The Beginner’s Dilemma
Sound familiar? I think this is a common experience for most people just getting into wine. It was for me. I clearly remember going to my first professional tasting while in grad school studying music. As I stood next to a vendor’s table with a southern French red in my glass, I listened to
the two guys next to me extolling the virtues of the same wine, saying things like baked earth, dried spice, and leather. I immediately put my nose back into the glass and it smelled like … red wine. Period. I thought the two guys were completely full of it or hallucinating—or both.
It wasn’t until several months later during the holidays that I had my first wine epiphany. A good friend had given me a bottle of 1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet for Christmas dinner. The ‘76 vintage was one of several consecutive drought years in California, and the wine was rich, powerful, and quickly filled the room with aromas of blackberry jam and exotic spices once poured. I remember thinking, “this is what they’re talking about!”
What changed between experiences “A” and “B”? What was the key that made the difference between wine smelling like wine and wine smelling like other things? At the time it seemed completely mysterious and it wasn’t until decades later that I finally pieced together what had happened.
My experience points to one of the major wine disconnects I wrote about in the last post; that wine as a fermented beverage can smell like a great deal of things which can confuse or intimidate the beginning taster. The answer to this conundrum may be as simple as perception and recognition in the form of olfactory and taste memory.
The good news is that practically everyone has all the hardware and software required to smell, taste, and remember. We’ve been doing it since we were infants. In fact, we are more than capable of storing a complex taste memory fairly easily. Not convinced? Take a moment to consider exhibit “A,” the humble cheeseburger. If we take all seven taste sensations as in sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory), kokumi (calcium), and fat into consideration, the garden variety cheeseburger can check off on all the categories except for bitter--unless of course you’ve burned the burger or are going très chic by adding radicchio to the fixings. Combine these with other variables such as temperature, texture, and context (where, when, how and with whom you enjoyed said cheeseburger) and you have the makings (sorry for the pun) for a very complex smell and taste memory indeed.
Front Loading and the Basic Set
The challenge in teaching the beginning taster then becomes clear: to somehow bring awareness to the internal image olfactory/taste connection. What’s important to note here is that we’re not talking about actual smelling and tasting anything, we’re talking about memory function. Thus it’s possible to improve memory—and recognition--without an actually working with wine.
Over the past year I’ve worked with students using a technique called “Front Loading,” combined with a subset of the most common wine aromas I’ve dubbed the “Basic Set.” Front Loading in effect is working backwards to improve memory of the most common components found in wine—without using wine. The Basic Set is the 30 most common aromas and flavors found in a majority of all wines. I’ve found that using both in conjunction can bring awareness to the image-olfactory connection and ultimately improve tasting ability—in some cases considerably. Using Front Loading and the Basic Set can also help to accomplish the following:
– Making strong image/olfactory connections
– Improving memory of Basic Set components
– Using multi-sensory memory to learn vs. visual memory
– Using contrast and olfactory memory as a tool for learning
Basic Set: Common Wine Aromas and Flavors
Green apple Red and/or Golden Delicious apple
Black cherry Blackberry
Sour red cherry Red raspberry
Mint/eucalyptus Bell pepper (pyrazines)
Herbs: rosemary Black/white pepper
Mushroom& forest floor Chalk
Exercise: Using the Basic Set
The complete instructions, modules, and exercises for the Basic Set can be found at the two links listed at the end of this post. In the meantime, here are some brief exercises using some of the principles.
There are four sequential modules using the Basic Set:
• Module I: using words and images
• Module II: using images
• Module III: using words
• Module IV: using images and contrastive analysis
Part I: Using Images and Words
I've listed six images below, three fruit images and three non-fruit images. Take a look at the images and then do the following:
1. Look at the image and say the name of the fruit, etc. internally, or out loud.
2. Recall a time when you smelled and/or tasted the given fruit, spice, etc.
3. In your mind’s “eye,” reach out, pick up a slice of the fruit (etc.), and take a bite of it.
4. Make your experience of the fruit, spice, or other component as complete and intense as possible down to the aromas, flavors, texture, and mouthfeel.
5. Intensify the experience of your memory by doing the following:
a. Make your images (or movie) larger
b. Make your images closer
c. Make the colors brighter
d. Make any sounds louder
e. Intensify any physical/tactile sensations
Now use your own memories to bring up the following aromas/flavors:
Important! Pay attention to the structure of your memories, specifically the location, proximity, and size of your images/movies. Are they large, even life-size, in bright HD color, and three-dimensional? If not, making them that way will improve your memory of them—sometimes dramatically. Changing the structure of your memories is literally altering the submodalities of your thinking—the topic of a post in the very near future.
Part III: Contrastive Analysis
Contrastive analysis is my fancy-ass way of saying, “try to make something into something else.” In this case, we’ll take your images of the aromas and or flavors depicted above and play with them. The results are at the very least surprising. Here are instructions:
1. Use your images/memories for the pairs of components listed below.
2. Try to make one image into the other.
3. What happens?
Example I: change lemon into mushroom
Example II: change lime into vanilla
Example III: change orange into rose
What happens when you try to make one image into the other? Practically everyone I’ve done this exercise with (self included) experienced something akin to placing polarized magnets near each other: the images literally fly apart and become separated usually by noticeable distance--and the two images land in very specific locations in your “mind’s eye.”
While this exercise may seem initially odd, the same phenomenon will really come into play when one builds more complex “progressive” memories of specific grapes and wines. Then a wine like Alsace Riesling will occupy a specific location and proximity in one’s internal field making it more difficult to confuse for another grape or wine—even another Riesling. But I’m getting ahead of myself …
Parting thoughts on using the Basic Set
• Repetition is key: work with the images/words dozens of times until your memories become automatic.
• Remember the goal is to be able to bring up a memory of one of any of the components instantly, intensely--on command!
• Don’t limit your work to the Basic Set: expand your repertoire to include as many other aromatics/flavors as you can.
• In time, start to put the components together in groups or sequences to form markers for classic grape and wines.
A final question: can you install an aroma? The answer is yes you can. First, obtain some of whatever it is (white pepper, lentils, cucumber etc.) and smell and taste it repetitively (If tasting is appropriate!). After smelling and/or tasting, close your eyes and generate a huge bright image of the component along with bringing up the smell and taste memory as intensely and completely as possible. Repetition, again, is the key and in some cases you may have to do it dozens of times. But with practice, it will be there.
Downloading the Basic Set
The complete exercises using the Basic Set can be found at slideshare.net. To download the two PDF’s, use the following links:
Modules I& II:
Modules III& IV:
Try using the basic set exercises and see what happens to your tasting. I will be curious to hear any and all feedback so please post any thoughts or comments.