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A holistic path to a finer palate

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Lindsey Hadlock

Want to become a wine expert? The traditional approach is to practice analyzing wine using descriptions of qualities such as fruit, sugar and acid.

But a new study found that people with a working knowledge of wine identified wines more accurately after drawing a picture of their tasting experience, or turning it into a story, than those who wrote down analytical tasting notes.

The study, “Learning to Become a Taste Expert,” published in June in the Journal of Consumer Research, found similar results for coffee, chocolate and craft beer.

“The holistic approach brings you closer to the tasting experience, because you’re not constrained by words,” said lead author Kathryn LaTour, associate professor of services marketing and the Banfi Professor of Wine Education and Management in the School of Hotel Administration.

The results held true only for enthusiasts – people who already had some knowledge of wine, beer, chocolate or coffee, but were not yet experts.

LaTour and co-author John A. Deighton, a professor at the Harvard Business School, started by interviewing 10 of the world’s 229 master sommeliers – the highest distinction of wine-service expert – about their paths to expertise. While they had first learned about wine analytically, LaTour said, many of them described a point when their appreciation of wine deepened and became nonverbal.

“They started talking about how they immerse themselves in a Zen-like, meditative state, where they see the whole tasting line,” she said. “Some people described it as a story, some as a song, and one master sommelier talked about shapes – how when he tastes the wine he sees a triangle, which indicates acidity, and as he does the tasting it starts to move like a movie. Moving away from words seemed to be an important part of becoming an expert.”

To test this theory, the researchers conducted four experiments, comparing how well people of different skill levels identified the products they’d initially tasted after recording their impressions in a variety of ways.

First, wine and coffee enthusiasts were divided into two groups. One group was instructed to either draw the individual components of the beverage, or draw a picture representing how it tasted over time. Tasters in the second group wrote either a few sentences of notes, or a description of how they experienced the taste from start to finish. They were then asked to identify which drink they had tasted from an array of similar drinks. Those who used the narrative version, either visually or verbally, were more accurate than those who had described the components with pictures or words.

Secondly, the researchers compared how craft beer and chocolate enthusiasts performed after either writing or drawing a “story” summarizing the taste. Those who drew the narrative were more accurate at identifying what they had tasted than those who wrote a story, and reported a deeper engagement with the tasting experience.

The study then compared wine enthusiasts with novices, followed by a comparison of wine enthusiasts and experts. In both cases, the enthusiasts showed improved accuracy when using holistic methods and the beginners and experts did not.

Beginners, the study suggests, likely still needed a traditional framework for understanding what they were tasting, while experts already understood the wine holistically so the exercise did not make a difference.

“We think this result may generalize to other kinds of learning,” Deighton said. “Beginners of all kinds need words to organize experience. But beyond a certain point, words get in the way. For mid-level enthusiasts, language can overshadow the experience and we think it may actually blunt progress in learning.”

Storytelling and drawing could be helpful for enthusiasts hoping to take their taste expertise to the next level, LaTour said.

“We talk so much about analysis, but we don’t look at how experts synthesize all the information they’ve learned over time,” she said. “Drawing and thinking more holistically about taste can be a good learning tool for consumers, to better understand how they taste.”