Wine is Complicated. Maybe That’s a Good Thing.

wine examRecent data suggests wine sales are leveling off while beer sales, especially in the craft beer segment of the market, continue to grow. This news has prompted the occasional comment that perhaps wine is too complex for people to appreciate compared to beer. These conversations reminded me of an old column by NY Times wine writer Eric Asimov comparing beer and wine consumers.

“Beer consumers are a far more confident lot than wine consumers. They’re at ease with beer, mostly because they’ve had a solid grounding in their subject, unlike wine consumers who’ve been brainwashed into believing they must be educated or taught how to “appreciate” wine before they can enjoy it.”

Matt Kramer, in the Wine Spectator Online, took exception to Azimov’s claim wondering why wine drinkers feel they must apologize for their intellectual approach.

Wine lovers have nothing to apologize for. You don’t see music lovers apologizing for suggesting that perhaps you might better understand a concert or even a song if you spend a little time learning about music. You sure as hell don’t see art lovers apologizing for the seeming incomprehensibility of so much of contemporary art. If we don’t get it, we’re unashamedly told, the fault is ours for not bringing enough context to what we’re viewing.

Asimov claims that beer drinkers gain all the knowledge they need by knocking back brews with little education about what’s in the glass. But Azimov’s observation implicitly contains the explanation for why beer drinkers glibly guzzle while wine drinkers studiously sip. If beer drinkers can fully appreciate beer with little study or thought, it must be because beer is less complex than wine.

It is true that you can become a savvy beer consumer with knowledge of just a few facts. Once you learn to distinguish ales from lagers, note a few color gradations indicating malt flavor,  and you become familiar with German, Belgium,  English, and American styles, you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle. There is of course a bit more to it than that—unconventional yeasts or aging programs are gaining in popularity–but the basics  of beer are relatively simple.

Truth be told, I know beer drinkers whose approach to beer is every bit as intellectual as the most committed wine nerd, just as there are wine lovers who don’t know Napa from Naples. But Azimov’s rant ignores the empirical data that suggests that what we taste is in part dependent on how we think. Tastes are cognitively penetrable. It may be that the need for knowledge in order to understand wine  makes wine much more satisfying because knowledge enables us to pick out more components of the wine.

The properties a wine appears to have will depend on how it is categorized and that requires knowledge of varietals and wine regions. Someone familiar with Pinot Noir from California’s Santa Lucia Highlands—intense, concentrated, and alcoholic—will likely think many Oregon pinots austere and thin. But when compared to some of the lighter offerings from Burgundy, the Oregon Pinot will seem robust.

Wine science writer Jamie Goode described an experiment conducted by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College:

In this test Pepsi was pitted against Coke blind, with subjects not knowing which was which. They invariably preferred the taste of Pepsi, but this wasn’t reflected in their buying decisions. Montague wanted to know why. So he re-enacted the Pepsi challenge with volunteers. The difference was that this time their brain activity was being scanned by an MRI machine. On average, Pepsi produced a stronger response in the ventral putamen, a region thought to process reward. In people who preferred Pepsi, the putamen was five times as active when they drunk Pepsi than it was in Coke-preferring subjects drinking Coke.

In a clever twist, Montague repeated the experiments, this time telling subjects what they were drinking. Remarkably, most of them now preferred Coke. The brain activity also changed, with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region that shapes high-level cognitive powers. The subjects were allowing what they knew about Coke – its brand image – to shape their preferences.

The implications for winetasting are clear. What we know about wine will mold how we perceive the wine, and will even shape how much we enjoy a particular bottle. Here is a similar experiment using wine in which experimenters showed the most effective way of training subjects to recognize features of a wine was through conceptual learning, which involves explaining how the wine is produced and discussions of wine varietals.

It may be that by not studying beer beyond a superficial level, beer drinkers are missing out on the subtleties of flavor. It is wine’s conceptual complexity—the endless flow of information about wine regions and production methods– that allows the subtle discrimination of flavor that make wine enjoyable.

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