Neuroscientist Says That Wine Tasting Engages Your Brain More Than Any Other Activity

When I was in college there was a class that was nicknamed the “wine tasting class.” I honestly don’t even remember the class’s real name, but it always had a long waiting list. I was never lucky enough to make it in, or should I say, unlucky? What I heard from people in the class was that although it sounded like fun to drink wine for college credit, the class was actually really hard. They didn’t just drink wine; they studied the process of making wine and truly tasting wine.

You might think, what’s so hard about tasting wine?

Do you know how hard it is to become a master sommelier (basically, a professional wine expert)? Very. Candidates prepare for years before they take the exam, and some take it as many as six times before passing. Many more never pass at all. Only a very small percentage of people who take the test pass.

Gordon Shepherd, a Yale neuroscientist, argues in his new book, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, that tasting wine “engages more of our brain than any other human behavior.” He says that drinking wine is very engaging for your brain, like, more so than doing a complicated math problem or listening to Beethoven.

Shepherd told NPR, “The analogy one can use is color. The objects we see don’t have color themselves — light hits them and bounces off. It’s when light strikes our eyes that it activates systems in the brain that create color from those different wavelengths. Similarly, the molecules in wine don’t have taste or flavor, but when they stimulate our brains, the brain creates flavor the same way it creates color.”

Shepherd goes on to say that a great deal of the flavor in wine comes from a type of internal smell. “An example is the famous jelly bean test. If you put a jelly bean in your mouth and plug your nose and sense it with your tongue, all you sense is sweet from the sugar. But if you then unplug your nose, suddenly you’re flooded with the full flavor experience, and it’s because you’re smelling through the back of your nose.”

We think all of this sounds like a good excuse to open a bottle of wine.

NPR asked Shepherd what wines he would recommend under $20. While he didn’t mention any brands, he said that he prefers European wines and usually sticks to a $10-12 price point for table wine.

What’s your favorite kind of wine?