The Art of Tasting: Your Brain on Wine


There is no beverage in the world that holds as much mystery, flavor, texture, color, and history as wine. It is a drink that has traveled through both space and time — from the dark, dank caves near a small Armenian village where it was being dedicated to the dead and pressed for the first time, 6,100 years ago, to the slender crystal Zalto glass sitting to my left as I write. From the moment Pablo Neruda tried to poetically convey how the light from a bottle of wine falls onto a table in “Ode to Wine,” or Claude Monet tried to capture with paint the stillness of an afternoon after a lunch with wine in his painting, “Still Life with Bottle, Carafe, Bread and Wine,” the very nature of wine and our relationship to it has stayed mysterious, vivid, and undefined.

Yet it is not only the poets and artists of our past who have struggled to capture this mystery — it is also the neuroscientists and neurophysiologists of our present who wish to understand how wine affects our brains in ways that change our behavior, cognitive functioning, and sense of self. But in order to understand how wine changes us we must first recognize how we change wine.

Flavor is not in the foods we eat and the beverages we drink. It is created by our brains. The flavor, smell, taste, and even color of wine are all variables, dependent upon how we approach the drink emotionally and behaviorally. The field of science that explores how flavor, along with a wide array of other factors inherent in consuming food, is cognitively and affectively developed and processed within our brains is neurogastronomy. Researchers in the field of neurogastronomy, and, more recently, “neuroenology,” have shown that the neuro and biomechanical process of ingesting wine engages more networks of the brain than any other human behavior.

Dr. Gordon M. Shepherd, professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, in his book titled “Neuroenology: How Our Brain Creates the Taste of Wine,” outlines the complex stage-wise process by which the mind and the body create and experience flavor. Shepherd recognizes that any in-depth study of wine must be multidisciplinary and multifaceted — a field of inquiry that investigates how our memory systems mediate wine recognition, how our emotion systems determine feelings that arise, how our dopamine systems mediate reward, and how our motivation systems calculate the continuance of drinking.

If we are to delve deep into the neurological correlates of wine and how we experience its complex flavor, we must first recognize how our expectations and ideas about wine can actually alter how our brains register it. Our expectations of how a wine will taste and our inferences in regards to wine quality have shown to actually affect the real quality and experience of wine. Studies have recently found that one of the key players in driving that expectation is the wine’s price.

Dr. Baba Shiv — a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, who specializes in the role emotion and motivation play in shaping decisions and experiences — wanted to investigate whether the price of a product (for example, wine) can affect neural representations of experienced pleasantness.

In his study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Shiv and his team of researchers discovered that if an individual is told that he or she is tasting two different wines, when in fact they are the same wine but labeled with two different price tags of $5 and $45, respectively, the medial orbitofrontal cortex (associated with pleasantness) significantly increases in activity when the drinker thinks he or she is consuming the more expensive wine. This heightened neurological activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex while drinking the more expensive wine was further correlated to higher subjective pleasantness ratings reported by the participants.

These findings challenge a commonly held assumption in economics in regards to experienced pleasantness. Experienced pleasantness is the notion that the degree to which consumers enjoy a product, such as wine, only depends upon the product’s intrinsic properties (like the wine’s chemical composition) as well as the state of the individual (that is, how thirsty you are).

However, several studies, such as the one described above, have been able to drastically influence one’s experienced pleasantness by changing properties of commodities that have no intrinsic value whatsoever (such as the price of a bottle of wine). The classical theory of experienced pleasantness has not only blinded the minds of many economists over the years but has also been shown to have a particular influence upon the manufacturing of new-world wines.

For the past two decades, “new world” wine producers (some of which include California, Australia, and Chile) have steadily increased their production of wines with average alcohol contents ranging between 14 and 15 percent. This is quite different from 30 years ago when wines from these regions commonly contained an alcoholic content of no more than 12.5 percent. One reason for this trend may be that some wine producers simply assume that consumers appreciate wines with a higher alcohol content due to their powerful, intense, and full-bodied nature (a characteristic which may in fact negatively mask the more subtle aromas and complex flavors inherent in some wines).

For decades, there has never been an empirical study producing evidence to support, or refute, this “positive” relationship between appreciation and high alcohol content in wine. But a study published by Dr. Ram Frost and his team decided to investigate whether alcohol truly does make a more pleasant wine.

Armed with functional MRI brain-imaging technology, the researchers wanted to see whether there could be significant BOLD (blood-oxygen-level dependent) changes within the brains of participants who consume high- and low-alcohol content red wines. In the study, each participant was presented with two red wines with a 1.5 percent difference in alcohol content (low alcohol contents were between 13 and 13.5 percent while high alcohol contents were between 14.5 and 15 percent). In order to isolate the alcohol-content variable, the researchers carefully matched all of the wines on a series of parameters known to affect aroma and flavor (for example, wine region, grape variety, vintage, market price, residual sugar levels, and objective measures of pH). Upon consumption of the low- and high-alcohol content wines, each of the participants was scanned and then asked to taste the wines again, but this time, subjectively rate their appreciation of the wine on a scale from 1 to 20.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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