How Contexts Influence Our Experience of Wine, and Schools

A glass of port wine by John Sullivan

We talk a lot about the influence of the environment on this blog, and how contexts can impact learning.

Well, turns out contexts can have a strong influence on how we taste wine, too. In an article in The New Yorker, “What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine,” Maria Konnikova elaborates on nueroscientist Daniel Salzman’s premise that “With something like wine, all sorts of societal and personal complications come into play.”

Even before you open a bottle to experience the wine itself, you already have an arbitrary visual stimulus—the bottle and the label—that comes with non-arbitrary emotional associations, good and bad.” And those emotional associations will, in turn, affect what we taste.

We’ve been primed to taste even before our tongues have touched a thing. We taste with our minds, our eyes, every aspect of every thing surrounding us. You know how you can “feel” what a school is all about even before you’ve stepped foot in a classroom? Same thing. So how are we purposefully and intentionally “priming” our students and visitors with that message (while designing for safety, as well)?

Us humans aren’t the hardest in the world to beguile.

The more difficult the name is to pronounce, the more you’ll like the wine. In 1999, psychologists from the University of Leicester found that the type of music playing in a store could influence which wines were purchased: when French music was playing, people bought French wines; when German music was turned on, German wines outsold the rest. The customers remained oblivious [bold added].

Marketers, just in case you weren’t aware, have been having a field day with our naiveté. But it is the express purpose of schools to educate. So how can we build our students’ metacognition so they can better ascertain real quality in life (not so much of wine, I’m afraid)? Embedded within the article lies a clue:

In 1990, Gregg Solomon, a Harvard psychologist who wrote “Great Expectorations: The Psychology of Expert Wine Talk,” found that amateurs can’t really distinguish different wines at all, but he also found that experts can indeed rank wines for sweetness, balance, and tannin at rates that far exceeded chance. Part of the reason isn’t just in the added experience. It’s in the ability to phrase and label that experience more precisely, a more developed sensory vocabulary that helps you to identify and remember what you experience. Indeed, when novices are trained, their discrimination ability improves [bold added].

In other words, the experts possess the domain-specific vocabulary and knowledge necessary to discern distinct wines. And this vocabulary and knowledge can be taught. Phew! In fact, “Kathryn LaTour and her colleagues at Cornell University found that a twenty-five minute training session devoted to broad wine knowledge improved performance on a blind tasting and reduced susceptibility to advertising.”

There’s another interesting connection I thought of in relation to this idea. Remember when we talked about how a sense of powerlessness can make us more susceptible to illusions? By empowering our students with precise and domain-specific vocabulary and broad knowledge, we increase their resilience against manipulative assaults on their senses.

For the rest of us laymen, wine will continue to be heavily influenced by the context we drink it in, the friends we sit with, the weight of moisture in the air, the story of the winery inscribed on the label, the story that we are told or that we tell ourselves as the tincture travels our palate.

If something so elemental as supping upon wine is so heavily influenced by context, think of how everyday our students are influenced by the socio-ecological factors in their schools. Everything from what hangs (or doesn’t hang) on the wall, to their interaction (or non-interaction) with the custodian has an impact on their experience and learning.


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