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Does learning about wine enhance its enjoyment?   

Recently, I've been thinking quite a bit about some of the issues discussed in the wine and philosophy conference that has been reported here. I'll state clearly at the outset that I'm no philosopher - my training is as a biologist. So I'm exploring carefully this rather unfamiliar territory, aware that I'm liable to make some rather glaring errors of understanding. Nevertheless, I beleive that reductionist science, in this case physiology and neurobiology can helpfully both inform and constrain these areas of philosophical investigation. So here are some thoughts of mine on the issue of learning about wine and its ability to enhance enjoyment. 

The other way of answering this question is to ask whether wine is purely a sensory pleasure? Or, to put this another way, is the pleasure experienced by a connoisseur accessible to a novice? Intuitively, many people would answer no to both these questions, but let’s try to look for a more reasoned answer.

There is a level of enjoyment that relies on (or is derived from) sensory input, but can only be accessed with supplementary cognitive abilities that are learned. For example, if I am faced with a sheet of music or a page of Hungarian text, I can derive no enjoyment from them even because I can’t read either music or Hungarian. However, if someone who reads music or speaks Hungarian sees these same texts, they can derive enjoyment from them because their learning has given them an ability to decode the visual stimuli into either notes or a coherent text. The sensory (visual) experience will be potentially the same for all when they look at the sheet or page – irrespective of their abilities with music or languages – but only those with appropriate learning will have the capacity to derive enjoyment from this experience. [Actually, the visual representations will differ because those who can understand the significance of the stimulus will attend to it differently than those who don’t. Thus the significance of the text will draw in the reader to give it more attention, who will therefore have a different sensory experience as a result. But the point I’m making is probably still valid. This caveat illustrates the complexities of building these sorts of arguments.]

Levels of enjoyment
How does this apply to wine? The difference is that there is a level of enjoyment of wine that is open to all, irrespective of experience. We have an innate preference for some flavour cues. Many wines have some sweetness of fruit that is appealing to novices, and certain successful popular styles of wine focus on providing simple, accessible, fruity flavours. People also appreciate wine for its intoxicating properties. Let us call this wine’s ‘hedonic’ appeal. But there are two further levels of appreciation that can be teased out, which only come with experience and learning, although it is likely that for most of us this separation is a rather artificial one; in reality our appreciation of wine probably results from a seamless fusion of all three levels.

Learning, understanding, benchmarking
The first is that of learning and understanding, a purely cognitive process. As we learn about wine in general – the history, geography, grape varieties, winemaking practices, differences between producers and so on – and as we face each new glass, the different aspects of the sensory experience take on fresh meaning. We attend to the process of tasting more carefully; we understand the significance of the various aromas and flavours, the structure and the texture. We begin to develop our own ‘culture’ of wine by a process of exploration and benchmarking: we read what ‘experts’ consider to be good and bad expressions of wine, and this then shapes our own preferences and values.

Acquiring tastes
Secondly, there is a degree to which our own preferences change, shaped in a non-cognitive manner. It seems that in addition to possessing an innate set of flavour preferences – or ‘universals’ – people have the flexibility to acquire tastes. These acquired tastes are often more enduring than our innate preferences. Many of the foodstuffs around which a connoisseurship has developed, such as coffee, real ale, cheese and malt whisky, have tastes that are initially rather off-putting. This flexibility in preferences is likely adaptive: in a novel environment, we would do well to utilize as broad a range of safe foodstuffs as possible. Hence our senses of taste and smell are closely coupled to memory: we try a novel food item, and if we become ill then we later find it aversive; if we don’t, then we can log this new food as potentially desirable. The connection between memories and tastes and smells is widely recognized, most famously in Proust’s A la Recherche, where the author’s sniff of a Madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea took him back to his childhood and reminded him of his meetings with Tante Leonie. Interestingly, the memory led to a change in the author’s emotional state to that experienced during these childhood encounters.

Another comparison, this time with visual art, can be made. Some paintings are accessible and can be enjoyed on a hedonic level by a broad audience. Take a trip to the National Gallery and look at the crowds surrounding the impressionists, or the groups admiring the photo-like precision and elegant composition of the tiny Vermeers. You don’t need a degree in art to appreciate these pictures. But what about the Tate Modern? To someone without a sufficient context, it’s all a bit inaccessible and perhaps even rather soulless.

Learning – in this case a solid grounding in the history of art, and perhaps an understanding of the background, influences and motivations of the artists themselves – can elevate appreciation of all visual art, but we notice this most clearly with works that lack sufficient initial hedonic appeal, where real ‘enjoyment’ is going to be mostly cognitive. Perhaps, though, this separation into cognitive and non-cognitive enjoyment of sensory input is a false one.

Cognitive input may change the ‘sensory’ experience and lead to greater ‘sensory’ enjoyment. The fact that I have thought and learned a great deal about wine may increase the significance of certain taste and smell stimuli, such that when I drink a great wine I know this immediately when it hits my palate. Conversely, will someone untrained in wine know a ‘great’ wine the moment they taste it? I suspect they won’t.

Here we have, potentially, a rather indirect test of Kent Bach’s question as to whether learning enhances the enjoyment of wine. We could present what is considered by the wine trade to be a great wine to a group of experts and non-experts and compare their responses. [Should we do this blind? We could, but the sight of the label might be important to the actual sensory experience itself.] It is likely that the novices will come away bemused by what experts consider greatness to be in terms of wine. This is a complicated area, though, and I’d qualify this by saying that in certain wine cultures different qualities are revered. In wine cultures where ‘size’ (that is, the concentration, density and lushness of fruit) is considered of primary importance, the ‘best’ wines will often be immediately accessible to novices, so this test might not work.

Finally, I’m aware of one piece of experimental work that addresses this question directly. Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, recently devised an experiment on the basis of a series of TV commercials in the 1970s and 80s where individuals were subjected to the ‘Pepsi challenge’. In this test Pepsi was pitted against Coke blind, with subjects not knowing which was which. They invariably preferred the taste of Pepsi, but this wasn’t reflected in their buying decisions. Montague wanted to know why. So he re-enacted the Pepsi challenge with volunteers. The difference was that this time their brain activity was being scanned by an MRI machine. On average, Pepsi produced a stronger response in the ventral putamen, a region thought to process reward. In people who preferred Pepsi, the putamen was five times as active when they drunk Pepsi than it was in Coke-preferring subjects drinking Coke.

In a clever twist, Montague repeated the experiments, this time telling subjects what they were drinking. Remarkably, most of them now preferred Coke. The brain activity also changed, with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region that shapes high-level cognitive powers. The subjects were allowing what they knew about Coke – its brand image – to shape their preferences. 

The implications for winetasting are clear. When we don’t taste blind, our preferences are liable to be shaped by pre-existing information we have about the wine. Try as hard as we might to be objective, this isn’t possible. What we know about wine will mould how we perceive the wine, and will even shape how much we enjoy a particular bottle. The important thing to note is that the subjects weren’t ‘fooled’ in some way by the knowledge of what they were drinking – instead, their actual enjoyment of their drinking experience changed. Expectations about the experience changed the actual nature of the perceptual experience. This suggests a mechanism for learning to change enjoyment of wine. It’s not conclusive, of course, but strongly suggestive.

The philosophy of wine

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