High alcohol wines dial down your brain (but does it matter?)

My April piece for Palate Press pokes at the question, “how can we really tell what we’re tasting” by removing as much of the subjective mess around language as we can and going straight to the brain. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging — stop-motion shots of your brain in real time as you perform some kind of task, like tasting wine — we can look for differences in what parts of your brain are active when you’re sipping on wine A versus wine B and infer something about what effect they really have on you. Variations on the theme let us ask all manner of interesting questions. Make wine A and B the same, but tell tasters that one’s expensive and one’s cheap. Brain reward centers will light up more in response to the “expensive” wine. Or keep the wines the same and change the people. Trained sommeliers think demonstrably more and more analytically about wine tasting than casual sippers. Or try to pair up wines to be as similar as possible save for their alcohol level and ask whether tasters prefer the higher or lower alcohol versions.

Okay. The last one is  a stretch. Scientists have done it and shown that higher alcohol wines provoke less brain activation than their lower alcohol counterparts. That’s interesting, particularly because researchers expected the opposite. Instead of more intense wine provoking more intense sensation, it seemed that tasters had to work a bit harder to pay more attention to the subtle nuances in the less hit-you-over-the-head reds.

Okay. I suspect knowing this doesn’t change much for you if you’re a winemaker, but perhaps if you’re running complex formal tastings — either for sensory science experiments or to train sommeliers or diploma students — you now have more evidence to back using lower-alcohol wines to improve students’/subjects’ learning and focus.

But, can we say anything at all about whether tasters prefer the lower- or the higher-alcohol versions? Here’s where they’re stretching. Specific types of brain activation tell us things about pleasure, no doubt: we’ve identified “reward centers” and “pleasure centers” and we can even visualize people drawing associations with memory and emotions (perhaps you’ve made the acquaintance of your amygdala?). But to say that, because higher alcohol wines “dial down” the brain, relatively speaking, tells us nothing about what you should drink when you’re trying to maximize the pleasure of that evening out at the restaurant you’ve been anticipating for weeks.

Far too many other factors come to bear upon wine preference for us to imagine that these study results say much (if anything) about it. My somewhat embarrassing preference for light-bodied Willamette Valley pinot noir is a good example. I appreciate and enjoy virtually everything (just because I’ve never tasted a white zin I could enjoy doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist), but I have a soft spot for raspberry and pine and ocean spray-scented, fine-boned, earth and mushroom-framed pinot. Like the ones I grew up on as a kid scampering around a big front yard abutting a vineyard on Cooper Mountain. I have so many pleasant memories associated with that style of wine, long conversations with my father, warm evening light spreading across the great big round dining room table he made, and mud squishing through my toes while I picked the green beans that I’m going to prefer it, even if it turns out that they require less cognitive attention, even if every critic tells me that they’re poorly made, even if I learn to assess quality by other criteria.

Duh. I haven’t said anything earth-shattering. And, in one way, the difference between a marketing study and a neuroscience one is whether that gestalt gets captured in overall “behavior” or whether one factor is isolated and analysed. The neuroscience is still useful for describing how wine works (something marketing studies rarely do well, to be honest). But it does squat for speaking to complex behaviors made up of scores of these bitty considerations which we need to remember aren’t anywhere near as binary and are a whole lot messier than simple science like this fMRI study makes them seem. So let this be a counterpart to all of the enthusiastically reactionary science journalism that responds to press releases about people drinking wine in giant magnetic tubes by shouting “Science discovers high-alcohol wines aren’t really as good after all!” from their collective rooftop. Nope. We’re not there yet.

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