The Senses & the Psychology of Quality, Part II


Non-Sensory Factors and The Psychology of Quality

Non-Sensory Information

It is a common assumption that whether or not we like a wine is determined by its sensory attributes such as taste and aroma. But a wine is loaded with non-sensory stimuli as well, which the brain is processing even before the cork is pulled. Why else does a wine taste great on a Tuscan hillside, in romantic company but when you return home and buy a bottle, you realize it’s a modest Chianti?

This example demonstrates the importance of context. How we respond to a wine is strongly influenced by its context, the term experimental psychologists use to refer to the setting in which we taste a wine. Context is not only the physical surroundings but includes all other stimuli present such as the label, vintage, price, grape variety, ratings, reputation and cork or screw cap. Changes in context (such as tasting a Bordeaux Superior after it’s poured into a bottle labeled Chateau Petrus) do not change the wine’s flavor but will alter how the wine is perceived, what we look for, what we find and therefore how much we like it and even the words we use to describe the wine. The importance of these contextual cues can be readily seen when they are removed, such as in a blind tasting so that only the wine’s sensory characteristics are being evaluated. At times, the emperor has no clothes!

While novices are more likely to be led astray by factors related to context, there are numerous other non-sensory cues, which can influence experts. For example reputation, price and scarcity can have an enormous impact on perceived quality because they activate information stored in memory from prior experience. Which is why in blind tastings lesser-known or less expensive wines frequently beat out cult wines.

Prior Experience—The Past is Prologue

Each of us has learned about wine through our prior experiences. Who we have learned from, the wine regions we’ve visited and the wines we’ve tasted shape our opinions and beliefs. This knowledge is stored in memory and retrieved whenever we taste a wine, or even hear the name mentioned. It is impossible to imagine tasting wine without the use of memory; we are what we remember! Two tasters will inevitably have different information stored in memory and will therefore often interpret the same wine differently.

Cues such as ratings, type of closure (cork, screw cap), vintage and grape variety will activate related information stored in memory and interact with the flavor of the wine. The brain grabs this stored information, combines it with the wine’s sensory data and processes the whole thing as a unit. A mediocre wine can be perceived as interesting if handled by a prestigious importer.

Tasters are unaware how powerful this learned or cognitive component is in wine tasting. Dr. Pam Dalton, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia comments, “The sensors in your nose and mouth respond to specific chemicals in the wine. Aside from genetic differences, which make us more or less sensitive to certain aromas and tastes, there is a relatively uniform pattern of activation across different people. But how their brains organize and interpret that incoming information is going to depend a lot on what their previous experience has been.”

When we drink a bottle of Domain de la Romanee Conti we filter the sensory information through everything we have know about Burgundy, Pinot Noir and our beliefs related to scarcity and high price. A novice lacks this warehouse of information and will experience the same wine differently. Even among experts, disagreement is common and at times profound. Is my internal representation of Chianti the traditional style made from 100% Sangiovese and aged in large casks or the newer version aged in French oak barrels with Merlot added?

Taste and Smell Illusions

Taste and smell illusions demonstrate the extent to which perception is influenced by past experience. Because past experience has taught us to associate certain tastes with aromas, when we smell one, we expect the other to follow. The cardamom seed smells bitter because of its bitter taste. Dalton points out, “It is not uncommon that odors acquire such taste properties after countless pairings in foods and beverages. The effect appears to be so strong that in some cases the presence of the aroma alone can influence the perception of other 'tastes'.” A dry wine with a fruity bouquet such as an Alsatian Muscat will seem to taste sweet because we are conditioned to associate fruit aromas with sweetness. If you pinch your nose and the effect disappears, the sweetness was perceived, not real.

Finding What’s Not There: The Role of Expectations

Non-sensory information introduced with the wine such as ‘old vines’, ‘unfined’, ‘dry farmed’ and ‘limited production’ has a symbolic value that can trigger preconceived notions. Dalton comments on the impact of these verbal cues, “The moment you give me a label for something, anything I already know that is associated with that label will start to come into play.” There is a tendency to find what you expect to find, sometimes when it’s not even there. For example, let’s say the same wine is tasted from a screw cap bottle versus a cork-finished bottle (so that the tasters can see both closure types). The novice, unaware of the association between screw cap and jug wine, will probably say, ‘they taste the same to me.’ More experienced tasters will likely prefer the cork-finished bottle, reporting differences that do not actually exist because they expect to find them. While this would be a cruel exercise, the results are reliable.

Novice vs. Expert: You Say ‘Bad’, I say ‘Good’

I attended a sit-down Pinot Noir tasting with fifteen novice to intermediate wine enthusiasts. The lineup included a Pinot whose slightly tawny-colored rim and mature bouquet indicated that the wine had aged prematurely and was therefore flawed. Yet, it received the highest number of first place votes. Was the wine good or bad? According to Dalton, it depends on whom you ask: “Experienced tasters apply different criteria than novices, based on their expectations as to what state that wine should be in at that particular time.” While novices judge a wine based on how it tastes at that moment, experts consider factors such as aging potential and whether the wine accurately reflects its growing region and grape variety. The Barolo expert will taste a young, traditionally made Barolo from a good producer and swooning over the aromas of tar, earth and truffles, will imagine how beautiful the wine will be in 10 years. The novice will taste a harsh, tart, tannic red wine.

The De-evolution of Smell

The brain of early mammals was dominated by what is called the rhinencephalon or the smell brain. Smell was the primary sense early mammals relied on to obtain information from the environment. Dr. Joseph LeDoux, Professor of Neuroscience at New York University and author of two books on the brain explains how olfaction has, in a relative sense, receded in importance, “As primates went from ground dwellers to tree dwellers, smell became less important and vision, especially color vision became more important. The relative amount of the brain devoted to olfaction was reduced while the amount devoted to vision has vastly increased.”

As language developed the brain enlarged and the parts of the brain where speech and vision were processed remained separated from those that control smell. According to Dr. Richard Robertson, Professor of Neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine, “The brain systems that handle language were formed many millions of years after those that control olfaction and there are relatively few connections between the parts of the brain that process smell and those that control language.” (Unlike the way smell, memory and emotion are linked; See Smell, Memory and Emotion). It’s one thing to detect an aroma, but finding the words to describe it is a separate task.

This explains a common occurrence in wine tasting called the “tip of the nose” phenomenon, when we detect an odor we’re familiar with, but just can’t seem to come up with the name. It’s not that our sense of smell is faulty; in fact from a standpoint of range and sensitivity, olfaction is powerful. But because the neural circuits that process odors are separated from those that underlie language, odors can be ambiguous, especially in a wine, which presents numerous aromas simultaneously. This lack of confidence we have in our sense of smell can make us tentative, forcing us to seek more reliable cues when evaluating odors; witness the blind taster fishing for cues that might narrow down the list of possibilities.

Context Revisited: Is it Parmesan Cheese or Vomit?

The most powerful cues are verbal and visual. Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University gives a provocative example of how a verbal cue can create a smell illusion, “The smell of Parmesan cheese and vomit are actually not that different. If I hand you something and tell you it’s Parmesan cheese, you’ll sniff it and say, ‘sure, that’s Parmesan cheese, yeah, I like that. Then I give you the exact the same stimulus and I tell you it’s vomit; you’ll believe that just as well.” While this wouldn’t work with Chanel #5 and pepperoni pizza, Herz explains how it is possible to interpret the same aroma so differently, “Because odors are invisible and because we have a hard time naming them, we seek information about them from the outside context.” She contends that is why language and visual signals in wine tasting can be so dominant, and supercede smell and taste information.


Visual cues such as color in wine are a context as well and wine tasters may be surprised at powerful role color plays in flavor perception. Color contributes to the taster’s first judgment of a wine by activating stored information. An experiment was conducted in which researchers gave subjects a purple-colored, orange-flavored drink; the vast majority thought it was grape flavored. Increased color is associated with increased flavor. In other words, the same wine will be perceived as more intensely flavorful if it is darker in color.

A fascinating new wine study called “The Color of Odors” [Morrot, Brochet and Dubourdieu] has shown the impact color has in determining the adjectives we use to describe wines. A panel of 54 Enology students at the University of Bordeaux smelled a white Bordeaux wine and described it using appropriate white wine descriptors. When an odorless red dye was added, the tasters used red wine terms to describe it. The descriptors changed only because the color changed! The authors raise a provocative question: When we describe a wine, how much are we relying on our sense of taste and smell and how much on what we see? The results of this experiment demonstrate how much people rely on the context for interpreting their odor experience. Herz explains why: “People are totally tied to things outside of their olfactory system. Because we are so visually and verbally oriented, even experts who you would expect to be less susceptible to these context manipulations look for cues in their visual and verbal worlds.” This revelation should be comforting to wine tasters who find it difficult to describe what they are tasting; “I like it” may be sufficient.

Attention—Now You See It, Now You Don’t

When I am driving to a new location and take a wrong turn, the first thing I do is turn off the radio. The removal of this auditory cue allows me to focus attention on visual cues. The multiple sensory inputs a wine presents - color, aroma, taste and texture – not to mention the non-sensory cues previously discussed, are more than the brain can process at once. Attention is an important topic in Psychology and plays a fascinating role in allowing us to focus on a limited number of stimuli while tuning out the rest.

I was in Amagansett, New York with a with a retail buyer tasting a 1999 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon with a distinctive herbaceous character. The buyer disappeared and returned five minutes later with a bottle in a brown paper bag. I tasted it and was not able to offer much in the way of description other than that it was an old wine that had lost much of its fruit character. He removed the wine from the bag revealing the same Cabernet Sauvignon we had tasted initially except from the 1976 vintage. I put my nose back in the wine and instantly, as if a switch had been turned on, smelled the herbaceous character! My initial reaction to this “appearing act” was that having been exposed to air, the wine opened up, revealing this aroma. But this would not happen in so short a time.

This experience illuminates two different phenomena: the importance of context and attention. Blind tasting removes all context (except color). Experts are often humbled trying to identify or describe a wine based on this raw sensory information. But as soon as the wine is revealed, information present on the label determines which sensory features we shine a spotlight on and which remain in the dark. “If you’ve been told something about what you’re going to experience, you start selectively attending to those aspects of the experience that are consistent with that information; and you may not even notice some of the other ones,” Dalton says. For example, lichee nut aromas are easy to identify if you know you’re tasting a Gewurztraminer. In a blind tasting, you may detect these aromas but have difficulty identifying them; but when that aroma is pointed out, you suddenly recognize it because you’re paying attention to it. When we see 15.5% alcohol on a bottle of Zinfandel, we look for hotness or overripe flavors. Tasting a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the dreaded 1998 vintage will likely yield descriptors such as herbal, under ripe, or lacking in concentration. These characteristics may be present, but to what extent would we notice them if we were not looking for them?

Identifying Aromas—Practice Makes Perfect

The inability to identify what you’re smelling is one of the frustrations of the aspiring wine taster, a shortcoming often attributed to a poor sense of smell. In reality, experienced wine tasters and perfumers do not necessarily have a more acute sense of smell, but can identify odors because they have a well-developed odor memory. When it comes to identifying unfamiliar smells, expert wine tasters do not perform any better than novices.

To develop an odor memory requires practice or repeated exposure. According to Dr. Charles Wysocki, a smell researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center, “Based on genetics, you either have the capacity to detect a particular molecule or you don’t. With repeated experience however, individuals can become more adept at discriminating between different odors, or at smelling an odor that was originally thought was not there.” He adds, “We think of snow, but the Eskimos have over a dozen words for snow depending upon its texture and the size of the flakes. They have a greater appreciation for snow and can describe it many ways that we don’t appreciate.”

A fascinating finding from a new study shows that compared to men, women can more readily increase their sensitivity to odors with practice. With six to ten repeated exposures, women (of reproductive age), not men, increased their sensitivity to an odor by 1,000 to 10,000 times. These results support the conventional wisdom that women are better wine tasters than men. Wysocki comments, “I would speculate that if you had a woman judging wine, early on she would be as sensitive as a man, but with repeated exposure to the same wines, the woman would become able to make finer distinctions.”

Taste vs Smell Preferences: Innate or Learned?

Whether taste and smell preferences are innate or learned represents a fundamental difference between these two senses. We know that humans have an inborn preference for sweet and an aversion to sour and bitter. Evidence comes from experiments, which monitored the facial expressions of infants. A drop of sugar placed on the tongue resulted in a slight smile and licking of the lips, while a drop of quinine (bitter) produced a grimace.

Pelchat explains how inborn aversions can be modified, “We all know that we’re supposed to like dry wines, but many start out liking sweeter wines because we’re pre-wired that way. At first, people don’t like bitter or astringent, but you can learn to accept less sweetness and more bitterness and astringency in a wine, but it’s a learning process often requiring repeated exposure.” The bitterness of coffee and beer and the burn of chili peppers (not a taste) are examples of sensations that are normally considered unpleasant at first but with repeated exposure can result in liking, even craving. But Pelchat adds that exposure alone doesn’t mean you’ll like the wine: “I would say that it is more a question of temperament. When I go to the Philadelphia Academy of Music, some people walk out if they play a modern piece. Others are willing to stick it out and try to figure out what there is to appreciate. With wines, are you willing to put up with a few glasses of a tannic Cabernet so you learn to appreciate it? Some are thrill seekers saying, ‘I’m going to learn to like this,’ others draw the line.”

While taste preferences are present at birth, there is less evidence that smell preferences are inborn. According to Dalton, “Across every culture I have tested, the smell of human waste and rotting flesh appears to be universally repugnant. I would venture to say that if innate smell preferences exist they are more consistent at the negative end.”

While preferences for taste can change, those for smell are even more modifiable by experience. This may be because we continue to learn novel odors through our entire life, whereas we experience the basic tastes early on. In any case, odors take on meaning when they are paired with experience because memory and smell (not taste) are processed in the same part of the brain [see next section]. When we encounter an aroma that has been previously paired with a positive experience, our response to that wine will be favorable and certainly different from someone without this experience.

An example of how we learn to like an aroma is the barnyard scent caused by the spoilage yeast Brettanomyces. Brett, as it is called, used to be more common in European wines and if you grew up tasting these wines (Chateau de Beaucastel, for example) you learned to associate the smell with a luxury wine. Due to the increased use of new oak barrels and stricter winery hygiene, brett is less common today. But when it is encountered, instead of being considered an attractive nuance, it is considered a flaw by tasters more attuned to the ripe fruit aromas of New World wines. Brett demonstrates a key point related to liking: familiarity is the most important determinant of preference. While there are personality types that seek out the unfamiliar, generally, you like what you know. However, repeated exposure to a strange, new wine, particularly in favorable contexts such as a fine restaurant, an endorsement from a respected friend, wine critic or social factors (‘I’ll have a glass of merlot’) can result in an increase in liking.

Smell, Memory and Emotion

If you have ever smelled an odor and been transported back to a specific time or place, you will agree that smelling a wine can evoke highly individual, even emotional reactions. Herz states, “Odors may trigger a memory of uncommon emotional potency. And that emotional connection is rooted in the way that smell, emotion and memory are entangled within the brain.” Because wine aromas go directly into the brain’s limbic areas where emotion is processed, your first response can be an emotional one, such as a tingle running down your spine.

Herz’s findings show that memories evoked by odors, in contrast with memories triggered by sights or sounds, have an emotional quality, so much so that the same odor may evoke different feelings in each of us. Smell and emotion are so entwined with experience that each of us may perceive the same odor with far different feelings, an important source of variation between tasters. If you grew up on a farm, you may find the smell of earthiness in a wine pleasant, while someone else may find it objectionable or not even notice it.

The Imprecision of Language

Not only are tastes and aromas perceived differently by different people but there is further chance for disagreement when we use language to describe what we’re experiencing. Bartoshuk explains the potential communication problem; “Comparisons of perceived intensities across individuals are valid only if ratings are made relative to a standard equally intense to each individual. How do we find such a standard? The answer is that there is no logically valid way to be sure that we have such a standard.” Since there is no agreed upon standard for a given aroma or taste, we do not know the relative amount of tartness one tastes in a Muscadet or the level of astringency one feels in a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. The adjectives used to describe what we taste are relative. For example, two people agreed they had a strenuous work out. The term strenuous is relative, because one ran a mile while the other ran five miles, did 100 sit-ups and jumped rope for 30 minutes. The California Chardonnay drinker’s definition of oaky is different from that of the white Burgundy drinker’s, yet adjectives are used as if they mean the same thing to all people.

I was reminded of this recently while tasting two German Rieslings. A fellow taster commented on the distinct “petrol” character of one. Having already tasted the wine and not found that character, I handed her the second wine which I found was loaded with the very same “petrol” character – she found none. It would have been futile to debate because I had no idea if we were in agreement as to what this “petrol” aroma was, and even if we were, if we were equally sensitive to it. We have no way of knowing if we are sharing the same sensory experience; something to consider the next time you’re debating the merits of a wine with a fellow taster.


Is there such thing as an objective quality rating? What is quality? Today, in most cases, quality is defined by the media scores a wine receives from Robert Parker and Wine Spectator. The system is not perfect but it’s easy for consumers to use and therefore, good for wine consumption. What users of scores should bear in mind is that numerical scores are not quality ratings, but liking or preference ratings. Based on their unique prior experiences, critics are converting their feelings about a wine into a number. A wine with a microbial nose such as Domaine Tempier Rouge may receive 80 points by a reviewer who does not like non-fruit aromas. The same character may be a positive to another critic who may give it 90 points. Is a wine that scores 90 points higher quality than one that scores 80 points? It’s a difficult question to answer but it is clear that there is in fact, a psychology to quality.

—By Jordan Ross, Global Vintage quarterly winter 2002