Wine Tasting and Submodalities: A Breakthrough Discovery

In November of 2009 I worked with world-renowned behavioral scientist, Tim Hallbom, at the Everyday Genius Institute. Tim Hallbom and I spent hours deconstructing my tasting process. Our goal was to really figure out how I recognize aromas and flavors and analyze wine. I have always wondered how I really know what’s in a wine. And I have been on a search to find more effective ways to teach my students how to taste. In the course of working with Tim Hallbom, we slowed down my tasting process dramatically and discovered how I use ‘Submodalities’ to detect flavors and aromas in wine. The findings were both surprising and powerful. Here are a few things we discovered about how our brains code information and how that knowledge can help people become better tasters.

Submodalities is a term that comes from “moda,” the Greek word for the five senses. Our modalities are our senses of sight, hearing, feeling (both emotional and kinesthetic), olfactory and gustatory. We use the same modalities internally in the context of how we process our experience of the world. That in mind, it goes without saying that everyone’s subjective experience of tasting wine (or anything for that matter) is unique and in that context, perfect. Submodalities, further, are the qualities or the structure of the five senses as they are experienced internally. These submodalities, moreover, can dramatically affect the quality of one’s experience in everything—from tasting wine to one’s memories and beyond. During the two sessions with Tim Hallbom I discovered several very important things about my own tasting as well as tasting in general. Here are a few:

First: olfactory memory is triggered by internal visual images. I ask anyone reading this post to stop for a moment, go inside and try to remember as fully as possible how the following three things smell: raw garlic, an heirloom rose and a barnyard. What you’ll probably discover is that you generate a visual image for each—either a still photo or the “movie” of a specific memory–which will then trigger the memory of how the garlic, the rose or the barnyard smells. Sight is the dominant internal sensory representational system for over 95% of the human race. To that point, I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t first generate a visual image in order to remember how something smells. With over six billion people on the planet I’m sure they exist but I again have yet to meet someone. Working with Hallbom I realized that as I smell wine and recognized aromas—from various kinds of fruits to spices to earth/mineral qualities to oak—the recognition/memory of any component in the wine was triggered by a visual image.

Second: everyone has an inner map or grid of a wine. So where do all those images go once created? Tim and I discovered that as I generated images when recognizing aromas in a glass of wine (and generating them in rapid succession in a very short period of time) each image literally had a distinct location where it “lived” and the combined images formed a map or grid in terms of their position. My map is positioned down and in front of me (which makes sense as I’m looking down when I taste) and goes left to right in the following order: fruit, non- or other than fruit, earth-mineral, and oak/wood qualities.

Third: everyone’s map or grid is different. As just mentioned my grid was a straight forward left to right scheme. I have interviewed dozens of people in the last few months, many of them fellow Master Sommeliers, and never found anyone else with the same map. Some are as simple as mine but most are remarkably complex.

Fourth: the structural qualities of these images, or submodalities, have enormous importance. Once Tim and I got beyond my generating images, the images having a location and further living in a grid, the structure of the images was the next discovery; specifically, that the images have very distinct qualities in terms of their size, distance, brightness, depth and much more. Being aware of these submodalities became immediately important but manipulating them was profound. Changing the size, proximity and/or brightness of my images dramatically increased or decreased the intensity of my perception of the various aromas connected to those images. For example, moving the image of black cherries found in a Cabernet Sauvignon either closer or farther away in my mind’s eye increased or decreased the intensity of the experience. Changing the size of the image or brightening the colors of the image of the same image had an equally substantial effect. If you stop and consider this for a moment the implications are profound.

Fifth: as Tim and worked with the qualities of the images it became clear that we as professional tasters can hold multiple images of different aromas in our attention simultaneously while still looking for more aromas in a glass of wine. It’s as if we create an image of an aroma and then the image moves to a location while we go back to the wine looking for something else. At some point we can’t find/recognize any further aromas in the glass and mentally step back from the entire map of the wine to review all the images with the idea of evaluating, remembering and hopefully enjoying the wine. Perhaps the sum total of such an experience is why good tasters rarely confuse one grape/style of wine for another—because the recognition and memory is based in multiple senses or what is often called a synesthesia—a term often associated with “muscle memory.”

My training was in classical music and I played a lot in orchestras and smaller chamber groups for a number of years (trumpet). The experience of holding multiple points of attention in a glass of wine is not unlike sitting in an orchestra focusing on the conductor (or not) and all the other musicians around you while adjusting the intonation and timbre of your own sound/playing from moment to moment.

Lots of food for thought here and I’m working on a large scale project that focuses on submodalities and olfactory/sense memory not only for wine—but for multiple industries. Stay tuned.