Wine in Context: Wine Vision Probes the Sensory Experience

Sue and I are in the Valpolicella region today investigating the wine and wine tourist industries and trying to understand the challenges and opportunities the Veneto will confront in the future. Look for our reports in the coming weeks.

Context-Sensitive Experiences

In the meantime I have been giving some thought to how context shapes our perception of wine (one of the topics that I examine in my next book — working title Money, Taste and Wine: A Complicated Relationship).  The way we experience wine depends upon the physical and emotional setting, the food, wine and other products that are involved and the information that we have about the wine’s story and its price. Change any one of these elements you change the wine!

If context matters in wine — and I am quite sure it does since it matters in most aspects of the human experience — then it seems to me that it makes a difference not only in terms of how we actually taste wine when we drink it but also how it is priced, marketed, served and even how we think about critic ratings.  Context-sensitivity isn’t just about those menus that pop up when you right click in Windows,  it at the heart of the wine world.

I was pleased to see that context will be on the agenda at Wine Vision 2014, the CEO-level wine industry conference that is set for London in November. It’s a small part of my talk which will focus on shifting market forces and, somewhat surprisingly, the central element of what you might call the “social program” — the after-hours events that are typically devoted to sip and swirly, grip and grin.

Beyond Taste: Drinking with All Your Senses

The first night’s social program includes a presentation and multi-sensory experience organized by Prof Barry C. Smith, Founding Director, Centre for the Study of the Senses, University of London and Prof Charles Spence, Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory, Oxford University Here’s what the online program has to say.

Bring an open mind and all of your senses for a multi-sensory experience that goes beyond taste to investigate how our perception of wine is affected by what we see, smell, hear and feel. Professors Spence and Smith, experts in the field of multisensory flavour and marketing, will take us on a wine-fuelled tour of the human senses, showing how each contributes to our enjoyment and appreciation of wine. Along the way you’ll be invited to use all your senses to experience some very fine wines – and to understand the neuroscience and philosophy that determine exactly why you perceive them in quite the way that you do. You can expect to find answers to questions you’ve hardly dared to ask including:

  • Does everybody taste wine the same way I do?
  • Is wine tasting purely subjective, or are there objective measures of ‘good’?
  • Where does smell stop and taste begin?
  • Can mood music, lighting, and ambience alter the taste of a wine?
  • What do the results of blind taste tests really mean?
  • And what wines should I drink when I’m flying?

Expect to have your perceptions enhanced and your mind altered as we investigate the world of ‘gastrophysics’ – the study of how psychology, cognitive neuroscience and multi-sensory design can help us market wine in new ways to experience-hungry modern consumers.

I think you can see that each of the topics suggested here matters not just for the consumer of wine but also for those of us in the business of making and selling it. My next book includes a section on the particular problems of making and choosing wine for air travel, for example, where the context is out of the ordinary in almost every possible way. Since airline sales are a good wine market, much attention has already been devoted to this sensory context. Maybe more attention should be given to other unusual wine environments?

Wine and Chocolate

The second night’s social program features a presentation by Dominique Persoone, founder of The Chocolate Line. I have a special interest in chocolate, but it’s not what you think. I am hypersensitive to the sugar/caffeine mix in chocolate and can only tolerate it in tiny amounts. So eating chocolate is not on my agenda.

But I have used chocolate for several years to teach students how to think about taste and how to describe what they are tasting — but without tasting wine or consuming alcohol. I start by tasting Hershey’s Milk Chocolate — a taste that everyone knows and most people like. Then we slowly move up the scale to higher and higher cocoa percentages. One year we maxed out at 95% cocoa, well past the 70% level that serious chocolate tasters deem the beginning of real chocolate.  Tasters quickly realize that Hershey’s doesn’t taste much like chocolate — it is more caramel because the milk and sugar dominate over the chocolate flavor.

Tasting all these different chocolates teaches many things that are useful to someone learning about wine. First, all chocolate (and wine) isn’t the same and what your friend enjoys most may not be to your taste. So you have permission to have your own opinion. There is even a chocolate flavor wheel much like the Ann Noble’s famous wine aroma wheel, so we learn how to find words to describe what we taste.

I once asked my class what the take home message was and someone said it best. It’s about balance, professor. Wine and chocolate are complicated and each of us has to find the balance we like best. Having tasted chocolate in this way, they were ready to take on wine and visitors to my student tastings have always been surprised by how much the students were willing to think independently about their experiences whereas more seasoned adult tasting groups sometimes struggle to guess the “right answer.”

Chocolate: A Whole New World

“Chocolate: A Whole New World” is the title of Persoone’s program. Here’s the agenda:

Dominique Persoone, heralded as the most persistent innovator in the world of chocolate, will introduce you to chocolate like you’ve never tasted before; chocolate you can eat, drink, wear and even inhale. In doing so he’ll challenge us all to think about the sources of innovation – the stimuli that drive us to take a traditional product and create something deliciously, temptingly, even shockingly new. He will touch on the power of food-pairing and the complimentary nature of chocolate and wine.  It’ll be a very hands-on (and lips-on) experience. You’ll get to sample his exquisite chocolates, including his wine chocolates, Chocolate Lipstick, and see the world famous Chocolate Shooter he created especially for The Rolling Stones.

As you can see, Persoone also uses chocolate to think about wine and I’m sure this will be a popular and informative session. I’m looking forward to it, even if I have to take tiny tastes.

I think I’m going to like wine chocolates and Chocolate Lipstick, but I’m not sure what to think about the Chocolate Shooter. When I first saw the name I figured it would be something served in a shot glass like an oyster shooter. Sounded pretty good. But instead it is something that is shot up your nose! Yikes. I wonder how Persoone got the idea that the Rolling Stones would want to snort chocolate? Here’s a brief video to show you what’s involved. Enjoy!

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2 responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    Great though provoking article. May I add the following in to the mix. How does body chemistry effect our overall wine tasting experience? I have had many a blank stare from winemakers, wine judges etc upon asking them this question. Our body chemistry is influenced by our individual diets. Some food groups or diet make the body more alkaline while others make it more acidic. Wines contain varying levels of or combinations of volatile acids, pH and residual sugar.
    I would love to know your thoughts on the matter.

    Kind Regards,
    Jacques

  2. Good one Mike. Look forward to the book. I always have thought that our architecture and mood helped guests who were predisposed to that lifestyle approach and taste our wines at least benevolently. If they also leaned toward our wine style then everything else then magnified their pleasure and desire to connect and enjoy. I think it’s important to note how much we suspend our criticism when we desire to believe. Harley Davidson one of the most magnificent illustrations of this. Best. Colin.

    Sent from my telephone:

    Colin MacPhail Larkmead Vineyards cell: 707 260 4303 off: 707 942 0167

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