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From my poster at the 2019 IASAS conference


The International Association of Synesthetes Artists and Scientists (IASAS) hosts conferences for synesthetes, scientists who study synesthesia, artists whose work features sensory integration, and anyone who wants to learn about the many ways our senses come together. These conferences are attended by leading synesthesia researchers such as Richard Cytowic, as well as curious laypeople and plenty of real-life synesthetes. The location alternates between major cities around the globe.

Encouraged by another in the community, I nervously submitted a poster to the 2019 conference in Moscow, Russia. I was pretty sure my case wouldn't be of much interest because I don't see wild flashes of color when I taste wine. Since connecting with the online network of synesthetes, I've found that it is very common for people with linked senses to consider their own condition very normal and to show much more interest in the experiences of others. Despite my reservations, my poster was well received. It was even translated into Russian!

The conferences seem to happen right around the time we're working twelve hour days bringing grapes into the winery. Taking off for Moscow in the middle of harvest would be considered a dick move in my industry, so I wistfully sent my poster across the world without me. But I'm proud to say that it will be included as an article in the conference proceedings. I plan to get my own copy as soon as it's published.

In this article, I offer a detailed overview of my experiences. Happy reading.

I love what that Siren Does for my Pinot Noir

Making Wine in a Sound-Augmented Sensory World

I never go to a wine tasting without earplugs

As a winemaker, I try to be consistent in my tasting notes. But it’s hard when the profile of a wine is shaped by the sounds around me. Synesthesia? Something like it.

Carignan tasting with headphones:

I’m at a blind tasting with a bunch of winemakers in a coffee shop after hours. In the background, at low volume, is the hum of a cold case and the soft woosh of ventilation.

I’m trying out a new pair of noise cancelling headphones today. With them on, the wine is dark berry driven with a funny green note, like jalapeño but slightly chemical. The fruit is a little bland, and the texture is substantial but boring.

I edge one earphone off my ear to let a little noise in. Now the green note is gone, the texture is stiff with some tongue burn from the alcohol, and the flavor is savory like beef stew layered over subtle dark fruit. I move the earphone off and on my ear, making the green aroma disappear and re-appear, to confirm the difference.

I remove the headphones and taste again when everyone is talking and their conversation fills the room. Now the flavors of berries and beef stew are muted, the wine is muddy and dilute, and the alcohol burns my mouth.

Very loud noise strips aroma so severely that wine tastes like pond water spiked with acid and alcohol. In moderation, sound alters aromas, increases the burn of alcohol, and augments the prickliness of tannins, transforming the profile of a wine much like you’d transform a piece of music by ramping up the horns, silencing the violins, and changing key.

I’m barrel tasting Pinot Noir with our lead winemaker. He comments on the wine’s slight edge. With an innate sensitivity for bitterness and a discerning palate for texture, he’s usually the first to notice. So I remove my earplugs and let the ambient noise boost the wine’s bite, the better to understand his experience.

Wine school gave me the words to describe and understand my experiences

As a child, I loved grazing my family’s raspberries. They had a funny flavor like decomposing leaves and the scent of beetles. That’s because I was eating them next to the river where I grew up. I didn’t know that the sound of the rapids made them so, nor could I describe the flavor. They were just “different”.

Remember the first time you were asked to describe a wine? You probably didn’t know what to say. The first time you listened to heavy metal? It probably just sounded like noise. A metal head can recognize genres and styles, just as a winemaker can recognize varietal characters and oak.

The ability to assess and describe aromas must be learned. Like music, the more you learn about its composition, the more you perceive in it. I’ve always been aware that sound alters flavors and aromas. But not until I learned to assess wines did I begin to understand the dynamics at work.

I’m at my first student group tasting at UC Davis. I notice that the wine becomes hot and aromatically stripped as the volume of conversation rises. I try to taste during moments of silence, but the wine is bland, like a glass that’s been left out too long. Stepping into the hall, I find a spot where the building ventilation softly hisses over distant street traffic, and the wine is fruity and floral.

In Sensory Analysis class, we’re learning to recognize over forty scents. I think: no sweat. I can identify which friend is the owner of a jacket by smelling it. My scent memory is great.That’s no use when we’re required to smell wines in a kitchen full of noisy automatic fans. The acetaldehyde and TCA standards smell like nothing at all, and the cinnamon standard smells like chlorine.

I use earplugs and noise cancelling headphones to reduce the fan noise, but I note that some things taste better with fan noise: in a wine tainted by spoilage yeast, the fans erase an ugly aroma that resembles an inflatable pool toy.

As I struggle to normalize my senses, to find truth behind the noise, I recall moments from my past. Being in chattery restaurants where I thought the breadsticks were stale while everyone else enjoyed them. I’m beginning to admit that the chatter made them so. And the chocolate mousse that tasted so chocolatey on the back porch, yet quite plain when I tried it again in the living room? The motor of the back porch fridge made it so.

There is no normal, no standard, when your every sensation depends on context. This is true, to some degree, for everyone.

My sensory analysis professor liked to say we all live in our own sensory worlds. Our noses and palates are enormously diverse. I feel like I live in many sensory worlds. I cross into a new one when I leave the rush of street traffic for the muffled babble of a cafe. But I don’t really know what it will be like until I taste the coffee.

My best tactic for predicting what a sound will do: I think about its texture

Flute music feels like sticky velvet. The fridge motor is like a rain of light pebbles. Perhaps you’ve had these thoughts too. These sensations occur in my head, brushing against my brain. Some are related to the origin of the sound- e.g. slide guitar feels like elastic steel strings- and others are quite novel. I think of them as involuntary, instant associations, sometimes vague, sometimes intense, inseparable from the sound.

Dense, soft sounds tend to have a stripping effect. They can make aromas disappear even at low volume. Hollow, light, low-density sounds have low impact relative to silence, even at higher volume. Gravelly, marble-y, percussive sounds often accentuate some aromas while suppressing others.

In silence, everything is a little bland.

When I’m finished tasting Carignan with my winemaker friends at the coffee shop, I decide to take a bottle home. I choose the wine with the odd green note.

I’m not a fan of this chemical-jalapeño flavor, but I love the rest of the wine. Which gives me an idea. At home, I browse a web site full of sound clips until I find a nice, rapid percussive sound called “phat sawtooth wavetable”. It’s kind of like the electric growl of a broken computer or an angry microphone.

I play it at low volume for a fine, beady effect while I sip the wine with dinner. The green is gone, and it’s lush with dark fruit and savory notes. I feel satisfied that I’ve made it a little better.

Sensations, emotions, and art

In my free time, I’m an artist.

I like to depict experiences where context re-tunes the senses, and the boundary between inner and outer worlds is blurred. Music with really intense textures makes me feel physically sensitized to the world. I also touch on the more universal phenomenon that emotions influence the senses. Everyone knows the exciting tingle of euphoria. For some of us, anxiety hurts like a sunburn, and depression feels numb. To express the idea that sound and emotion both expand my concept of touch, I use the visual metaphor of expanding, unfurling skin providing more surface area to feel.


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