One of the maddening conditions of our humanity will always be the singularity of our consciousness. By this I mean the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can never truly share someone else’s experience. Each of us is a closed system, and so far, nothing we have invented can break us out of these black boxes that are our minds.
This fact of nature makes conversations about objectivity and subjectivity particularly thorny. Shared cultural norms allow us all to agree on what color is orange and that cherries taste like cherries, or so we think. When we start to carefully examine these judgements, however, we discover just how constructed they are by language and shared history.
These cultural constructs are built upon foundations of natural mechanics and physics. There is a particular wavelength of light that is reflected from a highway traffic cone, and a specific set of molecules that make up the flavors and aromas of that cherry. We talk about both of these experiences with others, and we develop a shared language for them, but we each see only what we see, and we each taste only what we taste, and nothing else.
And this leaves some of us to wonder what kind of variation of experience might exist between individuals, despite a shared cultural agreement on basic principles of perception.
To put a finer point on it, we don’t really know whether two people drinking the same wine are actually tasting the same things — i.e. perceiving exactly the same sensations. Skeptics of wine experts have long been able to point to the incredible variance between tasting notes made about the same wine by different individuals.
Here are Robert Parker and Antonio Galloni’s respective flavor descriptors for the 2011 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon:
With opaque black/purple color and notes of subtle burning charcoal embers, blueberry, blackberry and graphite, the wine has a certain Bordelais minerality, but then the richness of Napa kicks in…Full-bodied with lighter tannins… (Parker)
Gorgeous. Blue and black fruit, flowers, spices and exotic hint of orange zest all add complexity on the expressive finish. (Galloni).
My own tasting notes for the same wine are different still. There are some similarities between the notes, of course, but the real question is whether the difference in our tasting notes can be attributable to our respective educations, life experiences, imaginations, and personalities, or whether, in fact, we each tasted something different when we tasted the wine.
I have long believed privately in something that I’ve come to refer to as “personal terroir.” I’m not entirely sure how to describe it other than by resorting to metaphor. Personal terroir is the olfactory equivalent of our fingerprints. Our biological equipment (olfactory bulbs, tastebuds, etc.) are reasonably similar across our species statistically speaking, but what sits behind that equipment from a neurological perspective can be very, very different.
The physical structures that make up our individual minds — the synaptic complexity that we each build throughout the entirety of our existence — are quite different between individuals, and these are the structures that determine our personal reactions to the sensations we encounter when we taste and smell something, regardless of whether it happens to be the same combination of molecules encountered by another person.
We each grew up in our own universe of flavors, aromas, and more. I grew up on a sugar-free, cow-milk-free diet engineered by my single hippie mother. I had tofu instead of meat, carob instead of chocolate, Japanese seaweed instead of potato chips, and lots of brown rice and pinto beans. Heck, I even grew up drinking water literally from a mountain stream instead of from the tap. Contrast that with some hypothetical person of the same age who grew up in Bangkok, with its unique combination of flavors, ingredients, and water chemistry.
Anecdotally we know that these two individuals will at the very least have different preferences when it comes to flavors and aromas. The will also likely have different expectations and levels of familiarity with the range of flavors and aromas to be found in the world. New research suggests that we may be able to distinguish up to a trillion different individual aromas.
Imagine each of these individuals encountering, say, fondue, for the first time. It will be the same cheese, but two very different reactions and perceptions of the experience. Is it that much of a stretch to believe that we will each actually experience something different when we put the same substance in our mouths?
In fact, recently released research has suggested that as individuals we may bring something quite significant to our experience of taste. Specifically, researchers at Spain’s Institute of Food Science recently reported the results of a study in the journal Chemistry that the bacteria in our own saliva may contribute significantly to how we perceive the aromas of wine.
Much of our sensation of a wine’s taste comes from retronasal olfaction, a process in which molecules of wine vaporize and make their way up into our sinuses from the backs of our mouths. The hypothesis these scientists tested was simply that the bacteria present in our saliva may determine how and which molecules are vaporized in the process.
Their findings clearly indicated that the bacteria in human saliva play a significant role in the release of aromatic precursors when put in contact with wine. Which is to say, that our saliva makes wine smell and taste different. But perhaps more interestingly, they found that the saliva from different individuals varied widely in the aromatic compounds that it released from the wine. In short, there’s fairly good evidence that the bacteria in our individual saliva may play a major role in what a wine tastes like, and probably make it taste different to different people.
Just as we each have our own particular microbiome in our gut — so distinctive that forensic scientists have discussed using it as a means of identifying human remains, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to imagine that we’re each walking around with a unique cocktail of bacteria in our mouths, and one that may determine what we taste when we taste wine.
Our taste and appreciation for wine may be much more than learned preference. It may be driven by our own microbiology, which itself is a layered history of bacteriological symbiosis that we are only beginning to understand. This means that learning to love wine may not only be about experiencing the range of what wine has to offer, but also finding out just what we individually bring to the experience ourselves.