I’m still musing about how knowledge—of wine, cheese, landscapes, whatever—can influence our perceptions. In a previous post I wondered whether philosopher Kent Bach is right to argue that novice tasters and knowledgeable tasters have essentially the same sensory experience:
They may be in no position to know anything about the grape(s), the region and the vineyard, the producer, and the vintage, they may have no basis for comparing this great wine with similar but merely very good wines, and they may be unable to articulate what particular aromas and flavours they are experiencing or have any notion of what experienced tasters mean by balance, structure, and elegance of a great wine. Even so, it is not obvious that this wine does not taste as wonderful to them as it does to the expert. They may not be equipped to enjoy the cognitive pleasures that accompany tasting it, but that’s not to say they aren’t fully equipped to experience the sensory pleasure inherent in attentively drinking it.
My objection to Bach is that his account doesn’t explain my own experience as a novice taster. It wasn’t that I lacked the conceptual categories or language to talk about the flavors more experienced tasters detected. I wasn’t experiencing the flavor notes at all until I gained more knowledge of what to expect from particular wines. Or at least that is the way it seemed phenomenologically.
But as Jonathan Cohen pointed out in his helpful comments on the previous post, there is substantial evidence that, with regard to vision, which has been studied more extensively than taste, knowledge of categories and linguistic descriptors has no effect on test subjects’ ability to discriminate differences between color swatches when shown side-by-side. And although taste and aroma perception may differ from color vision in this regard, there may be no good reason to think so.
Assuming the science on vision is correct and can be extended to flavor discrimination, what would account for my subjective perception that knowledge of categories and wine descriptors has improved my ability to taste? Offhand, I can think of two hypotheses that would explain it.
(1) Improved ability to discriminate flavors happened concurrently but independently of the acquisition of knowledge. I have in mind some form of training that doesn’t require conceptualization analogous to learning to ride a bicycle.
(2) The acquisition of wine knowledge encouraged me to focus on detectable features of the wine I hadn’t noticed before.
I suppose (1) is plausible although I don’t know what the mechanism for such learning would be. But (2) strikes me as plausible as well for the following reason.
The overwhelmingly dominant flavor in wine is, unsurprisingly, a kind of generic “grapeness”. That is what novice wine tasters taste predominately, along with alcohol, acidity, and the tactile sensations of tannin in red wine. The signal to the brain coming from the taste buds and olfactory sensors indicating “grapeness” must be quite strong. My hypothesis (which was suggested by Jonathan’s comment) is that learning to discern the full aroma and flavor spectrum of a wine involves suppressing the strength of that signal so that other flavors can be more easily noted.
In other words, novice tasters are overwhelmed by the dominant flavors and can learn to taste only by learning to ignore them.
That is the role of wine knowledge. The expectation that I should expect to detect vanilla in some oaked Cabernets gets me to focus on the boundaries of the generic “grapeness” where it appears to shade off into something else only vaguely sensed. That focus has the effect of suppressing the strength of the signal signifying “grapeness” and perhaps amplifying the signal from other flavors and aromas, patterns of suppression and amplification that get reinforced with practice.
Just a hypothesis without evidence. But it would explain how conceptualization shapes sensory experience without modifying the genetically determined detection thresholds that govern what we taste and smell.
Wine knowledge, then, while strictly speaking not necessary for learning to taste well, is enormously helpful and efficient as a skill-building mechanism. I’m not sure whether Bach would find this congenial to his view or not. But it seems to me, on this hypothesis, conceptual knowledge is directly impacting phenomenological sensory discrimination thus belying any hard and fast distinction between intellectual and sensory pleasure.