Delicious is in the Eye of the Beholder: Tim Hanni, MW

tim hanni - master of wine column

The term psycho-sensory is defined in the American Heritage Medical Dictionary as “Of or relating to the mental perception and interpretation of sensory stimuli.” It is an exploration into how the human brain and our sensory physiology work together to create our likes, dislikes and expectations. My work and businesses involve finding ways to apply what we have learned about the psycho-sensory phenomenon to creating and improving education, products and services related to the experience of wine, food and wine when served with food. It is way more fun than it sounds at first and filled with countless “aha!” moments of discovery!

And the psycho-sensory phenomenon goes a long way in explaining the disagreements on the always-popular subject of the correct way to go about “matching” wine with food. One brain is conjuring up all sorts of wonderful and positive memories and neural associations from a certain combination of wine with food, and for another person, the experience is negative and the neural associations horrifying. Welcome to the world of disagreement!

There are two primary factors that affect our preferences for wine, food and everything else. First is your sensory physiology. Every human being has a unique sensory anatomy that determines what sensations we are individually capable of perceiving and at what intensity. Our sensory sensitivity is a very important facet in understanding how we create our personal preferences, aversions and points of view on life, including our points of view about what makes a good or bad wine, food, or combinations of wine with food.

It is amazing to discover how dramatically different perceptions can be from one person to the next. One person may be experiencing a strong smell or taste, while the person sitting next to (or married to) them is physiologically incapable of sensing the source at all! You can go to to take a simple quiz to see where you fall on the taste sensitivity scale.

The second primary factor contributing to our unique personal wine preferences is the way in which our brain processes and responds to the sensations we experience. One person may have positive memories associated with a smell, like fresh cut grass or the aromas of a certain spice, while another person is subliminally associating the same smell with an unpleasant, or even horrible, experience. The unique pathways in your brain can create very powerful and dramatic positive or negative associations, which in turn can have a profound effect on your wine preferences and beyond. This is also why strong smells in a home or restaurant have to be carefully controlled with generally “safe” scents, like cinnamon or garlic, which are a much better bet than liver or Brussels sprouts. You may personally love liver but the deck is not stacked in your favor by expecting that everyone else does too.

On the physiological front many of the arguments about wine quality, or the correct way to pair wine with food, are like people trying to argue that one size of shoe is better than another. If it fits me, and I am a shoe expert, everyone should like it, right? Oh, you don’t like it? Well, maybe when your “foot matures,” you will develop the right foot size or if you attend some Shoe Appreciation classes, you will learn to appreciate “better” shoes.

In fact, there are some surprising things to be learned in this emerging area of study. If you want to find out more about all of this, visit and come to one of my seminars on the Psycho-Sensory Phenomenon. And bring someone close to you to take the quiz as well! I guarantee you will learn a lot about yourself and the people in your life, and find some amazing contradictions to many of the supposed “conventional wisdoms” of wine and food.