The Beginner’s Dilemma: “But it just smells like wine …”

Sound familiar?  I think this is an altogether common experience for most people just getting into wine.  It was for me.  I clearly remember going to my first professional tasting while in grad school studying music.  As I stood
next to a vendor’s table with a southern French red in my glass I listened to
the two guys next to me extolling the virtues of the same wine in the form of baked earth, dried spice and leather notes. I immediately put my nose back into the glass and it smelled like … red wine.  Period. I thought the two guys were completely full of it or hallucinating—or both.

It wasn’t until several months later during the holidays that I had my first wine epiphany.  A good friend had given me a bottle of 1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet for Christmas dinner.  The ‘76 vintage was one of several consecutive drought years in California and the wine was rich, powerful and quickly filled the room with blackberry jam and exotic spices once poured.  I remember thinking, “this is what they’re talking about!”  So what changed between experiences “A” and “B”?  What was the key that made the difference between wine smelling like wine and wine smelling like other things?  At the time it seemed completely mysterious and it wasn’t until decades later that I finally pieced together what had happened.

My experience points to one of the major wine disconnects I wrote about in the last post; that wine as a fermented beverage smells like a host of other things and that presupposes complexity which in turn results in intimidation on the part of the beginning taster.  The answer to this conundrum may be as simple as perception and recognition in the form of olfactory and taste memory.

The good news is that practically everyone has all the hardware and software required to smell, taste and remember. We’ve been doing it and
arguably getting better at it (or not) since we were infants.  In fact, we are more than capable of storing a complex taste memory fairly easily.  Not convinced?  Take a moment to consider exhibit “A,” the humble cheeseburger.  If we take all seven taste sensations as in sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savory), kokumi (calcium) and fat into consideration, your garden variety cheeseburger can check off on all the categories except for bitter, unless of course you’ve burned the burger or are going très chic by adding radicchio to the toppings.  Combine these with other variables such as temperature, texture and context (where, when, how and with whom you enjoyed said cheeseburger) and you have the makings (sorry for the pun) for a very complex smell and taste memory indeed.

But there still is a challenge for beginners with wine in the form of another major disconnect also mentioned in the last post: that most beginners enter the wine portal with the expectation that learning to taste is somehow different than learning anything else they’ve ever studied—most of which is visually based.

What’s missing then is the awareness that there is a key visual component to smell and taste memory, specifically that there’s an internal image connected to practically all smell and taste memories.  I’ve written about the image-olfactory connection several times previously but suffice to say that all the professional tasters I’ve worked with on my project, without exception, use images in some form or another to identify aromas and flavors when they taste wine.  Said images range from two-dimensional still photographs all the way to multi-sensory panoramic life-size movies.  At this point I’ll go as far to say that if you can’t create an image for something smelled or tasted you can’t recognize it much less remember what it is.

Front Loading and the Basic Set

The challenge in teaching the beginning taster then becomes clear: to somehow bring awareness to the internal image olfactory/taste connection.  What’s important to note here is that we’re not talking about actual smelling and tasting anything—we’re talking about memory function and therefore it’s possible to improve memory—and recognition–without an actually working with wine.

Over the past year I’ve worked with students using a technique called “Front Loading” combined with a subset of the most common wine aromas I’ve dubbed the “Basic Set.” Front Loading in effect is working backwards to improve memory of the most common components found in wine—without
using wine. The Basic Set is the 30 most common aromas and flavors found in a majority of all wines. I’ve found that using both in conjunction can bring awareness to the image-olfactory connection and ultimately improve tasting ability—in some cases considerably. Further, using Front Loading and the Basic Set helps to accomplish the following:

– Making strong image/olfactory connections

– Improving memory of Basic Set components

– Using multi-sensory memory to learn vs. visual memory

– Using contrast and olfactory memory as a tool for learning

Here are the components of the Basic Set, the two-dozen-plus aromas and flavors found in most wines.  Keep in mind that the intent of the list is not to carve anything in stone but to merely serve as a vehicle for learning.  Thus the list and its components can always be altered as needed.

Basic Set: Common Wine Aromas and Flavors

Green apple                    Red and/or Golden Delicious apple
Pear                               Lemon
Lime                               Orange
Pineapple                        Banana
Peach                              Apricot
Black cherry                    Blackberry
Sour red cherry                Red raspberry
Cranberry                        Raisin/prune
Roses                              Violets
Mint/eucalyptus                Bell pepper (pyrazines)
Herbs: rosemary               Black/white pepper
Vanilla                              Cinnamon
Clove                               Toast
Coffee                              Chocolate
Mushroom& forest floor      Chalk

Exercise: Using the Basic Set

The complete instructions, modules and exercises for the Basic Set can be found at the two links listed at the end of this point. In the meantime, here are some brief exercises using some of the principles.

There are four sequential modules using the Basic Set:

• Module I: using words and images

• Module II: using images

• Module III: using words

• Module IV: using images and contrastive analysis

Part I: Using Images and Words

I’ve listed six images below, three fruit images and three non-fruit images. Take a look at the images and then do the following:

1. Look at the image and say the name of the fruit, etc. internally or out loud.
2. Recall a time when you smelled and/or tasted the given fruit, spice, etc.
3. In your mind’s “eye” reach out, pick up a slice of the fruit (etc.) and take a bite of it.
4. Make your experience of the fruit, spice or other component as complete and intense as possible down to the aromas, flavors and the texture and mouthfeel.
5. Intensify the experience of your memory by doing the following:
a. Make your images (or movie) larger
b. Make your images closer
c. Make the colors brighter
d. Make any sounds louder
e. Intensify any physical/tactile sensations

Part II: Rewind!

Now use your own memories to bring up the following aromas/flavors:

• Fruit:
– Lemon
– Lime
– Orange

• Non-Fruit
– Roses
– Vanilla
– Mushroom/earth

Important! Pay attention to the structure of your memories, specifically the location, proximity and size of your images/movies. Are they large, even life-size, in bright HD color and three-dimensional? If not, make them that way as it will improve your memory of them—sometimes dramatically.  Changing the structure of your memories is literally altering the submodalities of your thinking—the topic of a post in the very near future.

Part III: Contrastive Analysis

Contrastive analysis is my fancy-ass way of saying, “try to make something into something else.” In this case we’ll take your images of the aromas and or flavors depicted above and play with them.  The results are at the very least surprising. Here are instructions:

1. Use your images/memories for the pairs of components listed below.
2. Try to make one image into the other.
3. What happens?

Example I: lemon into mushroom

Example II: lime into vanilla

Example III: orange into rose

What happens when you try to make one image into the other? Practically everyone I’ve done this exercise with (myself included) experienced something akin to placing polarized magnets near each other: the images literally fly apart and become separated usually by noticeable distance–and the two images land in very specific locations in your “mind’s eye.”

While this exercise may seem odd initially the same phenomenon will really come into play when one builds more complex “progressive” memories of specific grapes and wines.  Then a wine like Alsace Riesling will occupy a specific location and proximity in one’s internal field making it more difficult to confuse for another grape or wine—even another Riesling.  But I’m getting ahead of myself …

Parting thoughts on using the Basic Set:

• Repetition is key: work with the images/words dozens of times until your memories become automatic.

• Remember the goal is to be able to bring up a memory of one of any of the components instantly, intensely–on command!

• Don’t limit your work to the Basic Set: expand your repertoire to include as many other aromatics/flavors as you can.

• In time, start to put the components together in groups or
sequences to form markers for classic grape and wines.

A final question: can you install an aroma? The answer is yes you can. First, obtain some of whatever it is (white pepper, lentils, cucumber etc.) and smell and taste it repetitively (If tasting is appropriate!).  After tasting close your eyes and generate a huge bright image of the component along with bringing up the smell and taste memory as intensely and completely as possible. Repetition, again, is the key and in some cases you may have to do it dozens of times.  But with practice it will be there.

Downloading the Basic Set

The complete exercises using the Basic Set can be found at  To download the two PDF’s use the following links:

Modules I& II:

Modules III& IV:

Try using the basic set exercises and see what happens to your tasting.  I will be curious to hear any and all feedback so please post any thoughts or comments.

Our work here is done …