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Dr. Isabelle Lesschaeve is a sensory and consumer scientist with 25+ years of experience. Isabelle held positions with increasing responsibilities in academia and R&D departments in France, Canada, and the US, most recently as the Director of Product Guidance at The Coca-Cola Company.
Isabelle is the author and co-author of 50+ peer-reviewed articles. She excels in and loves designing learning plans to unlock complex questions related to consumer consumption behaviors.
Isabelle pivoted her career recently to focus on two of her passions, wine & education, through InnoVinum, her consulting company. She publishes weekly articles on her website winetasting-demystified.com, and just created an online course platform, InnoVinum Academy, to train wine enthusiasts to taste wine using her sensory science framework.
Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)
John: So, Isabelle, welcome to the show.
Isabelle: Thank you, John.
John: It's great to have you. So something that, you know, I think is really interesting, kind of going through your bio and also just from knowing each other personally is I think you're a fascinating history. I think that you're you know, you're starting with your kind of early work in France and then going in to you through because you've been in kind of all walks of life. You've been in academia, you've run your own company. Again, running your own company, which you also been in industry. So I think it would be any place to start to have our listeners kind of hear your story of how you got started in sensory and the kind of twists and turns your career has taken to get you where you are today.
Isabelle: I'm happy to share. Indeed, when you look at my CV, people was just wondering, you know, if I knew what I was doing and sending all these different career paths. But the ways to, you know, always focusing on sensory and try to understand consumer better. But I started my career at INRA, the National Institutes of Agricultural Research and Vision under the direction of the Dr. Show and working with Dr. Pradesh. I think these are two names that are familiar to everyone who are listening to the show. And I really got my passion for research and for quantitative research to working with them. My expertise was really in sensory and I was the guru of descriptive analysis using a hybrid method and I learned a lot. I did my PhD when I was working with them and one day I had a call from a winery in California looking for a sensory scientist. And behold, I am on the plane, but we can call Thanksgiving. I had no idea what Thanksgiving was and why everybody was gone and suddenly went shopping. So it was my first encounter in the late 90's with the American life and I worked for a winery at that time for more than four years, setting up in sensory department. And I happened, I went to Canada married my husband and started my consulting company there. I'm really in the spirit of helping wineries, small and medium, large size, to implement sensory program and how it can help them develop the right wine for the right consumer target. That was really my thing. And then I getting a call again and I went to a Brook University and switch to another research institute advising on research where it was a compromise between being an academic and serving the industry more directly, and that's what's really fun to build the sensory and consumer science department there. That's when I arrived at Coca-Cola and the leading the product guidance team in R&D so that you could say that I pivoted a lot, but at the same time, it gave me so many opportunities to learn what I wanted to do in my career, but also meeting wonderful people who were great mentors. And by this diversity, you learned so much about what good research is, what you really want to do and how you can contribute to the field.
John: Right. That's fascinating. And what have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned along the way?
Isabelle: Being an academic, you know, some place when I moved to the industry, I really wanted to apply, you know, the techniques by the book. And I realized that, you know, life in industry is different. The challenges are different. Don't always, you're not always able to do three right, you know? It is maybe two right and sometimes just right. So you have to really adopt your technology techniques to the constraint and the situation. So that was a big learning and yes, I have some years of experience, so I when started with a questionnaire moving on for nine and now over technology so it's ready to learn as you continue to grow as a professional and adapt your consumer science knowledge foundation to the new tools. I guess that's the topic of your podcast is really, you know, how we can use technologies to better understand sensory properties or products or consumer behavior without, you know, what I learned along the way, not being rigid but being flexible and use the tools that can help you and find a solution for your problems.
John: Right. And with some of the new technologies, I mean, social media, for example, or even in you know, we talk about collecting data on phones, on apps, these kind of thing, what have been some of the ways that you felt like, you know, some of the things to keep in mind with these very new technologies that people are using or maybe some advice you would offer on that front?
Isabelle: Of course, you know, we want to make sure about the validity of the data that we collect. And that's definitely where we look at academics to help us take those methodologies and help us identify the many possible caveats and at the same time if we think about mobile and social media, that's where consumers are hanging out and these are the tools that they are using and we have to go where the consumers are going, using the tools that they are familiar with and not asking them to fill out a half an hour survey because they don't have the patience anymore. So it's really a combination of testing the methodology and making sure that you have the type of answers that you need, you know, what to get with a certain methodology might not be the same output with a new methodology but what is the gain, what is the loss and there is no one method that can solve it all. It's really about finding the combination of approaches that help you get closer to a solution to the challenges that you have.
John: Yeah, I mean, that really speaks to me because as you know, something I'm really interested in right now is the smart speaker surveys. But I think there are a lot of ways to misuse new technologies. I think if you just try to substitute. I do think what happened with computers and paper was a little unusual because I think that there was actually a more or less a replacement of paper with computers, but then it became possible to ask the questionnaires that were impossible on paper. But it was, you know, the smart speakers I see that is a situation where actually if you were to take an online survey and do it on a smart speaker, it actually wouldn't be a very good survey. It would be a misuse of the technology that you need to be a little more kind of targeted. So I think it would be interesting to hear you actually before the show, we were talking a little bit about this idea of going where the consumers are. And you said something I thought was really interesting, which was the idea that if you force the consumers to answer the questions the way you want to ask them, then you'll get the answers that you in some sense already had in mind. So maybe it'd be nice to hear you talk a little bit, expand on that a little bit on how you are maybe allowing the consumers to express themselves a little bit?
Isabelle: Like, you know, if you're going to see your doctor and they ask, how many glasses of wine do you drink a week? And you just say, well, I know it's below 7, I should say, you know, just three or four times a week and, you know, you look good. That's the same situation. I mean, you want to do great or, you know, you hear in the media that, you know, some products are bad for you. So you don't say that you're going to fast food restaurant once a week, but you just love the product and you love the atmosphere. Whatever you know is your reward. But you don't say that because you know that there is some pressure, social pressure that's what you shouldn't do that. So I think there are questions you get an answer. But what I learned along the way, when you want to get to the true behaviors of consumers, you have to be in the right, you have to observe, you have to listen and the great thing with social media right now is people are putting their lives out there and reading forums, blogs, Twitter is maybe too controversial these days. But just looking at the language and the photo that people are posting, you learn a lot. And these are indirect ways you can really get a sense of what's really important to consumers, what are their problems, unarticulated needs going on, asking directly?
John: Yeah, it's really interesting because, you know, yeah, it's definitely true. I mean, you've got this fix, these direct questions that are going to lead potentially to bias data because of all of the context and all that kind of information. That's very interesting. So maybe it'll be good to switch gears a little bit, because I do want to get into talking about your kind of new work and the online platform that you developed for learning. So all these, I mean I know you've been involved with it, maybe let's talk a little bit deeper into your history in the wine world, because I know you've been involved with wine. Is the wine flavor wheel or wine aroma wheel? What is the wheel?
Isabelle: It's the wine aroma wheel that Dr. Ann Noble created when she was a professor at University of California, Davis. And it's a tool that we use to train people to articulate their perception. So the first flavor wheel was really invented by Dr. Meilgaard when he was working in the beer industry. And now you have aroma wheel on everything, coffee, chocolate. I think I saw something interesting the other day on beef and using some of methodology to really understand the different aroma categories and to help people describe beef so that was interesting. But really the purpose of this tool is to help people who are new to describing their perception to understand how they can categorize in a generic category and try to be more specific. So if you smell something that is fruity, then you stop thinking what type of food? Is it more yellow foods, red foods, more cooked is more fresh and basically helping you to break down your perception to, if possible and narrow down to. But the problem in wine is that people try to go directly to the documentary and not really identify or categorize and really put the bar very high and says that if they don't perceive, then they are wrong, bad tasters, et cetera. So I'm trying to demystify all this with my company and the prototype I'm sharing with my clients. It's really about giving them the tools and the confidence that they can describe why you don't have to take you know certification to just enjoy a glass of wine, understand your flavors like and the flavors you don't like.
John: Fascinating. Yeah, I mean, actually, it's interesting. I learned a while ago, if you just use poetry to describe the wine that nobody knows that you don't know what I'm talking about. You say, oh, a hint of autumn sadness, then, you know.
Isabelle: And, you know, the great thing to be on Instagram is, you know, people are putting all these beautiful pictures of wine bottles and they have their wine description. And then really, you know, when you read that it's poetry and literature is great. That it's impossible to receive like twenty five different aromas. We have all these nuances in a glass of wine. Now, not possible.
John: So in those you know, in that kind of spirit, can you talk about some of the kind of scientific sensory principles then that you've taken into your work in the wine world? How have you found that? I mean, obviously, you're an expert in descriptive analysis. So what are some of the principles that you've taken into the wine tasting?
Isabelle: Sure. It's about understanding how your senses are working and make the best use of your senses and understanding the biases that can hinder your ability to taste and smell a particular product, especially in the wine industry. There are lot of biases people take blind and there are different types of taking depending on the purpose. When you work in the wine industry, the purpose is to produce a wine that has no defects. And then after that, it's to create a sign of wine that you want to be consistent or representative of the region of the great variety that you're producing. Then in hospitality, it's about, you know, creating a wine list that will please the consumers of your restaurant, of your bar and being able to describe to the wine to give options to your customer. So there are different purpose. And I think people who are interesting in wine when they enter this category, they see people who are being trained and who are experts and they believe that they need to be experts or worse than the experts, you know, is right. And we know that there is no right or wrong answer. That's just what you perceive. And what you perceived is based on your sensitivity. It is based on your familiarity with the aroma and taste and your ability to articulate. It is based on how often you practice and your framework of reference. For these are things that I'm sharing you know in a course format, more or less a shortlist of five to 10 minutes, because the attention span of people is what it is nowadays. And I understand you don't want to hear people an hour and a half. So trying to take those principles and break them down, have people practice and so that they feel comfortable about using their senses, trusting the senses when they send new products when it's not only wine.
John: It's fascinating. Yeah, because, I would say casual wine drinker. I mean, our wine consumption has gone way up during Covid. We're having glass of wine every night.
Isabelle: I think it's an industry that didn't suffer from the crisis.
John: I mean, maybe there are restaurants, you know, did hurt a little bit yet I think the overall consumption last time I checked, I think it was up. You probably know that better than me. Yeah, we have a wine cooler now and we get bottles of wine, but I guess it is true. Like so for someone like me, how would you recommend that I get started? I mean, if I really I took a wine tasting class when I was in graduate school and that basically consisted of a bunch of, you know, college students drinking wine together, which wasn't really the most, I mean, there was supposed to be scientific, but we didn't have you teaching. It would've been a lot better. So what advice would you have for someone like me who is drinking wine every night but would like to learn more and would kind of get started? How do I get started?
Isabelle: Well, I would start by asking you the question, what do you want to get started? Do you want to learn more about the wines you like and at from a sensory point of view but sensory characteristics are into the way the wine is made. The great variety often the winemaker, because winemakers have particular styles of producing wine. So you want to identify the wine regions that you're really fond of and the ones that you would rather avoid when you go shopping, or do you really want to get deep in your understanding and understand in terms of you know chardonnay, and the type of oak and becoming more expert in a way and deepen your wine knowledge through your tasting. So it depends on what really what the goal is. The first step is always understanding how you use your senses and how you taste, because then you can reroute your purpose accordingly. You know what to say to identify the aromas, and then you use this information for going deeper into a wine region and understanding the nuances. You only want to have more information on the effect on different factors on the final product. And you go and read and associate what you're reading with what you're tasting. Pretty good then.
John: Yeah. Interesting. I mean, I think what I want is I want to understand what I'm tasting and ideally what is to be able to understand what I'm tasting to the point that something that didn't taste good. I learned to appreciate it and then it tastes good. I have had this experience, you know, as you learn about something. A good example for me would be Scotch whisky, right? At the beginning has such a strong, smoky taste and I didn't really appreciate it. But now I enjoy it because I feel like I understand it in a way that I didn't when I started. So that's kind of the journey I'd like to go on because I'm trying to like, you know, I want to experience it to the fullest. And sometimes I feel like it's ignorance that keeps me from appreciating something is that I don't understand what I'm tasting. So actually, I think I will see if we can sign up here for some to attract my wine.
Isabelle: You are more than welcome.
John: And for the course then? I guess you need to taste your own wines. I mean, do you have? Because there's been another barrier for me, learning is that always it seems so inconvenient, I have to go and get particular wines to learn with. And I don't know, it's always seems so overwhelming because there's so many possible wines. How do you justify this for your students?
Isabelle: So for the moment, read the focus and my first course is really about learning how to describe wine aroma. And we are really follow the wine wheel and the standards that were developed with the wine aroma to teach people. This is what taste like and smell like, and this is raspberry and then train to recognize those nuances in a wine. You know, my students have asked me, what's next, what can we do? So the idea now is to move into a community where we would continue to practice together but apply to a wine. So the challenge is to find maybe not the same brand every time but the same wine style and have everyone tasting, try to describe what they perceive and exchange, because there are lots of things that can be learned through exchange between people on what they appreciate because we want the same things, yes, but the goal is to understand each other. That what the wine aroma is created initially to understand what you mean by grapey, if it is a word that you're using. So it is really those principles and to let people not being afraid to share what they're tasting and don't be afraid to say, oh, I don't get that. Tell me a little bit more about that, oh, that's maybe what I call, so I don't get it and that's right and this type of confidence that I'm looking at rather than what is happening in the wine appreciation where one is that people feel obliged to smell or taste something.
John: Right. Yes. That's really interesting. Kind of gets back to some of our observations about consumer testing. Yeah, that's very, very interesting. Okay, so I do want to get your thoughts, too, on some of which technologies you think going forward in sensory are going to be the most important as you kind of look right now and into the next five years, what do you think are the technologies people should be paying attention to and working to learn to learn more about?
Isabelle: Yes, it's a great question, obviously, my wish when I was a corporate researcher was to find a technology that can decode the experience of a consumers without having to ask anything to that person. So I remember one day going to MIT and we had this discussion and I said, can you design a device or some kind of devices where we can follow the journey of the consumers, whether it's shopping or consuming, and get some indicators of the enjoyment, precision, et cetera. And we might not be there, but I think there are technologies that enable us to observe, learn and get consumers feedback in the moment. So that's why I was interested in the voice and using voice assistant to conduct some research. Of course, it's not the only thing and I still think that virtual reality has a place, especially if we can combine with the voice, the virtual assistant because when you are in the virtual world, if you have to click on scale or using your Google. I think it’s practical and it's not in the moment. It doesn't really capture the experience of the individual. But being able to talk while being in your virtual world, I think it will be a plus. And, you know, we're talking about wineries. I know wineries are using now augmented reality. You can scan QR code and you go into the vineyard and the winemakers is a story when you're in the storage looking at the photo. A lot of things like that that could be applied to connect with the consumers and recapture what is important for their experience.
John: Definitely agree. And I actually would add to that sound, I think sound is going to come along and that's very important because we're going to have either a sound supplied by speakers that tend to be everywhere or even just in our ears that's going to be coming. So, yeah, it's very interesting. Yeah, actually Janice Wang and I, Janice Aarhus University in Denmark, she and I have started talking about and it looks like we're going to do some sort of collaboration with the smart speakers in virtual reality because it is that exact problem, you know, getting the data out. So, yeah, I think it's really really exciting time. We have to keep an eye on, I would also say wearables, you know, you're talking about these kind. They were all technologies not quite there yet, but it will be I mean, it's inevitable. There's a lot of these things that it's obvious that in five years they will be happening. And it's just a question of details. So, Isabelle, we're now almost out of time. So let's just talk quickly. You know that I always like to ask advice for young researchers. I think that you have a wealth of advice, so what would be some advice you would give to someone who's just finished her master's, PhD, food science or something like that going into sensory?
Isabelle: Sure. You know, I love coaching people, so I'm very approachable and if any of your listeners have questions, I want to coach for them more and I’m very open. I would say follow your heart and go where your passion is. Now, when you're young, you don't know where you're going. So, I mean, definitely your first experience will teach you a lot of questions, ask a lot of questions, and being a sensory scientist or sensory and consumer scientists, you know, there is no right or wrong or wrong questions. Just ask and learn and always be flexible and be yourself. That's what I was explaining my team recently that don't try to be somebody else. I mean, we have role models, but role models are not there to be mimicked. They are there to inspire you and demonstrate some value and behaviors, but especially when the behaviors are not that great. You know, don't want to be mean with people. So be kind, be yourself. Everybody is unique and can contribute on different ways to, you know, the benefit of the company, of the society, whatever you want to be.
John: Yeah. That's really a great advice. So anything else to add on that front? I feel I cut you off.
Isabelle: I think that's what it is and then continue to learn. Learn everything. Learn something every day. That's very true. I mean, I don't have a lot of experience, but if I am, I don't like to be born. I like to be stimulated by new things and learn new things and that's what keeps you going or being curious. Continue to be curious and help everybody individually.
John: Okay, great. This has been great, Isabelle. So if someone has to get in touch with you, what are some of the ways that they can find you or connect with you?
Isabelle: Well, obviously on LinkedIn and you can find me and connect. I would be happy to connect with anybody. On my website, winetasting-demystifies.com or in Instagram, one word winetastingdemystifies. And I'm happy to connect with you.
John: Okay, wonderful. Okay, Isabelle, thank you so much. This has been great.
Isabelle: Thank you, John.
John: This has been great. Alright, thanks. Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.
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