neuroenologyNeuroscientist Gordon Shepherd, author of Neurogastronomy, has a new book out entitled Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine (Columbia University Press, $25). Neurogastronomy was fascinating. I haven’t gotten to the new book yet but Harvey Steiman has a brief interview in which Shepherd makes several interesting points.

Shepherd thinks you have to swallow wine to get a full picture of its flavor and has charts on fluid dynamics in the mouth to back up his contention. Steiman disagrees arguing that

“…my experience as a taster tells me otherwise. I get no difference between how a wine tastes to me from actually swallowing it vs. slurping and bubbling it in my mouth, then spitting it out, so that I can stay (relatively) sober.”

I agree with Steiman here. I haven’t noticed that spitting lessens my perception of aromas.

Shepherd thought for a moment. “As you breathe out, those volatiles can carry from the mouth to the back of the nose. With practice maybe you can train your uvula to be open when tasting, and others can’t.”

Perhaps, but I have no such training and Steiman doesn’t mention any either. I think you have to trust the phenomenology here. If we’re not perceiving differences then there are no perceptible differences. Perhaps  this varies from person to person but the scientific hypothesis  needs to be supplemented with subjective reports.

Secondly, Shepherd argues that human beings are not particularly inept when describing aromas and flavors.

His peers get it wrong, he says, when they claim a poor connection between language and what we smell and taste. Our ability to describe what we taste is no different than describing a painting. “We can describe Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers. They look like sunflowers,” he says. “But it’s almost impossible to describe anything nonrepresentational in words to someone who hasn’t seen it. The same applies to music.

I wholeheartedly agree with this. In reviews of pop and rock albums the bulk of the commentary is about lyrics. Descriptions of the music when they exist are vague and general. The same with paintings. Discussions focus on what the painting is about. Descriptions of formal elements are either general descriptions of patterns of colors and lines or quickly become metaphorical and allusive.

Describing aesthetic experiences is inherently difficult and wine writers are no worse off than anyone else in that regard.