Great wine, but what’s it taste like?

A great post by my friend Robin Goldstein about the power of word-choice when it comes to signalling the quality of wine. But I wonder: are some sensory experiences (wine, chocolate) really harder to reproduce than others (the color white, a C-major scale), or is it just that we’re culturally trained to be more forgiving of poor reproductions in some areas than we are in others? (Or are the two really the same thing?) The famous whites in John Singer Sargent’s portraits are anything but white; the overtones and subtleties of a scale played by Yo-Yo Ma are still near-impossible to reproduce (let alone synthesize) with true fidelity.

We may disagree about our favorite artists and musicians, but it’s relatively easy to agree that a particular color is blue, or that a particular note is C-sharp. They’re described by wavelengths and frequencies along a clearly defined spectrum. That’s why the technologies of visual and auditory reproduction—photo, video, audio—work so well, relatively speaking.

With taste and smell—the so-called “chemical” senses, which are more complex (humans have about 400 different types of olfactory receptors) and less well understood than the others, we don’t have the luxury of those points of reference. That’s why we so often resort to loose analogies—“tastes like chicken”—and it’s also why reproducing tastes and smells is so difficult (grape soda doesn’t taste much like grapes, and nobody’s yet synthesized a bottle of 1945 Pétrus—an activity that would surely yield tremendous profit).

To challenge this barrier, we resort to analogy. Coffee tastes like nuts and chocolate; Sauvignon Blanc smells like grapefruit and cat pee. In a Sauternes, you might sense the brine of the first green olive you tasted in Italy; in a Pedro Ximénez sherry, the viscous maple syrup that your grandmother once drizzled on your pancakes.

But how carefully are we really choosing these adjectives and analogies? How often do they correspond to real chemical commonalities? Does that matter? Do the analogies more frequently serve a more poetic (or at least suggestive) purpose, forging new neural assemblies that connect relatively arbitrary taste and smell memories with each other—connections that, reinforced over time, turn into sensory reality?

Originally published at

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