory mechanisms are sensitive to certain chemicals are largely fixed by biology. Although we may be able to modify these to some degree, I doubt that our ability to improve discrimination is best explained by modifications of genetically-programmed thresholds. Rather, what is at issue is what we attend to and how that influences the mind’s ability to process information received by sense organs.

I doubt that my ability to discriminate fine gradations of color is as acute as that of painter or someone in the business of designing color schemes. This is because they have more knowledge of color and more experience at recognition than I do. Their knowledge and experience improves their powers of discrimination. It isn’t that I don’t have the capacity to see the colors; the problem is I don’t notice subtle gradations because I don’t know what to look for. It is a matter not of seeing but of noticing or attending.

Although it is easy to distinguish primary colors or colors that fall in the center of our color categories, most objects display colors that involve subtle mixtures that differ in hue, saturation, and intensity.

Being untrained in color perception I will see a red object as simply red, despite the fact it is red with subtle blue undertones. Unless the color in question is well along the blue side of the color wheel, I won’t see the influence of blue and thus may not notice a difference at all.  The problem is not that my visual system won’t register the influence of blue. Neither is the problem that I cannot name the color correctly. The problem is that I won’t recognize the red/blue swatch as differing from standard red without both knowledge and experience. If I don’t know to look for hints of blue I just won’t attend to them. Even if two color swatches, one red and one red with very subtle blue undertones, were side by side I may not detect a difference unless I know that one of the swatches contains some blue mixed into the color scheme.

Difficulties in color discrimination are compounded when tinting and shading are considered as well. Only knowledge and experience will allow me to distinguish red with blue undertones from red that has been shaded with black. Again the problem is not that I cannot see the color. The problem is that I may not notice a difference. It will not stand out without training.

And finally context plays a role as well. A green background will make an object appear more red, a blue background will make it appear more yellow, etc. Without knowledge such differences will go unnoticed. And I doubt that non-experts can distinguish subtle changes in saturation from changes in lightness without training either.

There is in fact empirical evidence that knowledge and linguistic competence influences color discrimination. Experiments by Özgen and Davies suggest that children improve their ability to discriminate color through training, especially when the training includes attention to category boundaries. In describing their hypothesis, they argue:

During this process, more attention to boundary regions than category centers will be required to work out where the boundaries are. This differential exposure should enhance discriminability for boundary regions relative to central regions and gradually produce acquired distinctiveness between adjacent categories and possibly acquired equivalence within categories. And, of course, as the number of categories and the location of category boundaries vary across languages (Berlin & Kay, 1969), so should the locations of heightened or reduced sensitivity vary.

In addition to supporting the claim that color perception is improved through training, this research supplies important clues to how taste discrimination can be improved. In learning to identify, for instance, the taste of clove in a wine, we don’t aim directly at clove. But first try to find a boundary where fruit flavors seem to shade off into something else we can’t quite identify—a boundary. In other words we try to discover a difference in what appeared before to be homogeneous. Once we are able to identify that difference as a vaguely “spicy” flavor we then exclude possibilities by ruling out pepper, thyme, cinnamon, etc., again by recognizing differences until we settle on clove.

No doubt our visual mechanisms are more sensitive and more powerful than our ability to discriminate taste and aroma. But I doubt that either are insulated from the influence of cognition and language.

Does this mean that to enjoy wine you must be able to cite all the Grand Crus of Burgundy. No. But if you enjoy wine you will enjoy it a lot more having gained some knowledge of grape varieties and, where appropriate, the influence of climate and geography on taste.

8 comments

  1. Hi Dwight:
    It’s important to notice that Bach’s claim wrt color is about color *discrimination*. It’s not about category formation/retention, or about color memory, color categorization, etc. And the standard interpretation of the discrimination results does seem to support Bach’s claim qua thesis about pairwise discriminability. (For an interesting challenge to the standard interpretation of the results, however, cf. Papineau’s “Can We Really See A Million Colours?”, which he’ll give at the Pacific APA this year.)

    The effects you point to from your own experience in challenging Bach on color (attentional mediation by knowing what to look for) are presumably driven by categories, so don’t obviously speak to what he was claiming. Likewise, the Özgen and Davies results are about the formation and deployment of color categories rather than discrimination per se.

    Your kinds of considerations might suggest that discrimination (in the narrow sense) is relatively unimportant to our overall appreciation of wine. But I don’t think they show that Bach is wrong about discrimination itself.

    (For what it’s worth, I would add that, in conversation, Bach has been completely open to the idea that there are cognitive/attentional/categorical influences on our appreciation of wine. I doubt he would disagree with you about these matters.)

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    I agree that Bach is discussing discrimination. But the phenomenology suggests that category formation and the resulting attentional focus influence discrimination. It is not as if when I started drinking wine I was experiencing lots of flavors but just did not know the category in which they belonged. I wasn’t experiencing the flavors. Perhaps there is a kind of training of the capacity for discrimination that is concurrent with the development of wine knowledge but is independent of it. But the more plausible explanation is that wine knowledge influences discrimination.

    I’m not really competent to assess the neuroscience on these issues; it is very early on in its development in any case. But I would not be surprised that we find there are feedback mechanisms whereby categorization influences discrimination.

    It seems to me Bach is marking a distinction between intellectual pleasure and sensual pleasure. And he is arguing that while wine knowledge might provide the former, it is powerless to increase the latter. If that is indeed his view, then it seems to be a denial of my claim that wine knowledge can influence sensual pleasure, at least with regard to experiencing the complexity of wine flavors and aromas.

    1. You say that phenomenology suggests you weren’t “experiencing lots of flavors but just did not know the category in which they belonged”. I doubt introspective phenomenology by itself can be expected to tell you whether you were (i) capable of discriminating the flavors but not recognizing/categorizing them as such, or (ii) not capable of discriminating the flavors. The standard psychophysical methods for assessing discriminative capacity is just to get Ss to make pairwise matches.

      I know more about the color discrimination case than the wine/flavor discrimination case, and perhaps there are relevant disanalogies. But so far as I am aware, the research on pairwise discrimination for color does NOT reveal mediation by categorical info. E.g., artists, designers, and color scientists don’t perform better on pairwise discrimination tasks for color. Similarly, you don’t get an advantage at such discrimination tasks merely by speaking a language that lexicalizes more color categories. Whereas greater lexical resources does help with tasks that draw on categorization, such as color memory tasks.

      If that’s right, and if we want to say something analogous about flavor perception in wine (that’s a big if that, as you pointed out, Bach takes on without a lot of argument), then the straightforward story was that when you started to drink wine you perceptually encountered the flavors, and that you could even discriminate the flavors, but that the sensory array was so rich that you didn’t encode or conceptualize a lot of what you were discriminating. Or so it seems to me.

      (I’m not saying that that straightforward story has to be right — just pointing out how I think it goes, and what the empirical work on discrimination does and doesn’t seem to show.)

      1. Jonathan,

        Thanks for that. Your comment does clarify matters. It seems to me that the task of having subjects engage in pairwise discrimination is accomplishing roughly what education does–directing attentional focus. The issue then is not discrimination but learning to make sense of what is discriminated.

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