Cracking the Wine Code

Like Barrie's character Peter Pan, I won't grow up. Presented with the natal cleft of the man ahead of me, I just had to snap a picture of it with my wine glasses. From the get-go my goal was to write this article, more as a joke than a tome on wine tasting. Then it became real as I got it into my nose.

9008918853?profile=originalI was in a group of wine aficionados, all calling out their perception of the 'nose' of several red wines from a popular region in California. Something was wrong, I suspected, because nobody said 'barnyard' but me. What I actually said was a synonym for donkey.

Troubled as only an engineer can be over the unexplained, I searched the literature and found citations about something called visual priming and its affects on perception. Psychology again, I mused. This recalled my Psyc Intro class and that I got only a C grade. However, given a fair warning to not take my academic interpretations seriously, this visual priming subject appears relevant.

How Our Sense of Smell Works

How the human nose actually smells an odor, chemoreception, is unresolved in the scientific community. Olfactory cells inside the top of the nose may vibrate in sympathy with the odor molecules vibratory frequency. Or, perhaps, it is the complex molecular shape of an odor that matches those of olfactory cells. One thing certain is that one olfactory cell can sense multiples of the primary odors, unlike the human eye retina cells reception limited to only one primary color. Eight primary odors recognized are camphorous, fishy, malty, minty, musky, spermous, sweaty, and ruinous. My barnyard, or donkey, wine event smell would be a complex combination of these primary odor molecules in organic chemistry.*

Understanding how the nose smells is one thing, but why does visual surroundings influence the sensation of an odor? I was the only one getting an unpleasant nose on the wine while visualizing the cleft before me. This confusion of senses involves a cross-wiring of several of our senses in the brain. Synesthesia is active in some people, where vibrant colors correspond with the auditory senses, or tastes associated with certain vision senses. While I am not claiming to be a synesthete, evidence does support a more general relationship in people between sight and smell or taste.**

Memory plays a part in sensing odors, and vision may help extract the expected odor based on learned behavior. In a test, wine tasters when given a white wine, dyed red, reported odors consistent with those expected from red wine. Vision and learned expectations had overridden the actual 'nose'.***

Training My Nose

Now I was interested in the subject and wanted to improve the training of my nose. I enrolled in classes at LCA Wine in Costa Mesa, California. LCA is the Laguna Culinary Arts business moved from Laguna, California. Wine sales and classes at LCA are co-housed with the Neptune School of Wine for sommelier training.

9008918659?profile=originalParticularly relevant to my visual priming quest was the LCA class, "The Aromas Of Wine For Consumers", taught by Chef Laurent Brazier. We learned that people first taste a wine with their eyes by holding a red wine up to see its color. Expectations for aroma, we learned, are created before the wine gets to the nose.

Frequently when experiencing a wine, I lack for words to describe the aromas noted with wine. The wine-sniffing nose requires training, along with the mind recording of what is being smelled. It takes practice to record these smells and to improve the database it is suggested to constantly be taking in odors. Smell leather, soaps, vegetables, fruit, dogs, and whatever is around that looks interesting. Chef Brazier provided a variety of common materials (chocolate, liquorice, various fruits and vegetables) for the class to smell. Then with a series of wines provided, we matched the nose with the materials before us.

How I recognized the odor of natal cleft so well? I don't want to go there.



* Shakhashiri, Bassam Z. 2008, January 24. "Chemoreception: The Chemistry of Odors". Retrieved from

** McGill University. "Open your eyes and smell the roses: Activating the visual cortex improves our sense of smell." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 28 February 2012.

*** Morrot, Brochet, & Dubourdieu. 2001. "The Color of Odors". Academic Press - Retrieved from

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