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Moving beyond hedonics: we need to learn about wine

OK, this is another of those wishy washy, semi-philosophical pieces that I know have the tendency to wind up serious intellectuals (I donít count myself among this number, youíll be glad to hear), but please bear with me because the message underlying this piece is an important one. And despite the pseudy word in the title (erm, thatíll be hedonics), itís understandable by just about all.

What is hedonics? In the psychological literature the term hedonic is used with reference to pleasantness or unpleasantness of sensations. Thus Ďhedonic valenceí of a sensation is a rather grand way of referring to how much a subject likes a particular experience.

Here, Iím specifically using the term Ďhedonicsí with reference to the perceived niceness of wine. Hedonics consists of us deciding how much we like a wine in a sort of instinctive, automatic way. In this sense itís a useful term, which is why Iíve adopted it. My assertion is that when it comes to wine, hedonics traps us in a straight-jacket. To use another metaphor, it sends us down a cul de sac in our appreciation of wine, and to avoid this we must temper it by a quite different approach, that based on learning.

Instinctively, we all like certain flavours and find others distasteful. As we grow up, our tastes develop, and out preferences change quite markedly, largely on the basis of experience, but with an added developmental twist. For example, small children have been shown to be generally much more appreciative of sour tastes than adults Ė my kids like sucking lemons, whereas I couldnít do this at all. And among a group of adults, as well as potential genetic differences in bitter tasting ability, learning has added a whole level of inter-individual variation in taste preferences. But despite these complications, people generally share certain common likes and dislikes in taste. There are many foods that most people find instinctively delicious without any learning component, and vice versa.

Thereís another complexion to this already complex tale. That is, the taste preferences we acquire by learning are often more satisfying and rewarding than those we have innately. Letís offer a rather hand-waving biological explanation for this. In our primeval environment as hunter gatherers, we were programmed to have an innate preference for foods that are good for us: so we go for sweet things (sugar means lots of energy), fatty things (again, lots of energy), savouriness or umami tastes (protein) and salty food (salt would have been rare, and therefore worth seeking out). However, a strong learning component for flavours was a useful adaptation. If we could exploit a food resource that initially didnít taste that good (lots of plants have secondary metabolites that are designed to put off herbivores by means of bitter tastes, for example), but which werenít harmful (our excellent memory for taste and smells helps us avoid things that have made us ill in the past), then weíd more-or-less have this food resource to ourselves while everyone else was going after the obvious stuff. And itís a great advantage to be able to exploit as wide a range of foodstuffs as possible, particularly in a novel of changing environment. Thus learning is important, and we are particularly taken by the foods and drinks we have learned to like.

What about wine? Do you remember your first glass of wine? Did you like it? I donít think I can recall my first wine experience, but I do remember that my first forays into the world of alcoholic beverages centred on finding a delivery medium for alcohol that I actually liked. I started off with beer, but the first few pints seemed very bitter, so I tried cider, which was sweeter and closer to the flavours of soft drinks that I already enjoyed. Gradually, though, repeated exposure to beer helped me to begin enjoying it more. Later, I tried wine, largely at social occasions where it was on offer. I didnít really like it, although Port, with its sweetness, was an instant hit. It took repeated exposure to wine, coupled with the arrival of Australian wines to UK supermarket shelves with their sweeter fruit characters, before I began to appreciate it.

My point? Hedonics is a dead end. Yes, on one level, people should be encouraged to like what they like, but unless they also experiment with novelty and are prepared to have their taste horizons expanded, theyíll get stuck in a rut. The range of flavours we appreciate instinctively are limited. If we stick with what we like, weíll lose out. To have real fun, learning about new flavours and exposing ourselves to them on repeated occasions is important. Benchmarking is also valuable: this involves tasting the Ďbestí wines with an enquiring mind so we can then begin to see what makes them so highly regarded.

Isnít this learning all a bit circular? We learn what the Ďbestí wines are by tasting the Ďbestí wines? To a degree, yes. But this is a process that takes place in all forms of high culture. Unless you learn a bit about the history of art and visit a range of top galleries, youíll be trapped by hedonics Ė your understanding of art wonít go beyond the aesthetic lure of easily appreciated paintings such as the Dutch masters (no bad thing to like these) or the impressionists. Living-room prints of Monet are so 80s, darling.

Iím not advocating some sort of cultural imperialism as applied to wine, merely suggesting that thereís a world of great wine out there, and if you are going to appreciate this then youíve got to be prepared to move beyond hedonics and do a bit of open-minded learning. Yes, your palate is always right, but like an athleteís body you need to train the damn thing a bit. Go on, learn some more. Itís worth it.

see also: Words for wine: making tasting notes more useful

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