Interview with Tim Gaiser, MS: Blind Tasting & Submodalities

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Tim Gaiser is one of the world’s top wine experts and educators. One of only 219 people in the world ever to achieve the title Master Sommelier, he is the former Director of Education and Education Chair for the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. Tim is also an adjunct professor at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. In the course of his more than 25-year career, he’s taught thousands of students at all levels about wine and spirits. Tim is one of the most influential teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. He was a great resource for me when I was studying for the Certified Sommelier Exam, particularly when it came to advice on how to become a better blind taster. The Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta is proud to host Tim each year for the week’s events, including the highly anticipated Guest Chef Luncheon and Master Sommelier Throw-down as well as various wine seminars.

In 2010, Tim worked with the Everyday Genius Institute and behavioral scientist Tim Hallbom to deconstruct his own wine tasting strategy. Since then, Gaiser has researched how we subconsciously process our sensory experience of the world, a concept known as submodalities. He believes an understanding of how our minds subconsciously work can be used to improve sommeliers’ sensory memory for blind tasting as well as to help other professionals whose careers depend on the olfactory and gustatory senses. I sat down with Tim to talk about how his research on submodalities has changed his own tasting process as well as how he teaches tasting.

Erin Brooks: What exactly is blind tasting?

Tim Gaiser: The premise of blind tasting, specifically for the Court of Master Sommeliers, is about the sommelier being able to describe wine to a guest at a table in a restaurant. We do this using a deductive tasting grid which is an outline that helps us describe the sight, nose and palate of a wine. When tasting a wine blind, all this information can be used to help us come to the best conclusion of what the wine could be. We also ask students to describe and identify wines using this same tasting grid.

EB: Why is blind tasting an important part of the sommelier’s profession?

TG: Blind tasting, again, helps sommeliers describe a wine to a guest. It also speaks to a sommelier’s overall experience and skill. They have to be able to perform all the necessary components of wine service as well as knowing about the theory of wine. But one of the measures of skill for anyone in the wine industry is how well they taste.

EB: What are submodalities?

TG: Submodalities are basically the structure of our internal experience. It’s literally how we think. “Moda” in Greek refers to the senses. Modalities are our five senses as we experience the outside world: sight, sound, feel, smell and taste. We use these same modalities internally to process our experience but these modalities also have structural qualities. For example, everybody thinks in pictures and movies but these pictures have location, size, dimension and other qualities to them. If you feel fuzzy or dull, chances are the pictures in your head are also fuzzy and dull. There are infinite examples like this but usually we’re not aware of them because they’re at the unconscious level.

EB: Why has discovering the concept of submodalities been so important for you?

TG: Realizing we do this stuff inside our heads and paying attention to the structure and qualities of what goes on internally is almost as important as the content itself. Being aware of internal process also allows you to have more control over your own experience. I think the best thing about submodalities is that you can figure out what makes you feel good so you can do it consciously more often. At the same time, you can take things that you don’t feel good about and alter them so they have minimal, if any, impact on you. Submodalities are probably the most profound thing I’ve ever learned in terms of being able to control your experience in the world and how you can alter your thinking—for the better, hopefully.

EB: How do submodalities apply to blind tasting?

TG: Submodalities apply to blind tasting in terms of being able to accurately identify aromas and flavors in a wine. They also help in accurately calibrating how much acid, alcohol and tannin is in a wine. They can even help us to identify grape varieties and wines. Something I discovered using submodalities over the last couple of years was that I visually calibrate the structure of wine—the levels of acid, alcohol, tannin and finish. When people first start tasting and they’re asked about the structure of the wine it’s really a crapshoot. What’s medium-plus versus high tannin? What does that feel like? I think people do much better with some kind of visual confirmation. What I discovered I do internally is that I literally see a scale in my mind’s eye. It goes from low to high with markers along the way and it has a red button positioned in the middle on “medium” that moves. So when I taste for acidity, for example, I mentally watch the red button move until it stops. Then I mentally point to it and say to myself, “It’s right there—it’s medium-plus.” So I have a physiological match to a visual confirmation.

EB: How has learning about submodalities affected the way you taste and teach others to taste?

TG: Awareness of it has made me not only a better taster but also a better teacher. It’s given me another language to teach tasting. Before, I was trying to teach students using my own experiences and how I taste, but that doesn’t work because everybody’s thinking processes—and memories—are so different. The concept of submodalities gave me the tools to let students know exactly what they do and how they can use what they already have to be successful with the Master Sommelier tasting grid. That’s very exciting. Now when I teach students, my first mission is to find out what they already do internally and what’s easy for them. When you’re doing something in a way that’s easy for you it means you’re doing it right. The only thing I care about is to give talented students tools to have more success and to make it easier to taste wine.

EB: What do you say to someone who argues that blind tasting is just a parlor trick?

TG: Not true. Blind tasting is a skill that’s practiced and it’s all about our internal memory, primarily olfactory memory, which is usually attached to visual memory. But kinesthetic memory is important too in terms of calibrating the structure of the wine. So even though we talk about getting the identity of a wine correct, being able to describe the wine intelligently is anything but a parlor trick. It’s a skill that’s accumulated with experience over time.

EB: Where is your research on submodalities taking you now?

TG: In August I’ll be in Seattle for the Society of Wine Educators Conference, where I’ll give a presentation on my tasting project. So far I’ve conducted about 18 formal interviews that are about 90 minutes to two hours long each in which I deconstruct people’s tasting strategies. I’ve also worked with a couple of expert-level perfumers to do the same thing and soon I’ll be speaking to a tea expert. The whole project is about memory strategies and how these experts use submodalities to remember what things smell like. But in working with really good tasters I hope to discover strategies that anyone at any level can try. Imagine trying somebody’s strategy and finding out that tasting is suddenly so much easier.

The next thing I plan to work on is helping people who have test anxiety and creating strategies for overcoming those fears. There are a handful of students at both the advanced and master level I’m working with who haven’t done well in exams simply because they have issues with testing. I’m going to work with them and figure out strategies that can help with test anxiety.

 Story by Erin Brooks

Published in Local Flavor Magazine, September 2014

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