Third Dimension for Supertasters

Several months ago, a Portland-based winewriter discussed the subject of wine supertasters. Or rather, she shepherded the comments of two “experts” in the field. I thought this subject was really chewed over 4-5 years ago when Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger was laboratory -tested for supertaster traits.  He was found to be a “non-taster” (unqualified because of physiology), but that did not rule out the widespread recognition he has received for his wine savvy. In 2006, Portland-based international wine critic Matt Kramer pretty well dismembered the concept of being qualified as a “supertaster” by one’s physiology.

But, what the heck, Portland winewriter, if you’re on deadline and need to fill a column, have at it again.

In my opinion, the article didn’t go far enough. There is more to wine tasting prowess than covered in the article. This column was just an attempt to reinvent the wheel. Something else needs to be added to the discussion. But, let’s begin with what the article said.

The experts were John Eliassen, a commercial winemaker who also teaches wine appreciation at a local culinary school, and Juyun Lim, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s Food Science Department. Both acquitted themselves well.

The winemaker allowed that winetasting skills can be improved through training and practice. The professor pointed to physical characteristics of the human sensory apparatus. For taste, there are tastebuds on the tongue (fungiform papillae), and for detection of smell, the nasal passages contain olfactory receptors.

Both of them offered that everyone is born with physical features that enable winetasting, and that those features changed over the course of one’s life.

I don’t share their opinion that everyone is born with sufficient tasting physiology.

What we have here is a scientific community trying to explain all things good by measurable scalars. Everything is logical and capable of scientific measurement. In his novel Angels and Demons, Dan Brown graphically portrayed the illuminati, a secret society whose members challenge the Vatican on spiritual beliefs, preferring to try to explain everything spiritual by laws of physics.

But, all things human are not so easily explainable. What is it that makes Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli sing so well? Why can Itzhak Perlman play the violin as he does, Michael Jordan excel at basketball, Albert Einstein decipher the mysteries of the universe?

Clearly, there is something responsible that is over and above average mortals, something that enables these stars to utilize their physical talents so well. Let’s call it innate aptitude for want of a better term. Even the scientists acknowledge that there are people who defy the usual measures of tasting ability. I prefer to think of it as a God-given skill. Some people have it in varying degrees of ability, and theirs can be improved upon by training and practice. But, other people don’t have it, and they’re never going to get it.

I think this third dimension is rooted in the brain. Here’s what happens during tasting. The tastebuds and olfactory receptors are activated by something placed in contact with them. These sensors send an electric signal along the axons of the cranial nerves. When those signals reach the brain, they are matched up with a memory of a taste or smell that is stored in the brain, our database, if you will. Once the matchup is made, we have the full experience of smell and taste.

If the taster has never experienced the smell or taste, let’s say “fennel seed,” then no matchup can occur. The taster has a “blind spot.” That doesn’t mean the taster is deficient in physiological apparatus, but simply has not previously experienced the sensation. Thus, it is a good exercise for oenophiles to smell and taste fruits, vegetables, spices, flowers, woods and tannins frequently, in order to establish or refresh the memory. Even such materials as dill pickles and canned green beans come into play.

So, back to the subject of people who have, or don’t have, the innate aptitude. That’s the way it is with winemakers and, sometimes, wine writers. The aptitude comes in all shades of white-through gray-to black.

Winemakers guard against this condition by routinely tasting their wines with a group of winemakers. If the composition of the group is constant, each member becomes knowledgeable about the others’ strengths and weaknesses (blind spots).

Who are some sure-fire “supertasters?” Robert M. Parker, Jr. (Baltimore attorney and publisher of The Wine Advocate) and Michael Broadbent (London, and retired founder/director of Christie’s Auction House’s wine department) are two examples. British wine writer Jancis Robinson says she’s been tested and she is one.

Nearly 40 years of critically evaluating wines as a winemaker and consultant, have brought me to this conclusion. The great ones and the duds are all around us, as are many who fill the spectrum in between. In a winetasting group, you can tell who the duds are. They hang back in giving their perceptions until a “respectable” taster fully delineates the wine. Then, they chime in, very thoughtfully, with: ”I tend to agree with so-and-so . . . “

So, how does one measure this elusive quality, proficiency at winetasting? Back about 15 years ago, I participated in an exercise that shows a way. At that time, Dr. Barney Watson directed the enology department at Oregon State University. He was also a partner and winemaker for Corvallis area’s Tyee Cellars. Dr. Watson was outstanding. He is so likeable that everyone calls him “Barney.” Now retired from OSU, he runs the winemaking curricula at Northwest Wine Center in West Salem, OR.

OSU had a professional winetasting panel, which evaluated experimental wines developed in Watson’s enology lab. Grapes for the wines came from vineyards donated to OSU, and some 20 commercial vineyards who planted rows of the new clones coming from Europe under the condition that the grapes would go to OSU. Some of the wines were experimental in that differences in grape-growing and winemaking tactics, as well as climat, were tested to observe the effects.

As one might guess, the panel was dominated by the old war horses, the pioneers of the industry, who perpetuated their dominance of industry affairs. Dr. Watson wanted to try some new blood, so he opened the tasting to all comers. As I recall, there were about 50 winemakers participating. The tasting took two hours in the morning, and two in the afternoon. Some challenges were built into the order. First, some of the morning wines were also included in the afternoon group, but inserted in a different order, as a check on “guessing.” Second, Watson had “seeded” some of the wines with common problems, just to see if the tasters were able to detect them.

Without telling the tasters what he was up to, Dr. Watson graded the tasters as well as the wines. The data went into the computer and out came a prioritized list. The 16 most able tasters were appointed to the new professional tasting panel. You might have guessed it. There were a lot of new faces on the panel, and very few pioneers. The second wave of Oregon winemakers had asserted itself.

This example presents a method for identifying really capable tasters: skip the laboratory testing of physiology and see what they detect in the finished product. It’s a bottom line approach.

Here’s another example. I can remember a blind tasting conducted in a winery’s tank room about 20 years ago, where a locally-prominent winewriter (not the current maven) guessed wrong. She eagerly declared one wine to be “Cabernet Sauvignon!” when it was obvious to the other 39 people participating that it was Pinot Noir.

I offer these two events not to castigate anyone. It is because they illustrate so well the difficulty of separating a really good winetaster from an average one.

Assistant professor Lim summarizes the situation thus: “. . . it’s really hard to measure taste sensitivity in humans.”

Well said!

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