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Somm Brain

A recently published study coming out of Spain claims that sommelier training reshapes the brain, titled Sniffing out Meaning: Chemosensory and Semantic Neural Network changes in Sommeliers and was headed up by Manuel Carreiras, Director of the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain, and Language.  The study tracked the brain responses of wine experts and casual wine consumers by analyzing their ability to detect the intricate nuances of the wine samples and to communicate their perceptions in a complex verbal manner. The goal was to see if the sommelier brain had structural differences from the non-sommelier brain. Immediately intrigued, I read all the articles I could find and a few more studies from previous years that supported the findings.

In contrast, the experts “exhibited increased fractional anisotropy within three clusters of the right superior longitudinal fasciculus  (SLF)  and one cluster within the left SLF.” Essentially, this demonstrates more robust connectivity between sensory, motor, and cognitive functions – meaning that the sommelier can taste the nuances and complexity of the wines and articulate the subtleties. Using their frontal cortex, the control group showed that more work was put into finding the words to describe the wine and couldn’t distinguish the complexity levels of the different wines as successfully as the trained wine volunteers. The wine experts had essentially restructured their brains. 

Other studies have noted similar outcomes, the sommelier brain utilizes the right cortex (if right-handed, left cortex if left-handed) when analyzing wine.  Years ago, my mentor, Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser, helped me map out where my eyes look when blindly tasting wines. I look to the top right  (Visual Recall area) when recalling a visual image of what sensory information I get from the wine. When I taste wine, I see things before I find the words, and the study seems to support this strategy as this is where the visual library is activated when analyzing wine. My power position for shutting out the noise and focusing on the sensory information of the wine is at the bottom left, and that is the Kinesthetic corner, which is best suited for recalling a smell, feeling, or taste. If I look anywhere else during wine tasting, I am not as successful in identifying or conveying what I am perceiving.

Some of the studies have suggested that what trained sommeliers have done to their brains may be of benefit to everyone for brain health as we age.  The areas impacted by wine training are essential for our brains as we age and can be significantly affected by neurodegenerative diseases. The act of continued wine study may increase the thickness of the cortex, which thins with age. In one study, a doctor from the Cleveland Clinic suggests “that some form of training may be clinically useful to help fend off neurodegenerative diseases common in the aging population.” In short, I am not saying that one should regularly attend wine tastings with experts.  However, the studies suggest that it may be beneficial and involve excellent wine, so it looks like a win-win. Next time you enjoy a glass of wine, play around with where your eyes look and see what happens – it’s a fascinating experiment to see how the brain is wired.

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