Wine tasting: It’s all in your eyes — and in your head.
That’s what Tim Gaiser, master sommelier, teaches people who want to learn more about tasting wine.
Gaiser led an Aug. 18 seminar at the Portland, Ore., Wine Bloggers’ Conference entitled “The Neuroscience of Wine Tasting: Unlocking the Tasting Strategies of Genius.”
When we examine, smell and taste a glass of wine, our eyes access cues stored as an “internal image map or grid” etched our memory, he explained.
Those who taste wine for a living — judges, sommeliers and master teachers — employ such cues and imagery at an unconscious level. The rest of us, Gaiser said, have these tools at our fingertips — but may not know how to put them to use.
As he opened the seminar, Gaiser described wine education as very “rewarding,” but, at the same time, teaching others about the nuances of wine “can be one of the most frustrating” things wine experts encounter.
The challenge lies in “trying to give students our own experiences and vocabulary of wine while knowing that everyone has different neurologies, memories and life experiences,” he said.
Gaiser, former education chairman and director of the Court of Master Sommeliers of America, led a 2009 study that included Karen MacNeil; Evan Goldstein, MS; Tracy Kamens, Ed.D., DWS, CWE; Emily Wines, MS; Doug Frost, MS MW; Peter Marks, MW; and Brian Cronin, MS.
The most intriguing result of the group’s research was that each of the expert tasters employed the same eye positions and patterns as they sipped through wines, Gaiser told our group of WBC seminar participants.
In other words, the position of our eyes — whether we look upper left and right, center, or down to the left or right — is key to how and what imagery we “see” when we taste wine.
Each of us “pulls up” images that form the basis of “internal road maps” of what we see, smell and taste in wine. Quite simply, we taste by unconscious association, and at the speed of light, Gaiser told the WBC seminar.
That includes those who taste wine for pleasure, as wine buyers or reviewers, to practice for exams and for the purpose of teaching others, he said.
Crucial for wine tasting are adequate light, a quiet environment with no odors, tasting via bathes, wines at proper temperature and good glassware.
When tasters eyeball a glass or wine, they study its appearance for color, which builds instant expectations, and then, via internal “color swatches,” pinpoint the shade to further identify the wine’s age, variety of the grape and the winemaking style, Gaiser continued.
Back to how we “position” our eyes: All of his research project participants used a “consistent starting eye position or pattern when smelling the wine.”
For example, study participant Emily Wines focused her eyes at a spot about three feet ahead and straight and slightly down, while Doug Frost used a pattern of several very rapid eye movements: down, centered and moving left to right. Gaiser himself revealed his position: down and to the left.
When Gaiser instructed those of us in the WBC seminar to stand up and hold our wineglasses, each containing about 4 ounces of 2008 John Duval Plexus, Barossa, naturally, we were skeptical.
I relaxed and let my eyes “focus” into my natural position, which for me turned out to be about two feet straight out and slightly down.
Gaiser asked each of us to form a visual image of what we smelled in our glass. I visualized black cherries. So far, so good.
Then, the experiment: Gaiser told us to move our eyes to a new position — “hold your head and glass steady, but move your eyes in any another direction — up, down, left or right — and pay attention to what happens.”
I looked straight up at the ceiling, and immediately the nose of black cherry was gone. As a group, we gasped in surprise. I dropped my eyes back to “my” center, and gradually the black cherry nose returned.
Gaiser then directed us to pair up: One student would dictate what images he or she “saw” while sniffing the wine while the other took rapid notes. We had one minute.
I closed my eyes and got images of cherries evolving into a bramble of blackberries, and then, in order, I visualized a chocolate bar, a patch of damp ground and finally, long-stemmed English roses, dried and lying in a stack.
The dried roses stayed front and center in my mind while the chocolate, dirt and blackberry bramble floated like a mirage. I continued to take in a nose of black cherries.
Gaiser then instructed each of us to alter our predominant image from color to black and white. I switched my stack dried roses to black and white — and voila — my nose of black cherries vanished once again.
During Gaiser’s 2009 research, participants found that as a wine’s flavors fluctuate in intensity, the structure of the image each person visualized also changed. Furthermore, “stronger intensity of the palate vs. nose equals the image increasing in size, brightness or closer proximity or location, and less intensity on palate vs. nose equals image decreasing in size, brightness or a more distant proximity or location,” Gaiser wrote in his presentation.
Between 2003 and 2011, Gaiser was both education chairman and education director of the Court of Master Sommeliers of America. He holds two degrees in music: a bachelor’s in music history and master’s in music in classical trumpet. He had a short career as a freelance musician before segueing into the restaurant industry from 1972 to 1993, and in 1992 he earned his MS diploma.