We’ve all had that moment when, after picking up a new bottle of wine and reading the description full of flowery tasting terms or listening to a restaurant’s sommelier talk at length, we wonder: is this person really such a connoisseur of wine tasting? Sommeliers and wine experts might undergo lengthy training, but do they really know what they’re talking about?
One study has shown that professional wine tasters can have a hard time distinguishing between white wine and red wine from smell or taste if they don’t have any information about the wine’s color — either because the white wine is colored red with odorless colorant or because they’re drinking it from black glasses. If wine experts can’t even tell the difference between red and white wine by taste alone, what does all of this flowery language in tasting notes really mean?
However, this demonstration that wine experts are less skillful than we think may be misleading. A new study based on mental imagery — both olfactory and gustatory — suggests otherwise. As human beings, each of us has strong mental imagery connected to our senses of smell and taste. For example, when we see an image of a delicious meal, this automatically produces mental imagery of certain smells (olfactory imagery) and tastes (gustatory imagery) connected to the food we see before us.
So what does this have to do with wine? Well, this study demonstrates that wine experts do indeed have better olfactory and gustatory imagery than novices, at least when it comes to wine-related smells and flavors. This explains why these professional tasters can sometimes be so far off the mark. When they taste a white wine that appears red because of its tasteless colorant, their strong olfactory and gustatory imagery forms an expectation based on what their eyes perceive. Their vision is being tricked by the colorant, and so is the assumption created by their mental imagery. And because these experts’ wine-related mental imagery is stronger than the average person’s, this leads them even further astray.
So, as it turns out, wine experts really are the connoisseurs they claim to be, and they are indeed much better at smelling and tasting wine than the average person. But it’s exactly this ability cultivated by years of training and experience that can sometimes make them easier to fool.