by Jamie Goode, author of I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine
I remember when I first became really interested in the perception of wine. I’d finished my PhD and had just begun working as a science editor. The organization I worked for was a scientific charity, and our brief was to select hot topics in biology and medicine, and pull together 25 of the leading experts in the field for a closed meeting so they could discuss their latest work with their peers. Our special focus was on bringing together people working on different sides of the same problem, making the meetings a somewhat multidisciplinary. One of these meetings was on taste and smell, and I listened with interest as the various experts talked about their work.
I’d just started developing an interest in wine. Here I was, listening to scientists talk about taste and smell: surely this was of interest to the wine trade? In particular, one scientist, Linda Bartoshuk, discussed how we might all be living in different taste worlds. She’d been doing some work on individual differences in the perception of a compound called PROP (propythiouracil). One quarter of people simply don’t taste PROP, which other people experience as bitter. Of these tasters, a third, dubbed ‘supertasters’, find PROP extremely bitter.
Another meeting we sponsored further prompted my interest in the perception of wine. It was on higher-order processing in the visual system. Here I learned about the sophisticated way that the brain processes information – electrical signals prompted by light falling on the retina – to create our perception of vision. Before we are consciously aware of the visual scene around us, a lot of editing has taken place. What we ‘see’ isn’t really what is there. It’s a construction of our brain, albeit based on what is out there, extracting the useful information from a mass of data so that we can successfully navigate the world around us.
It’s not just vision that has these pre-conscious editing stages; all our senses are subject to this complex information processing, and they all rely on each other to a degree. I began to realize that the model of wine tasting taught by wine education classes was inadequate: it casts us as measuring devices, when the reality is quite different.
I began a multidisciplinary exploration of wine tasting, interviewing scientists working in neuroscience, psychology, psychophysics and molecular biology. I even began to speak to philosophers: some of them had begun taking an interest in wine tasting because it’s an area where we share our perceptions in words. By the time my first book, Wine Science, was written (2004), I’d gathered enough information to write a chapter on wine and the brain.
But I knew that I’d only just begun to scratch the surface of the science of wine tasting. So I carried on speaking to scientists and reading the scientific literature. The story that began emerging was a fascinating one. This is the story I’ve explored in I Taste Red.