April 15 2012 issue
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Unlocking the Hidden Code of Tasting: Olfactory Memory and Submodalities Tim Gaiser, MS
For the past 25 years, I’ve taught thousands of people at every level of expertise how to taste wine—from first-timers to master’s candidates. It’s the most rewarding thing that I do. But it can also be immensely frustrating, simply because I’ve never been able to "give" a student my experience of tasting a wine, much less show anyone how I actually taste—at least until now.
In November 2009, I sat in front of a film crew for two sessions with renowned behavioral scientist Tim Hallbom of the Everyday Genius Institute (www.everydaygeniusinstitute.com). Hallbom and I spent the better part of four hours deconstructing my tasting process. Our goal was to figure out how I recognize aromas and flavors in wine and, further, to create a model of how I taste that could be replicated by others.
First, I answered a battery of oral questions about my tasting method and the corresponding "evidence procedures" by which I internally calibrate my step-by-step progress. Next, I smelled and tasted several different wines before the camera. As I did so, Hallbom visually tracked my gaze and quickly came up with a consistent pattern of eye movements that I use practically every time I taste. At each eye position, he asked what qualities I was identifying in the wine at that moment and what I was thinking about them. By dramatically slowing down my tasting process, we discovered how I use submodalities to detect aromas and flavors in wine.
THE CONCEPT OF SUBMODALITIES
Modality is the way we experience the world through sensation. Our modalities are our senses of sight, hearing, feeling (both emotional and kinesthetic), smell, and taste. The qualities or structures of the five senses as we process our experience internally are referred to, in the field of neurolinguistic programming, as sub-modalities . These submodalities can dramatically affect the quality of our life experiences, as well as our memories thereof.
By the end of the final session, Hallbom and I had discovered several surprising and important things about my tasting process that have since proven to be common among other experienced tasters:
- Olfactory memory is triggered by internal visual images. During the sessions, I realized that as I smell wine, my recognition of aromas—from various kinds of fruits to spices to minerality to oak—is triggered by a mental image or even a "movie" of a previous experience.
- Everyone has an inner "mind map" of a wine. Hallbom and I discovered that as I recognized aromas in a glass of wine, each associated image had a distinct location where it "lived" once generated, and the combined images formed a consistent map or grid. My map is positioned down and in front of me in my mind’s eye, arranged from left to right in the following order: fruit, non-fruit, earth/mineral, and oak/wood. By taking a mental step back to look at this visual collage, I can "see" everything I need to evaluate the wine as a whole.
- The structural qualities of these images, or submodalities, are of critical importance. Hallbom and I determined that my images had precise characteristics with respect to location, proximity, size, distance, brightness, depth, and much more. We also found that changing certain key submodalities (called "driver" sub-modalities) altered the intensity of the experience. For example, moving the image of black cherries I found in a Cabernet Sauvignon farther away in my imagination actually reduced the intensity of my experience of that aroma in the wine. Changing the size of the image or brightening its colors had an equally substantial effect. If you stop and consider this for a moment, the implications are profound not only for wine tasting, but for other experiences as well.
- Professional tasters can keep multiple images of different aromas in mind at the same time. Once we create an image, we quickly move it to another location in our inner field of vision to make room for more. When we’ve found all the aromas we can, we mentally step back from the montage of images we have created to assess them collectively, identify or evaluate the wine, and, ideally, enjoy it. The ability to pay attention to many things at once is perhaps why good tasters rarely confuse one grape or style of wine for another—because their recognition and memory are based on multiple senses. My training was in classical music, and I played trumpet in orchestras and smaller chamber groups for many years. The experience of paying attention to multiple sensory data in a glass of wine is not unlike that of focusing on the movements of the conductor and all the other musicians around you while simultaneously adjusting the intonation and timbre of your own playing.
A FIELD STUDY
Since my sessions with Hallbom, I’ve informally profiled the tasting processes of dozens of students and fellow Master Sommeliers. It quickly became apparent that every individual’s internal wine map is different; some are basic, while others are strikingly complex. About a year ago, I decided to put these findings to a further test by profiling two internationally recognized wine experts: Karen MacNeil, ACWP, and Evan Goldstein, MS. The wine I chose was a straightforward red with plenty of fruit expression: a 2009 Yalumba Shiraz-Viognier from South Australia, served in Riedel Vinum glassware.
I had two goals: to map out how Karen and Evan recognized aromatic submodalities in the same wine, and to discover whether and how changing certain key submodalities would alter their experience of the wine. The process was far less formal than in my sessions with Hallbom: I simply stood next to them as they smelled the wine and asked what aromas they detected. Both subjects quickly described images of elements in the wine without any prompting and went on to describe the structures and submodalities of their images in precise terms.
It’s interesting to compare how Karen and Evan responded to the same wine. Karen’s images ranged from framed photographs to a detailed "movie" of a spice market in Austria. She tended to experience each component of the wine individually and completely, rather than arranging all the elements into a single field or grid in sequential fashion. I asked her at one point if she could bring all the elements together into her field of vision, and she said that didn’t work for her.
Evan’s experience was completely different. As he explained it, every time he approaches a glass of wine, an inner voice asks, "What’s there? Fruit? Is it red? Black? Blue?" The voice prompts the apparition of a control panel, like a flat-screen monitor, about 2-3 feet in front of him at eye level, showing a spectrum of colors from light red on the left side to deep purple on the right. Once the color is confirmed, images of specific fruits pop up long enough to be acknowledged, then move quickly off to the left side. For non-fruit qualities, such as earth and oak, Evan pictures a checklist before him, which he quickly runs through, marking aromas that could be present in the wine until he runs out of things to look for. He then recalls all the elements to review the wine. He describes his tasting process as a " CSI -like" experience in which he examines all the clues in the glass one by one. "At the end," he says, "you bring everything back into view and make a decision about the wine based on all the evidence."
Karen’s driver submodalities involved proximity, size, two- versus three-dimensionality, and color versus black and white.
Proximity: Pushing the spice-market movie to the other side of the room in her mind’s eye reduced Karen’s experience of spice elements in the wine and increased her perception of fruit elements.
Moving the image of the oak barrel closer increased the intensity of oak in the wine while reducing the wine’s fruitiness.
Size: Increasing the size of the raspberry image to 10 square feet in her mind increased the intensity of all the fruit elements in the wine. Shrinking the size of the spice-market movie reduced the intensity of the spice elements and intensified the fruit elements.
Dimensionality: Making the spice-market memory flat (two-dimensional) reduced Karen’s experience of spice elements in the wine and increased the intensity of fruit elements.
Color: Making the raspberry image black and white diminished her experience of fruit elements while intensifying the experience of spice and oak components.
Evan didn’t detect many non-fruit aromas, such as earth or oak, in this wine, but he said he would have processed those aromas in the same way as the fruit qualities. His driver submodalities were proximity, size, brightness, and color.
Proximity: Bringing the image of cherries closer generated an image of a control knob whereby the "volume" was turned up from 4 to 6.5, making the intensity of the cherry aromas somewhat stronger.
When the image of the cherries was moved across the room, the volume decreased from 4 to 1.5, the fruit became less defined, the image of grapiness returned, and the control panel for color returned—a signal to restart the process.
Size: Enlarging the imaginary picture of cherries to the size of a billboard (10 feet by 20 feet) increased the intensity of Evan’s experience about as much as increasing the proximity did, from 4 to 6.5.
Brightness: Dimming the image of the cherries reduced his experience of the fruit. Making the image brighter increased the experience.
Color: Making the image black and white rendered the experience of the wine clinical rather than sensual and also diminished the intensity of the overall response.
I reached a couple of key conclusions from my study of tasting submodalities. First, the simple act of becoming aware of our own thought processes will give us an understanding of how we use submodalities to code our experience of the world. Submodalities provide a much richer vocabulary with which to communicate our experience of tasting wine, both to ourselves and to our students. I’ve dramatically changed my teaching technique since learning about submodalities; these days, I’m more interested in learning how my students "map" a given wine than I am in trying to explain how my own process works. I’ve found that once students make the connection between aromas and mental images, it’s easier for them to use their own frameworks, abilities, and memories to become better tasters—often in far less time.
Second, it’s clear that one can "install" memories of new aromas by fostering a connection between the olfactory sense and one’s inner image bank and by intensely repeating the procedure over a short period of time. But I’ll save that subject for a future article.