Entranced by wine
How I used hypnosis to get my brain to shut up and experience wine in a strange and wonderful new way
Following is an article I published in The Washington Post about how I learned to use hypnosis to taste wine better.
It was when the four-legged plum appeared that I realized something odd was going on.
I was drinking a modest burgundy, a grenache blend that, in other circumstances, I might have merely thought “pretty good” -- my usual assessment of a weeknight wine, when I’m looking to spend undistracted time with my lovely wife.
But this time I was -- intentionally -- in a hypnotic trance.
I should say here that my lovely wife is a psychologist who practices clinical hypnosis. This approach to therapy bears no resemblance to stage shows, where the betranced subject thwaps around like a dolphin. It’s also not like those one-session quit-smoking deals you see advertised on day-glo cardboard at busy intersections.
As practiced by a mental health professional, clinical hypnosis is a technique where the client is led into a deep state of relaxation, then offered a set of suggestions, often highly metaphorical, that address the issues at hand. There’s a lot of good research proving its efficacy.
Clinical hypnosis can get the rational mind out of the way, removing barriers to change.
And it turns out that this rational mind gets in the way when you try to fully experience -- sense, explore, savor -- the remarkably complex and often enchanting aromas and flavors of a well-made wine.
In short: Hypnosis allows you to drink with the right side of your brain.
The viticultural industrial complex
The viticultural industrial complex re-enforces the left-brain approach to wine. Labels, tasting notes, books, apps, regional guides, shelf tags, those well-studied sommeliers, “The Wine Show” (so sue me) all convey that certain wines carry specific, detectable aromas and flavors.
And amateur drinkers wind up feeling we ought to smell those smells and taste those tastes. So we struggle to identify specific scents. But we have limited vocabularies of aroma, and limited exposure to the range of smells in the worlds of agriculture and nature.
Raspberry, cherries, apples, grapefruit? Sure, I can identify those grocery-store smells, even when tasting blind. It’s a fun party game. I think they used to do that at baby showers.
But then I hit a wall.
Black cassis, boysenberry, lavender, guava, honeysuckle, persimmon, moss, leather, limestone ... all of those adjectives showed up in customer reviews about just one merlot on the wine app Vivino. Who the hell even knows what boysenberry smells like?
I of course am stuck somewhere back in “raspberries, I think, and some wood.” And feeling that I am entirely missing a really big sensory party behind a velvet rope.
Humbled and maddened, I bought one of those (pricey!) kits with vials of 46 different essences, from anise to tamarind. I’d wave the vial of honeysuckle essence under my nose and then sniff a glass of the wine purported to carry delicate aromas of sweet honeysuckle.
Or, worse, under the power of suggestion and peer pressure, I’d think I smell it. A little. Wait...oh, hell, sure, yeah, honeysuckle, I think so, whatever. Refill my glass, please, and I’ll try to smell the lychee.
One evening, while gloomily making notes in my wine journal, I got to thinking. How can I get past that sensory true-false test of learning wine, but enjoy it more?
Just then my wife came upstairs from her office. She poured herself a glass of sancerre and told me she had a cool new client she was going to use hypnosis with.
Here's how tasting wine under hypnosis works
The hypnotic induction my wife uses for our wine tasting goes something like this: First we close our eyes and relax our bodies, holding our glasses in our hands. She invites us to become aware of our breathing, and then uses some sort of induction to carry us deeper. Sometimes it’s rolling our eyes upward three times; sometimes it’s just deeply imagining a relaxing scene.
She tells us to just imagine opening up our minds and noses and mouths, emptying out everything, and giving our senses over fully to what they are about to experience.
Notably, I’m not “asleep” or in a “trance.” Basically I’m relaxed and my rational brain has been put in time-out.
On her cue we move our wine glasses to our noses and breathe in. And out.
In this state, I’m no longer trying to identify the “right” aromas. I’m letting my body slowly take in the smells and inviting my imagination to take over.
While under hypnosis, I experienced the same merlot whose profuse tasting notes I cited above. As I took in the aromas with my frontal cortex on leave, I imagined ... a wooden trellis climbing up the side of the glass, entwined with red licorice candy, leading directly up my nose.
With other wines, I saw burgundy shavings curl out of one of those old elementary school manual pencil sharpeners.
A red blend summoned a Christmas cookie with a dab of cherry.
Once I saw a wire fence with wild flowers climbing on it. That was another pinot noir.
I once smelled a wet wallet in a California cab. I got cherry candy sand from a Côtes du Rhône.
Another time, with a sancerre, a side street after a warm rain.
With one of those randy New Zealand sauvignon blancs, I saw a grapefruit and a peach rise from the glass in three dimensions.
Another time: Blue cotton candy. I forget what wine that was.
And no, I wasn’t under the influence of “magic mushrooms.” Just a sip or two of wine at about 13 percent alcohol.
The funny thing is, none of these sensory observations is that far off from what the wine expertocracy expresses.
My burgundy pencil shavings? I’m guessing my imagination was processing the same aromas wine writers call “graphite,” along with berries or cherries or dark red fruit my untutored brain didn’t distinguish.
That wooden trellis with wild flowers? A critic might say “lightly floral at the nose, against a backdrop of sturdy American oak.” (See, I’m getting good at this!)
The wet wallet: “Notes of leather.”
The street after the rain? “A through-line of minerality.”
The four-legged plum? Okay, that’s a tougher one. Maybe ... “Notes of plush summer stone fruit.”
What I think my brain does when under the influence of hypnosis is take in the aromas and, bypassing my frontal cortex, associate them with memories, images, and the bitty shards of stories, emotions and sensations that are packed in there like stuff in a madman’s attic.
Alcohol and your brain
I’m not sure what to make of all of this.
My main takeaway is that, while we know that drinking too much alcohol does bad things to your brain, it can also be said that your brain does bad things to your experience with alcohol. Getting it out of the way adds another dimension to wine appreciation. It turns precise molecular inputs and acute sensory processing systems into whack liquid storytelling.
I think sommeliers would have more fun if they tasted wines in a hypnotic trance every now and again. I know their customers would.
That said, any one person’s imaginings produced in a hypnotic tasting are probably not useful to anyone else. I don’t think your experience of a glass of merlot would be enhanced if you knew that at my first sniff I saw a sockless rodeo clown buffing the floors of a Costco after midnight. (I just made that up, but I’ve got to say I’d take a case of whatever that was.)
Even the wine industry will tell you that the most important thing is to find a wine you enjoy.
For me, hypnotic drinking helps me enjoy practically any wine more. It can turn an $11 zinfandel into a special occasion.
Or, on any given night, a four-legged plum.