When it comes to tasting wine, the eyes have it

Portland — where wine blogger dreams come true! (Photo by @winerabble)

The 5th North American Wine Bloggers’ Conference was held in Portland, Oregon earlier this month.  Three hundred plus drunken attentive bloggers descended on Portland for networking, good wine, and interesting information for wine bloggers, wine drinkers, wine merchants, wine educators, and even wine makers.

I’ll give you some impressions of the conference as a whole toward the end of this post.  Because right now I can’t wait to tell you about an important thing I learned from one of the conference sessions.  Master Sommerlier Tim Gaiser presented a talk on aspects of what he called the neurology of wine tasting.  In cooperation with a behavioral scientist, Gaiser interviewed and filmed several expert wine tasters to determine how they do what they do.  The talk presented some of the results he found from these interviews.

It was a lot of information for a 45-minute session, and I could have easily listened for an entire day.  If you’d like more of the details, Becca at The Academic Wino has written a nice summary of the full presentation, and you can see the actual slides Gaiser used here if you want the nitty-gritty.

What I took away from the talk, though, was something that seems really simple, but definitely will make me a better presenter when I lead wine tastings.  Simply put, you have to look at your wine in the glass when you smell it or taste it in order to get the most out of the experience – or at least cast your eyes in the general direction of your glass.

I can picture the reaction of most of you will be “well, duh.”  Bear with me.  Of course you’re going to look at the wine, certainly at first to see what color it is in the glass.  But I have to say that when I lead a wine tasting, most people in the room are looking up at me even as they sniff and taste.  I see the same thing happen in restaurants when a sommelier pours some wine for a customer to sample.  The customer looks up at the sommelier, at least after checking the wine’s color.  It may be because he or she is looking toward the authority figure (or in my case, the guy who’s up there talking 😉 and of course it’s polite to look at the person talking to you).  In doing so, though, people miss out on some of the aromas and flavors in the wine.

According to what we learned from Tim Gaiser’s talk at the wine blogger’s conference, this woman is probably left handed and is concentrating on something that clearly makes her happy — must be wine!

The reason is that the position of your eyes orients your brain for different thought processes.  This isn’t a new idea.  Gaiser referenced the work of William James in the 19th century, among others, and those of you better versed in behavioral science or the science of tasting might know it already.  (Gaiser has also previously published preliminary results.)  If you think about it, when you really have to concentrate on a task at hand, you will most likely cast your eyes downward, even if you have them closed.  Right-handed people generally look down and slightly to the left, while left-handed people generally look down and to the right.

I suppose I may have already been doing this unconsciously.  But what amazed me was when Gaiser had us try smelling and tasting while looking up, like I’ve seen people do in my tastings.  There was distinctly less aroma and flavor.  Of course, part of it might be the power of suggestion.  But the number of “Ahas” I heard in the room makes me think there was more than just suggestion going on.

Gaiser continued with information about translating aromas and flavors into visual imagery because that’s the way we’ll remember them best, being the visually-oriented animals we are.  The expert wine tasters he interviewed all created and used visual cues to help them taste and particularly to identify origin and varietals of wines when they’re tasting without knowing what the wines are first.  I think I’m going to have to work on it to figure that out more.  As someone who cooks and enjoys lots of different foods, I think I have a good flavor memory.   I don’t consciously see those memories as visual images, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.  And I can certainly get that visual images would make for quicker identification of aromas and flavors.

I see this a lot when I’m leading wine tastings. People smell their wine but look up at me while doing it. They’re missing out on a lot of aromas that way.

Gaiser emphasized that this wasn’t a scientific study, and certainly there are variations among individuals.  If you read Becca’s post that I mentioned above, you’ll see there’s plenty of skepticism from commenters, not necessarily unfounded.  I’d love to see the results of some controlled experiments and observations in the future.   But I don’t often hear things that fundamentally change my approach to a subject, and I did in Gaiser’s presentation.

And now, in no particular order, some other impressions about and from the conference:

  • Speaking of presentations, the thing that disappointed me about last year’s vinobloggerpallooza was the lack of useful sessions.  So I have to hand it to the conference organizers that they took last year’s comments to heart and put more thought into content.  The result was a good foundation to build on for future years.
  • I was amazed to see how many people attending the conference had started blogging just in the past year.   It’s great to see so many new voices, and it reinforces the point that there’s nearly always something to learn from other people’s perspectives, and always something new and different to say about wine.
  • I was also amazed – well surprised, anyway, and to be honest, a little disheartened – to see how many bloggers at the conference write for a living, whether they’re journalists, PR people, or educators.  Perhaps, I shouldn’t be, but it makes me think that those of us (like me) who have never written for a living really have to concentrate hard on finding our individual voices to get through to an audience.   Maybe that means we have to get some professional writing advice or education to do it, too.  Anything that ultimately makes writing easier leaves more time for marketing, after all.
  • Winemaker Randall Graham, who gave one of the keynote addresses, had a lot of inspiring words for those writing about wine.  If you read his blog you know that he writes beautifully.  But as a wine seller, I definitely appreciated that he made the point that wine is a commodity that’s bought and sold – that tends to get lost in a lot of the prose we read about wine.
  • A new feature this year was a Q & A with some of the people who won wine blogging awards, which were given out at the conference.  Tom Wark, who has won awards in the past for his blog, was the moderator and wisely had a bunch of questions to make up for us, the hung-over audience.  But it was a fascinating session, and I hope it continues at future conferences.
  • I was particularly struck by the story told by Lisa Mattson, Communications Director for Jordan Winery.  She developed the blog, the Journey of Jordan (which won best industry blog this year) as a way of getting the word out (as all bloggers do).  But here’s the story part:  Jordan has been making the same two varietal wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for close to 40 years.  Although there are new vintages each year, there aren’t new wines, and Lisa found it increasingly difficult to get any press from major wine writers, who get more and more pitches for new wines each year.  So Mattson found a huge new audience through a video blog that shows you the goings on at the winery in a way that makes you want to be there every day.  I couldn’t help but think that there are some parallels to first vine, especially since we don’t have a lot of new selections that would provide an impetus for new publicity.  I’m not likely to become a videographer in the next week or two, nor does my sitting at the kitchen table using my computer make me think of compelling visuals, but it was inspiring nonetheless.
  • Finally, I can’t end this post without talking about the wine.  You’ve probably all tried Oregon wines, and we had the opportunity to taste a lot of them.  It was a great experience and I took a lot of notes for future buys.  But I have to tell you about the wines from one particular winery, Witness Tree Vineyards.  Cellar Master Heath Payne poured a rosé that was 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Viognier.  I have to confess that I find most Pinot Noir rosés a little flat tasting, they can have nice fruit flavors but generally don’t have the liveliness and acidity that you find even in red Pinots.  Adding the Viognier provided balance and made for the best Oregon rosé I tried.  Witness Tree’s red Pinots and Pinot Blanc were excellent too, so be sure to try them if you find them.


There’s a lot of great food in Portland.  Considering the size and population, it may have the highest density of good food of any place in the U.S.  You can spend an entire vacation eating just at the food trucks, which are conveniently located in what would otherwise be urban surface parking lots.  (No need to follow them on twitter to find out where they’ll be that day).

My version of ratatouille, with roasted eggplant and caramelized onions.

Portlandia has poked fun at the city’s reputation for using local ingredients, and I wondered if I’d be confronted with a barrage of over-the-top descriptions of food provenance on menus.  I didn’t see any of that, even though I sometimes see it here in D.C.  Still, I realized in overhearing a conversation in one restaurant that servers there could tell customers where the food came from when they asked, but I only heard one customer ask.  I have to say I was almost disappointed.

[Lucky for me, I did see some of the other things Portlandia has taught us all to expect.  Yoga pants?  Check.  Acres of visible tattoos?  Check.  In fact, a friend assured me they’re a requirement for employment in certain establishments.  Hipster hats?  Check.  And two hipster hat shops spotted in a seven-minute walk, too.  I left the city a happy man.]

So in honor of fresh, local produce – and the fact that I ate in two different French restaurants while I was in Portland, this week’s recipe is for ratatouille.   There are as many ways to make this dish as there are people who make it.  Sometimes it’s a very light, fresh concoction with vegetables sautéed or simmered until they’re just tender.  Sometimes it’s made with grilled vegetables, mixed together for a final melding of flavors.  This one isn’t like that.  My husband Cy and I both prefer our eggplant roasted.  Not exactly a summery thing to use your oven to roast eggplant, but it really concentrates the flavor and gives it a little meatiness.  Plus by evaporating some of the eggplants’ liquid instead of having it go into the stew, you allow the eggplant to absorb more of the tomato flavor.  Since I’m at the stove anyway, I like to caramelize some onion too, in addition to sautéing onion with the zucchini.

Since this isn’t exactly a light, summery dish, I like to serve a pretty big wine with it.  Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir 2010 ($15) is 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, aged in concrete.  Grenache is a natural with the earthiness of eggplant, and the Syrah stands up to the carmelized onion and the herbs.  A great pairing of wine and food.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off your plate or your glass!

Bon Appetit!



Serves at least 8 as a side dish

3 pounds eggplant (about three)

4 medium to large onions

4 medium to large zucchini (one-and-a-half to two pounds)

4 large cloves of garlic, minced

7 or 8 large tomatoes (preferably yellow tomatoes)

2 large stems of fresh basil (with leaves), plus 1 cup chopped basil leaves

4 stems of fresh thyme

1 four-inch piece of fresh rosemary

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Prep the eggplant:  Cut off the stem end and a little of the tail end of each eggplant.  Using a vegetable peeler, remove four strips of peel from each one (I do it like the four compass points).  Cut the eggplants into 1-inch cubes.  Put the eggplant cubes in a large colander over a bowl, and toss with about two tablespoons of kosher salt.  Place a plate smaller than the colander diameter over the eggplant and weight the plate down with a couple of large cans of beans or tomatoes.   Set the eggplant aside for an hour to drain.

Prep the onions:  cut off the top and bottom of each onion, then cut it in half through the poles.  Remove the peel.  Slice five of the eight halves into quarter-inch slices.  Cut the other three in quarter-inch dice.  In a medium-to-large nonstick skillet (that has a lid), heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.  Add the sliced onions, along with some salt and pepper.  Toss everything together, and once it’s all sizzling nicely, put the lid on and turn the heat down to low.  Let the onions cook for 20 minutes.  Then take the cover off, stir them up, replace the lid, and let them cook for 10 more minutes on low.  Remove the lid, raise the heat to medium-low, and allow the onions to caramelize, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes longer.

Prep the zucchini:  while the eggplant is draining and the onions are cooking, trim the tops and tails from the zucchini.  Cut them into quarters lengthwise, then crosswise into 1-inch pieces.

Prep the tomatoes:  core seven of the tomatoes and cut them into fairly large cubes.

About 20 minutes before the eggplant’s draining hour is up, arrange two oven racks evenly spaced and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large Dutch oven, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the diced onion  with some salt and pepper and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes.  Add the garlic and sauté for two more minutes.  Then add the zucchini, along with some more salt and pepper.  Turn the heat up to medium-high, and sauté everything together until the zucchini starts to break down, about 10 minutes or so.  Add the tomatoes, the basil stems, thyme, and rosemary.  Cook for a few minutes, then taste for salt and pepper.  Simmer the mixture for about 20 minutes, until the tomatoes have released their liquid.

After an hour of draining, put the colander with the eggplant cubes in the sink and rinse the eggplant, tossing with your hands to remove the visible salt.  Using a kitchen towel, dry off the eggplant cubes, getting most of the water off.  Put them in a large bowl with some more pepper, and about a quarter-cup of olive oil.  Toss everything together with a big spoon (or your hands), then divide the eggplant between two baking sheets.  Bake them in the 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, then use a spatula to turn the pieces over.  Bake for another 15 minutes and turn the pieces again.  Bake for up to 15 minutes more, until the cubes are nicely browned.

Add the caramelized onion and browned eggplant to the Dutch oven, and cook for another 20 minutes.  The mixture will thicken as the eggplant absorbs some of the liquid.  If it seems too dry, cut up another tomato and add it in to cook for 10 minutes or so.  Stir in the chopped fresh basil.  Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

This entry was posted in Cave la Vinsobraise, Musings/Lectures/Rants, OR, recipes, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine Bloggers Conference, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to When it comes to tasting wine, the eyes have it

  1. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Ready for Harvest

  2. Thanks for sharing my post! It was such a great experience to be there and listen to Tim’s talk!

    Oh, one thing: I’m left handed but I looked down and relatively centered. I must be doing something wrong (just kidding). 😉

    • firstvine says:

      Ha! Are you sure you’re not ambidextrous?!

      Tim’s talk was interesting. It has been a long time since I saw a conference session that provided information we could all use right away. And thanks to you for getting your summary done so quickly, I think I still had jet lag until the beginning of this week!


  3. Sue says:

    There’s so much information in this post! I am definitely going to pay attention to where I’m looking when I taste wine from now on. All of that HAS to make a difference, if only because you’re being more conscious of what you’re doing and tasting.

    I’m about to post an eggplant recipe and get this! I DID EXACTLY THE SAME THING WITH THE PEEL as you did! Well maybe I wasn’t as OCD about it and I didn’t do it as neatly, but I usually completely peel my eggplant, but this time I took strips off! We must be psychic.

    • firstvine says:

      I think we are psychic! I got the idea from Lydia Bastianich, she says that leaving all the peel on is too much but she likes having some of it on. I do the four strips around because it looks nice if you’re using whole eggplant slices, but it obviously wouldn’t matter just cubing the eggplant up.

      I was kind of blown away by the information when I went to the conference session. Evidently it’s not new thinking, at least as far as thought processes are concerned, but I was amazed to see what a difference it made.


  4. Stub says:

    Great post, Tom! I’ve tried to employ the tasting philosophy with the glass or two of wine I’ve had since we returned from Portland. I guess I’ll have to practice to get the hang of it.

    I’m glad to see that we both walked away from WBC12 happier than we did from WBC11. I guess being a “seasoned pro” has its advantages!


    • firstvine says:

      Thanks, Stub — they say practice makes perfect, always nice when the practice is enjoyable too!

      Yes, definitely a more enjoyable experience this year than last. Experience helps for all of us.


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