A Less than Scientific Look at the Science of Taste
There are only two things that I’m certain about when it comes to beer. The first: I love it. The second: when I was sixteen years old and took my first sip of Bud Light—I damn near spit it out.
So what’s changed between then and now? I’m relatively certain that the basic composition, recipe, and flavor profile of my favorite American lager is pretty much the same as it used to be. Sure, the labels changed a bit, but all and all we’re talking about the same crisp (albeit, slightly watery) brew.
Truth is, it’s not the beer that’s evolved over my past six years of beverage enjoyment—it’s me. And my perception of taste.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the moment when beer drinking became an engagement of pleasure rather than displeasure, however, it’s not the moment of this transformation that’s significant as much as the reason behind it. One thing that I can say with some certainty is that it took quite a bit of beer drinking for me to begin surmise pleasure purely from taste alone. And the easy explanation for this change in taste would be familiarity—I’d become familiar with the taste of American Lager, so I liked it.
Thing is, I’m familiar with plenty of things I don’t like—take cough medicine for instance. Over the course of many years of long distance running paired with my unfortunate malady of cold-induced asthma—I’ve become unfortunately familiar with the nuances of green and nasty prescription cough syrup (both with codeine and without). Despite constant conditioning to this stimuli, however, I continue to despise its flavor profile, basic structure, and unabashed full-bodiedness. So what is it that allows us to develop a negative perception of some stimuli and a fondness of others?
Perhaps it has to do with the circumstance in which the conditioning of these very different stimuli occurs. For instance, my initial perception of Bud Light is something that occurred mostly at parties, in the presence of friends and other individuals that were enjoying themselves. In essence, my initial experiences with beer occurred in the presence of other good stimuli, so it became a good stimuli itself. The inverse is true in regards to my experience with the green and nasty stuff. My initial (and recent) experience with prescription cough syrup occurred in the unfortunate presence of sickness and has thus become a negative stimulus.
And according to this school of thought, had I been drinking cough medicine at parties and drinking Bud Light in illness (a very alternative mindset, I admit)—I could have developed an affinity for cough syrup and a disagreement with Bud-Light. And this is a conditioning process that I very much believe to be sound, however, I’m willing to admit that there must be other influences at play. For instance, the social standing of a particular stimulus, projected value (economically and nutritionally), and its general perceived reputation—are all influential on the perception of a certain substance. To apply this postulate to the Bud Light example that I’ve been using—in high school especially, Bud Light was damn reputable. It was tied to a certain notion of respect and rebellion, and thus I was more apt to develop an appreciation for it. All said and done, beer was too cool for school, so I wanted to like it.
Now that I’ve laid out a loose theory of taste development using underage drinking as my framework—let us dissect how this applies to international wine consumption. But to analyze a contemporary taste of wine, we must first examine the back-history that invoked its development. And as is the case with all facets even remotely wine related, the history of consumption lies with the Romans. And contrary to what all of us wine geeks, sommeliers, and nuance-minded folks would like to think—their hearts weren’t with complexity, terroir, or fruit profile–-but with intoxication.
You see, the Romans developed an appreciation for wine not because of how it tasted, but how it made them feel. And it was the intoxication factor that brought forth a need for viniculture and caused the spread vines and wines across Europe. That said, in the state of early viniculture, preconceptions about the taste of wine had not yet been benchmarked so over time, tastes were allowed to develop, and develop with good stigmas because that was how fermented fruit made the drinker feel—good and warm.
So even as wine production advanced, no matter how the wines tasted, they were consumed. And taste perception evolved. In fact, prior to the previous 50 years, viticultural and winemaking practices remained so inconsistent that poorly made wines were widespread. Shoddy winemaking, questionable sanitation, and bad storage/transportation produced inconsistent, and sometimes just outright infected barrels. And despite exemplifying what we would consider today inherent flaw—the wines were consumed, and consumed with vigor—accordingly influencing the perception of taste.
And long after the onset of sound winemaking—some of these taste perceptions still remain with us as we continue to drink certain ‘flawed’ wines because we’ve developed a taste for them. Take Madeira for instance. Despite the fact that Madeira is what we now know to be madeirized (a term for skunked wine) as well as oxidized—since we, the wine community, have come to embrace it, we continue to drink it even though we understand it is an inherently flawed. The same is true with many other wines on the market today. Even the bubbles in Champagne were once perceived as wine flaw, but we’ve quickly learned to celebrate them and use them to celebrate.
Ultimately, I’m trying to say a couple things by writing this article, and perhaps the first is that the modern palate is too benchmarked with what it likes and what it doesn’t. I think we’ve reached a point where, if a certain wine does not fall within a very particular scope, we dismiss it without looking any deeper. And it seems to me that as time passes, that scope is becoming smaller and smaller. Furthermore, we develop particularities based on experiences with a single wine. And that’s just close-minded. Now, I’m not suggesting you to drink poorly made wine—quite the contrary actually. I’m suggesting you keep an open mind to any wine that is well made, even if it isn’t in the particular style that you would usually drink.
If you’re one of those people that ‘can’t drink sweet wine’, chances are you’ve been conditioned that way. Whether that means you over-indulged in a particular off-dry boxed wine in high school, or you’ve had too many nights keeled over the toilet after drinking Andre all evening—or some other experience all together—allow yourself to be reconditioned in the presence of quality. Come to a well-made German Spatlese without preconceptions and see what happens. I think you might find yourself beckoned to new horizons.
Secondly, the more I break it down, the more I realize just how incredibly subjective the sense of taste is, and how absurd it is to put a particular price point (or rating) on the way something tastes. And sure, it makes perfect sense to us wine people, it’s how we’ve been conditioned to think—but with so much well made wine on the market these days, I think what was once black and white is coming rather blurry with more and more shades of grey. If the average underage-drinking palette can be conditioned to love watery American lager, how can any wine be worth 100 bucks a bottle, let alone 1000. I know. You’re all shouting the C-word—Complexity. And maybe even the T-word—Terroir—but that’s a discussion for another day, and frankly, I think it’s only a small part of the equation.