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Shedding Light on Wine Flavor

New study reports that lighting color affects flavor and value perception during wine tasting

by Jane Firstenfeld
Penner Ash tasting room lights
Architects emphasize the desirable qualities of controlled natural light in tasting rooms, shown here at Penner-Ash Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley, designed by Waterleaf Architecture.
Silver Spring, Md. -- Recent research contends that lighting can influence both how wine tastes and how much consumers are willing to pay for it. “Ambient Lighting Modifies the Flavor of Wine,” details conclusions from three German experiments in which more than 500 people tasted Riesling wines under different lighting conditions. Originally published in the December 2009 Journal of Sensory Studies, the National Lighting Bureau in Silver Spring, Md., forwarded a summary of the results.

The lighting experiments involved “blind” tastings in different settings using controlled fluorescent lighting. According to the summary, “People rated the wine's quality higher, in general, when they drank it in a room whose ambient lighting was red or blue vs. green or white. They also found the test wine much sweeter and fruitier when sampled in a room illuminated by red-tinted fluorescent lamps, and were willing to spend more for it.”

When dry and semi-dry Rieslings were tasted, “Participants perceived a wine to be spicier when they tasted it under blue or green light rather than red or white. Interestingly, blue lighting made the wine taste bitter, but subjects nonetheless liked the wine more under those lighting conditions,” researchers reported.

According to NLB, the researchers intend to conduct additional experiments. “In the meantime, it seems evident that lighting color -- which includes the color of room surfaces -- affects the taste of wine,” NLB chair Howard Lewis stated. Lewis concurred with lead researcher Dr. Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel that serious wine tastings should be conducted in neutral-color environments.

Wines & Vines asked several experts in tasting room design to read and comment on the report. Architect Scott Hall at Hall & Bartley, Santa Rosa, Calif., said, “In our experience, we tend to favor warm colors in a tasting room over cool colors.…We find that for tasting, the best from a perception standpoint is natural sunlight.”

Obviously, in a wine cave or after dark, natural sunlight is not always an option. And, while energy efficiency may dictate using fluorescent lighting, “We always try to use incandescent lighting for accent. Typically, this is in the form of pendant incandescent or halogen fixtures suspended over or directed at the bar surface,” because this mimics natural sunlight, Hall noted.

“Sunlight does tend to have bias toward warm tones, in that it favors the red end of the spectrum,” he said, adding that fluorescent lights tend to flatten things out because of their diffuse quality. “Just as with crystal, wine is more appealing when it sparkles with reflection of point sources of light.”
St. Francis Winery tasting room lighting
Make it sparkle: Several experts stressed the importance of sparkle in winery tasting rooms. Sonoma Valley's St. Francis Winery tasting room by Hall & Bartley shows off its polish.
Stephen Lapp, a partner at Waterleaf Architecture, Portland, Ore., commented, “I'm not surprised that perceptions of wine quality varied with the color of light. As a designer of wineries and tasting rooms, we always advocate the importance of appropriate lighting -- both natural and artificial -- combined with the ambience (that) materials and finishes contribute to a space.

“We're creatures of emotions that are tempered by our environment, so changing the quality of light will change our emotive response to an experience.”

Lapp stressed the importance of controlled natural lighting for tasting rooms. “You want to avoid glare conditions that make an uncomfortable or distracting experience.” When supplementary light is needed for accent, or for evening and cave/cellar events, “We recommend light with a high 'color rendition index' (CRI), approximately the color of daylight,” he said. Thoughtful lamping is important, he pointed out, because different light sources have different CRI levels and deliver light differently.

He, too, cited the sparkle factor. “Halogen sources can provide sparkle on stemware, focusing attention on the wine and the wine-tasting experience. It provides shadows and sparkle similar to what we experience outdoors during a sunny early evening, when we're milling around enjoying food, wine, and our friends.”

Jeff Goodwin of San Francisco's BAR Architects, was especially interested in the conclusion of the original study: “The emotions elicited by a certain light color do not seem to be the cause of the effects. An alternative explanation could be an influence of color on cognition, for example by making us more accessible and responsive for a certain taste.”

Goodwin was curious about other attributes of the light used in the experiments: Was the light direct or indirect? Intense or subdued? These differences, he pointed out, could also affect people's emotions and/or sensory responses.

“Anecdotally, and probably like many designers, I do believe that beautiful lighting and beautiful spaces can make people more receptive to what they experience with their senses,” he added.

Tasting room consultant and lecturer Craig Root, St. Helena, Calif., has a degree in psychology, not architecture, but he noted that the research itself took place in deliberately artificial settings: windowless, fluorescent-lit tasting rooms.

While conceding, “I'm a function guy, not a designer,” he emphasized that customers' tasting room experiences all vary with the atmosphere, and pointed out that music has also been demonstrated to affect tasting perceptions. Root skeptically referred to a quotation (attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

He pondered that Germany's northern climate might have colored the subjects' preference for normally unflattering blue light, for instance. He referred to studies by retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, which showed that motion is attractive: Fluttering banners can bring more customers to your tasting room (or used car dealership). Twinkly lights sparkling off exterior windows might have a similar effect, he speculated.

“Tasting rooms are like theater,” he said. Your staging, and your stage lighting, could -- should -- be worth a second look.
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