Being able to describe the aromas and flavors of wine so that another person can understand them becomes a fine art, which can be perfected by practice in sensory analysis. Wine sensory, especially aroma description, is often implemented in wine advertising and marketing. It is also included in wine sales through:
- consumer tasting
- tasting room notes
- wine reviews or wine scores
- teaching tasting room employees
- wine and food pairings
- wine label design
Wine sensory evaluation includes an evaluation of how the wine looks, smells, tastes and how the tactile sensations of the wine feel in the mouth (on the palate).
Taste is described as the sensation produced when a substance in the mouth chemically reacts with taste bud receptors (Bowen 2006). Taste is associated with the five different sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami ("The Science of Taste" 2013).
It is commonly believed that each taste interacts with taste receptors on specific locations on the tongue (e.g., sweetness on the tip of the tongue), but recent research shows that this is not the case (Bowen 2006). The five basic tastes can be sensed on all parts of the tongue, but certain areas may have stronger sensations compared to others (Bowen 2006).
Each person's palate is influenced genetically, indicating that no two people perceive something exactly alike ("The Science of Taste" 2013). This is something to consider in the tasting room as each customer is likely to have a unique sensory experience when tasting wine, which will supplement his/her taste ability and preferences.
In addition to the five basic tastes, aroma is a key component of wine sensory evaluation. Volatile compounds, which emit an aroma or odor, are sensed by a series of neurons in the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain (Hutchins 1997). An odor can be sensed through both orthonasal and retronasal pathways (Delwiche 2007). In orthonasal sensations, the volatile odor is sensed through the nose, while in retronasal sensations, the volatile odor is sensed through the back of the palate, within the mouth. Although stimulation of the olfactory bulb is the same in both pathways, the route at which the volatile odor reaches the neurons is different according to the pathway.
A common practice used to test the difference between orthonasal and retronasal stimulation is the jelly bean test. While one pinches his/her nose shut, the jelly bean is chewed for a few seconds. During mid-chew, the individual releases his/her fingers from their nose. The aroma of the jelly bean, typically describe as flavor by consumers, can immediately be sensed by the individual. This is the stimulation of the retronasal pathway.
Touch and sight are also used in wine sensory evaluation. The appearance of a wine, including color (hue and intensity) and texture (e.g., presence of bubbles, mousse, or legs), is a large factor in wine selection and can affect wine choices of consumers.
For the purpose of this article, smell and taste will be emphasized as key components to train tasting room employees. While several variations of these exercises exist, they can be immediately implemented into a tasting room as staff training.
Importance of Training Tasting Room Staff
Many Mid-Atlantic wineries benefit from high direct-to-consumer sales through their tasting rooms. In the tasting room, customers have the luxury to browse wine selections and taste wines prior to making a purchase. As tasting room employees act as the interface between the wines and the customer, it is important for tasting room employees to be properly trained in customer service, wine sensory and properly communicating with customers to make sales.
Patty Held, a winery and tasting room consultant, explains that there are six major areas in which tasting room employees must excel in order to run a profitable tasting room (Held 2012). These six areas are summarized as:
- Hire nice, welcoming people in the tasting room.
- Teach great customer service practices to tasting room employees.
- Consider one's clientele: "figure out what the customer wants, get it for them, and go the extra mile to satisfy them."
- Teach tasting room staff to properly handle unhappy customers.
- Monitor social media marketing tools as today's wine consumers are technologically savvy.
- Recognize tasting room employees that practice good customer service.
In addition to Patty Held's philosophy, research conducted at Cornell University (Held 2012) found that customers provided with exceptional customer service are influenced to spend an additional $10 buying a bottle of wine. This study also found those customers are more likely to purchase again in the future. These loyal customers are essential for most wineries in the mid-Atlantic, as word-of-mouth "marketing" travels quickly with today's heavy use of technology and social media.
Besides being responsible for exceptional customer service, tasting room employees may act as the sole resource for describing how a wine is made and what it tastes like. Essentially, these employees may act as a customer's guide to the world of wine.
Food and wine pairings are often asked by tasting room customers, and having knowledgeable tasting room staff can help secure sales of specific wines. Light-weight white wines are often recommended as pairings with fish, pasta, or chicken, while a heavy-weight (full-bodied) red wine is often recommended to complement beef or steak meals. However, as these generic suggestions are well understood by consumers, it may be advantageous to enhance the education of one's tasting room staff to make more specific or enticing suggestions.
Sommeliers develop careers in wine selections to pair with foods made in restaurants and create unique dining experiences for customers. When pairing wine with food, the body (mouthfeel), aromas, and notable attributes of the wine can be either complemented or contrasted with a suggested food. For example, a light-bodied Pinot Grigio may be easily overpowered by a sirloin steak, but a full-bodied, tannic Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon would complement the steak perfectly (Deen 2012).
Having food pairing suggestions for those wines sold in the tasting room is a great training technique for tasting room employees that can help drive wine sales. Stay current with trending foods or wines, and ensure that all tasting room staff are educated in these possibilities.
Tasting room employees can also benefit from advanced experience in proper wine tasting techniques, as this may assist with staff members communication skills to potential customers. Often customers visit wineries as a destination with intent to learn about wines and winemaking, and having well-trained staff that can describe the wines and winemaking process may assist with improving sales in the tasting room.
Topics of potential interest to tasting room customers include:
- the history of the winery
- current winemaking processing operations
- current events or promotions in the tasting room
- attributes associated with how the wine tastes (appearance, aroma/flavor, taste), and
- potential food pairing options.
In terms of a wine's appearance, the wine could be clear and rid of any visible particles. In general, consumers are often hesitant in purchasing cloudy or hazy wines. The color of wine is also considered and may be important to some of the tasting room's customers. White, red, and rosé wines have standard color associations that can provide clues towards their age, the style, or the region from which it is produced (Baldy 1995). An educated tasting staff can help relate these facts to customers.
Aroma is a very important characteristic commonly studied in wine tasting. Aromas associated with the grapes, wine processing techniques, aging techniques, and flaws in the wine should all be considered (Baldy 1995) when describing the wine. Tasting room employees can be trained on identifying nuanced aroma and describing these characteristics with consumers. This practice opens up discussion opportunities for incoming customers. Improving the tasting room employees' lexicon for describing wines can be supplemented with use of wine aroma wheels.
One popular method to improve employees' aroma recognition and communication skills is through the use of aroma kits. These kits act as a way to maintain regular exposure to specific, nuanced aromas. This exercise helps improve aroma recognition and lexicon development.
Additionally, tasting room employees that are experienced with identifying flawed wines will have the ability to pre-screen wines prior to serving them to consumers. This may be the difference between a consumer tasting a flawed wine or suggesting an alternative wine for the customer to try that is not flawed. In general, tasting room staff are the last line of defense in terms of wine quality. and winemakers must be able to decipher different wine defects.
There are additional sensations associated with wine sensory that may also be included in a wine's description:
- the presence and intensity of sourness (acidity)
- the presence and intensity of sweetness (residual sugar content)
- astringency - a drying sensation on the palate
- heat produced by alcohol, and
- the presence and intensity of effervescence (bubbles)
Serving temperature may influence many of these components when tasting a wine, and it can also influence consumer acceptability. Wines should be served at an appropriate temperature according to the type of wine (Baldy 1995), listed below:
|Wine Style||Serving Temperature|
|Sparkling and Sweet Wines||40-45oC|
|Dry White and Rosé Wines||50-60oC|
|Light-Bodied Red Wines||50-65oC|
|Full-Bodied Red Wines||65-68oC|
Additionally, wine serving order in a tasting room may influence consumer perception and likability. The following wine order is suggested from Baldy (1995) and should act as a guideline for wineries:
- white before red
- dry before sweet
- young before old
- modest before fine
- light-bodied before full-bodied, and
- light, young red before full-bodied, sweet wine
It is not uncommon for tasting rooms to pour all of their white wines (dry to sweet) followed by all of the reds (dry to sweet). However, this order is generally not recommended by tasting professionals. While this order is used to separate white wines from red wines, the order can greatly effect the sensory perception of all of the dry wines that follow the sweet whites. In general, following a dry wine after a sweet wine will make the dry wine taste harsh, sour, or bitter. This practice can sway consumer preferences and may direct customers to prefer sweet wines over dry wines.
Finally, teaching employees that every individual varies in their sensory perceptions and preferences can help employees from confronting customers about what the "should" be tasting. It is recommended that employees avoid telling customers that what they may sense is wrong, as this may come across as poor customer service to tasting room visitors.
Wine flaws (also referred to as defects or faults) are undesirable attributes found in the wine, and they can ultimately alter a consumer's preference of a wine.
When uncorking a wine for tasting, defects may be present in the wines that remain unknown until the wine is smelled or tasted from the bottle. As noted previously, it is advantageous that tasting room employees screen bad wines before it is poured for consumers visiting the tasting room.
Two common defects commonly found in tasting rooms include, but are not limited to, cork taint and oxidation.
The source of cork taint is most prominently found in natural and/or agglomerated corks made with cork pieces. It is caused by the presence of 2,4,6-tricholroanisole (TCA) a compound that produces a moldy, wet dog, or wet basement aroma (Nase 2013). The aroma of TCA, or cork taint, can smell slightly different in different types of wines, but it can be sensed at concentrations as low as 1 part per trillion (ppt) (Gawel 2013). At 1 part per trillion (ppt) concentrations, TCA may not be perceived and recognized for its characteristic aroma, but instead, bland the aroma of the wine.
TCA is produced when chlorophenols (commonly found in wood or cork) are converted into chloroanisoles by ubiquitous fungi (Alvarez-Rodriguez et al. 2002). Chlorine is necessary for this reaction to occur, and is often the reason why chlorine is not recommended for use in the wine production area.
Oxidation is another common fault in wines being served in a tasting room, especially when opened bottles are used in the tasting room for several days. Oxidation usually causes a loss of fruit perception in the wine, and can sometimes be described as giving the wine a plastic or sherry-like aroma.
Oxidation occurs with a wine's excessive or prolonged exposure to oxygen (Good 2013). The products of this chemical reaction most commonly yield a change in color (e.g., a brown hue may appear in the wine). Additionally, the wine may developed a higher concentration of acetaldehyde, a chemical component which smells like sherry or bruised apples ("Wine Oxidation" 2013). It is important to minimize the wine's contact with air after the bottle is opened to maintain freshness for when consumers come to the tasting room. It is also important to monitor how long a bottle is left open for tasting and this can be documented by dating the bottle on the day it is opened. Wines are quicker to oxidize with air contact and warmer (or room temperature) storage temperatures.
Programs and Workshops for Educating Tasting Room Employees
Educating tasting room employees increases the employees' knowledge, enhances tasting room morale, and improves opportunities for great customer interactions. Many programs and workshops currently exist to train tasting room staff. Winery owners and managers can hold sensory training sessions for their tasting room staff:
- Wine flaw or defect training
- Educational wine tastings (to avoid house palate)
- TCA threshold training
- Touring employees through the production area
- Wine educational workshops
Having staff members that can relate to consumers' preferences and sensory perceptions can be a valuable asset to running a successful tasting room. Understanding sensory perception and characteristics can not only help winemakers craft better wines, but can also help improve communication amongst employees and customers. With sensory training, tasting room staff may be able to drive more wine sales through better communication and enhanced customer service opportunities.
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Prepared by Kaitlin Petrone, Penn State Food Science Undergraduate student