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Color, Inspiration, and Memory

In the work of tasting, color can inspire us, and it can mislead us.

Not everything goes as planned

When we read about science, we typically read about successful experiments. Nobody wants to show off all their dead ends. But behind the scenes, working scientists are always trying new approaches that either fall apart or yield null results. It can take a little trial and error to find the right method.

Granted, I'm not a working scientist trying to generate publishable results here, I'm just a winemaker designing experiments for my own enlightenment. But I sympathize with anyone who runs into hang-ups while developing a method.

I'm trying to eliminate subconscious biases from my sound + wine tasting sessions, and a big one is color bias. The hue of a red wine inspires us to come up with matching aromatic descriptors, no matter how hard we try to ignore it. When we stare into an inky black Malbec, we're more likely to say blackberry. Gazing upon a pale garnet Pinot Noir, we're more likely to say it tastes like rhubarb.

These descriptors may be entirely appropriate, but they can also draw our attention away from equally appropriate descriptors of another color. Did you know that white wine can smell of strawberries? It doesn't occur to most people to look for strawberries in white wine, because strawberries are red. In 2001, a French PhD candidate famously fooled participants into coming up with red descriptors for white wine simply by dying it red (links to a copy of the paper on Sean Day's synesthesia website).

I want to approach all my red wines just the same without color shaping my perceptions. I thought I could do this with a yellow light bulb from the hardware store. I'd heard that yellow light masks the differences in red wine color.

Alas, I could still see which of two wines had a more garnet hue.

I thought I might fix this by putting on rose colored glasses. Perhaps the glasses would make all the wines look the same. This turned out to be a silly idea. It didn't work at all.

How many things are wrong with this picture? If you answered mason jars, check your biases.

On to Plan B: black wine glasses!

Did you know that black wine glasses are really expensive? I'd heard other winemakers complain about it, but I never confronted the reality until I searched them myself on Amazon, muttered a few profanities, and quickly retreated from the idea. Even if the price is justified, I'm a chronic glass-breaker. I can't expect any glass to live long in my klutzy hands, and who needs fancy-schmancy black glasses when you can make one yourself with a little spray paint?

So that's what I did. I coated my wine glass in acrylic spray paint.

1. Spray painting outdoors like a responsible adult. 2. Sniffing a glass coated with acrylic spray paint.

It was highly successful aside from the fact that, a week later, my glass still reeks of paint. I suppose you could make an argument against the clear rim, but I can easily look away while I'm sipping, and the body of the glass is otherwise quite opaque. If it didn't stink, it might be of great use to me.

Back to the drawing board. I suppose I'll have to order those expensive black glasses after all.

Color and Memory

This whole experience got me thinking about color and memory. Even in the absence of a colorful source, most of us associate colors with odors. An article in the Atlantic neatly sums up a study that probed the color-scent associations of ordinary people. Some associations are fairly consistent across cultures, such as visualizing shades of red and pink when smelling something fruity, or assigning the color green to vegetable scents.

In the wine industry, we constantly utilize our color-scent associations when we are trying to name aromas in wine. Before a winemaker settles upon the term "grassy", she may simply says the wine is "green". The aromas of strawberries and cranberries are lumped together as "red fruit", the aromas of plums and blackberries are considered "dark fruit". I often wonder how plum and blackberry can be lumped together at all, but I think this example illustrates how powerful our associations are.

And our most popular memory tool, Ann Nobel's Wine Aroma Wheel, is color-coded. The colors don't all match the descriptors contained therein, but I find it interesting all the same.

Dr. Ann Noble's aroma wheel helps you find the words to describe wine.

I usually see the color of a descriptor in my mind before I'm able to name it. I recognize a scent, I feel like it's on the tip of my tongue, I'm searching my memory for the name... it's white and creamy with just a little brown... it's coconut macaroon!

I have this experience with all aromas, not just wine aromas. When I smell ozone, before I know what it is, I think of the color of the blue-grey carpet of a childhood friend's house whose parents owned a small ozone "air purifier". When I smell nutmeg, I think of the dusting of brown specks over a white background. My grandmother used to give me yogurt sprinkled with nutmeg. When I smell the sweatshirt that a friend forgot at my house, I think of the colors of their person and their habitat, the golden brown of his skin, the beige palette of her home, before I land on a name. I often wonder how many other people do this.

In other news, it seems that having an actual synesthetic response to aroma might help some people with odor discrimination, according to a study by Radboud University. Synesthetes were more successful at odor and color discrimination than controls. Too bad this study had so few people in the control group. Considering the enormous natural variation from nose to nose, I wonder about statistical significance.

I asked the Synesthesia List if anyone draws upon their synesthesia to recognize flavors. Sean Day answered:

"... I do this, quite frequently.  As a matter of fact, it happened just the other evening:

My wife and I shared a fruity cocktail.  I recognized most all of the flavors – but couldn’t put my finger on the name of one of them.  What is that?  Oh, lime green border on the pinkish-orange over there, shading towards turquoise.  That’s grenadine."

I'd love to hear about other people's experiences. Feel free to leave a comment.


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