I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine by Jamie Goode
University of California Press (2016)
Little did I know that over the last forty years my wine career was merely an edited and incomplete version of reality—but
thanks to a phenomenon known as Higher-order Brain Processing—my curated reality was still sufficient to call upon my fully integrated five modalities of sense to perceive, to one degree or another, the myriad aromas and flavors in a glass of wine. And to pass judgment on that wine in a stylized, subjective (and probably verbose) way to boot.
It’s not often that I sit around with a textbook in my hands, mostly because of the inadequacies I feel when I read one, but I Taste Red is as close to post-graduate discourse as you can get. The author, Jamie Goode, is a noted wine blogger, contributor to specialist wine publications and much sought after speaker at wine conferences, tastings and special events. In a former life he earned a PhD in plant biology and is the author of the acclaimed book Wine Science (2006).
In his Introduction to I Taste Red he explains:
“I am attempting to use wine as a way of exploring the way in which we perceive the world around us. This requires the combination of several disciplines, each of which provides a different lens for us to explore this intellectually stimulating subject. We will be dipping into the worlds of physiology, psychology, neuroscience and philosophy.”
And so he does. Happily he takes us with him.
I Taste Red is at its heart a summation of the best scientific work related to our understanding of the brain, its connection to our senses and the sensations derived therefrom, with particular emphasis on the “chemical” senses of taste and smell. His scientific expertise serves him well as our guide through some fairly deep waters.
He mercifully spares us from the numerous citations inherent in a scientific work but includes the relevant research in a bibliography at the end of the book. He speaks comfortably in the language of science but keeps the narrative moving with appropriate “in other words” explications, never diving headlong into scientific jargon and thus sparing us its numbing effects.
He strives to present the best science available and if there is a lack of consensus on a topic he says so and presents the most credible postulation available. For instance, it is generally accepted that the brain is predictive and uses a model of the environment supplied by the five senses to navigate through a lot of extraneous information. As long as the perception conforms to the established model the brain is free to ignore all irrelevant data in order to focus on the task at hand. Once an anomaly or “error code” appears—a speeding car approaching from the side for instance—the brain refocuses its attention away from the task at hand and onto the anomaly.
Goode proposes that the modeling ability of the brain can be extrapolated to the wine tasting environment. A given wine, sauvignon blanc for example, conforms to a prototype or model fixed by the taster’s sensorial experience and as long as the wine conforms to the object model a template of descriptors is readily at hand. Wine tasting by default so to speak. But when there is an anomaly present, American oak for instance, the brain is alerted and focuses on this new, outside the template, sensation.
This is of course a simplification of the very dense subject matter at hand but it is illustrative of the give and take and thoroughly thought out analysis of the relevant science. And a lot of science is covered.
For instance, the book’s title, I Taste Red, is a nod to the complex phenomenon of synesthesia, a confusion of the senses, as well as to the act of tasting red wine. The physiology of our tasting mechanism—olfactory receptors and taste buds among them—are analyzed, mapped out and brought to life via subtle clues, myriad odorants and even genetic and cultural predispositions. The brain is studied and unsurprisingly discovered to be the Aggregator General and filter for all sensorial data. A taste memory is formed from sensory experience from which we draw conclusions and assumptions about what we are tasting. Philosophical discussions invoke the name of David Hume, the 18th century British philosopher and others, to debate the conundrum of whether wine criticism can ever be objective. Not likely.
Then there are the strictly wine tasting issues to deal with. Among them: astringency, or the effect of saliva depletion from excess tannin, causing palate fatigue and possibly impaired judgment; or palate sensitivity issues which can be mitigated by proper hydration, time management and the cross tasting of disparate wines in shorter segments; or the phenomenon of desensitization to a particular wine aroma where the same smell becomes integrated over time; and finally its cousin, cross-adaptation, or confusing the wine you are smelling with an extraneous odor. All of these issues and more are studied from the viewpoint of multimodal sensory experience. A veritable wealth of nerdy arcanum.
However, it’s not all heady stuff. There are answers to some simple, mundane nuggets I’ve wondered about at wine tastings but was afraid to ask for fear of ejection. Like: What are those stringy red clumps in the spit bucket after expectorating the latest Clos de la Roche? Apparently, they are coagulated tannins bound to the proteins in saliva. Voila! Who knew?
And: What is the best substance for clearing the palate after repetitive tasting? Water is OK but unsalted crackers are better. However, neither is perfect. The best remedy is rest and shorter sample sets.
Mr. Goode is a comfortable writer, he is an expert blogger (I am addicted to his site), a popular social media presence, a regular at all the important trade tastings and a frequent traveler. His wine notes are concise and pithy and his observations are sometimes controversial. But I Taste Red is none of these things. It is above all a serious work that broaches several complex disciplines clear-headedly and confidently. He shares his knowledge easily and gracefully. In the end my earlier comment about not reading textbooks was a bit tongue in cheek. I fully expect I Taste Red to be required reading in all of the disciplines mentioned but especially in wine tasting circles where there is simply nothing else like it. It’s by no means an easy read but it is a satisfying one with lots of thought provoking science and just enough down-to-earth, practical advice. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is: I’m ready to taste some wine.