Making wine is a bit disreputable. People give up respectable jobs with six-figure incomes to root around in vineyards in the morning and clean out barrels in the afternoon, all to make a beverage that most people treat as an alcohol delivery system. Serving and selling wine is even more disreputable. Somms spend years memorizing wine facts just so they can listen to ignorant, unruly customers rant, and for wages that would disappoint an Uber driver. Wine writers are of course the most disreputable since we mostly work for free writing stuff than no one reads. Oh, and all of us in the wine trade are accused of being snobs so we have to tip-toe around social situations hiding our obsession while pretending to be interested in football or film.
The saving grace? We all get to taste wine. And that just makes us smarter, according to neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd:
From the first sight of the wine bottle to manipulating the wine in your mouth and then swallowing it, there is a ‘tremendous range of sensory, motor and central brain systems involved in a wine tasting’, says Yale neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd.
Taken all together, these processes involve more brain activity than listening to music or solving a complicated maths problem, he argues in his book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine….Molecules in the wine stimulate thousands of taste and odour receptors, according to a report on Shepherd’s book on the NPR website, ‘sending a flavour signal to the brain that triggers massive cognitive computation involving pattern recognition, memory, value judgement, emotion and pleasure’.
Unlike a maths problem – which requires a limited amount of brain activity – assessing wine engages multiple sensory systems, including seeing, smelling and tasting.
Shepherd’s findings come after a study was reported last September in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal, arguing that Master Sommeliers require so much mental agility to make the grade that the sensory part of their brains becomes physically thicker.
I wish I had taken up wine tasting before going to graduate school. Perhaps I would have solved the hard problem of consciousness or the problem of moral knowledge by now.
Mr. Shepherd, by the way, does appear to be quite smart: He knows how to flatter his audience.