Third Dimension for Supertasters

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!

Photo credit: doctordisruption.com

2016-10-09T17:54:01+00:00

About the Author:

Jeffrey L. Lamy - Master of Science, Winery Consultant, Economist and Author. Jeffrey is a 1960 Yale graduate in Industrial Administration and Mechanical Engineering. Later he added an MS in Business. As it is with many second-career winemakers these days, his wine education was gained from short courses and technical visits to U.S. and European wineries. From 1982 to 1992, he planned, built and ran a 400+ acre operation for a wealthy lumber family, serving as its general manager and chief winemaker. His wines won more awards than any other Oregon winery. After returning to full-time consulting, he designed more than 400 vineyards, designed a dozen wineries and directed the winemaking for six. To Enobytes.com, Jeff brings extensive knowledge in the technologies of grape growing and winemaking, experience in many regions, and keen insights of the entire business enterprise. He has written a book [on management of the winemaking business, which is expected to be in print soon.

8 Comments

  1. alduant August 17, 2011 at 6:15 PM - Reply

    I haven’t heard of a super taster before now but this is a very interesting story and debate, thanks.

  2. Sondra August 18, 2011 at 10:16 AM - Reply

    Interesting article but you’ve left out an important,to me, problem with tasting – our language about tastes. Whether we are supertasters, and according to Tim Hanni I am, or ‘blind mouth’ we cannot always give words to our experience. That, too, is because of brain, not just memory. Taste and the artistic talents you mentioned, our sensory experiences are mostly right brain dominant skills. Language is left-brain – how do the two meet? Sure the corpus colusum in the middle of the brain helps (and women’s are larger, maybe that’s why more are ‘supertasters’ – mine is bigger than yours. But I always see winetasting and ratings etc as a great dilemma in biology – we’re asking our brains to translate a sensory experience into a linguistic one and that may have nothing to do with supertasters but word ability.

  3. Jeff V. August 19, 2011 at 11:13 AM - Reply

    I’m in the, “there’s no such thing as a super-taster” camp. As for your three examples of “super-tasters” Mr. Parker, is known for his ultra ripe wine preferences and his confusion of the delicacies of Burgundy are legendary. Could a “super taster” not be able to find the nuances? Of course this causes further confusion for the wine consumer who equates Mr. Parker’s “ripe” preference to his supposed “super-taster” status. As for Mr. Broadbent, I would hasten to trust any “super taster” who couldn’t call out (read: taste) all of those faked bottles that Mr. Rodenstock created in his basement.
    Of all of your examples, I would trust the palate of Jancis Robinson, but not because I believe that she is a “super taster”, I would tend to listen to her wine opinions/recommendations because I share some wine (read: taste) preferences with her. But what I value most about her palate, is that it is a female palate, and females have (by in large) more taste buds than men, therefore they are better tasters. In my wine professional experiences, the best tasters I know are females. But of course, “tasting” is more than just taste buds, and this is where our personal history surrounding food and beverage come into play. Some people think eating/drinking is just a chore. Many people in the USA haven’t enjoyed the taste sensation of a homegrown tomato, or homemade bread, or free range chicken eggs. The fast food options at most grocery store chains are the norm, or worse the fastest food industry examples (see McD’s, Burger King, etc..) Others see the consumption of food/beverage as an emotional/sensual experience. How you think about consumption is the key to not only enjoying the experience, but it is also the best way to maximize the nutritional value of that food/beverage of choice.

    I’m a firm believer in “the more you taste, the more you know” camp. Oh, and please don’t get me started on those “How to taste wine” classes.

  4. Tim Hanni MW August 21, 2011 at 3:36 PM - Reply

    The problem (and source of disonance in this conversation) is that the term “supertaster” was employed by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk to describe a cluster of people who are highly sensitive to a VERY specific sensitivity to a family of compounds. NOT wine experts or any relationship of the supertaster phenomenon to wine tasting ability. Linda’s work is in the field of genetics, not taste, and has been very roundly misineterpreted. I DO NOT use the term ‘supertaster’ in my sensory phenotyping work but am a big fan of Dr. Bartoshuk and her work – it has infulenced my own efforts profoundly.

    The term ‘supertaster’ was not intended to describe some sort of super tasting ability. In all probability Parker and many experts are NOT super tasters, although many wine experts are (Dan Berger, Tim Mondavi, Jancis Robinson – I have tested them all with Thiourea strips personally) but again it only applies to a general level of sensitivity at best and specific sensitivity when taken in context of the research. Very highly sensitive wine experts are usually at complete odds with the less sensative (not bad, just different) tasters and this can be seen in arguments over alcohol levels, straucture and all sorts of things. Very highly sensative tasters experience alcohol as hot and burning, tolerant tasters find it smooth and even sweet. Completely different sensations even when tasting the exact same wine and due to physiological variables.

    Yes – there is a phenomenon called ‘supertaster’. Most people who talk about it don’t understand it. And YES, our physiological differences DO have a huge impact on how different people respond VERY differently to identical stimuli. different people have differnt ‘bandwidths’ for the range of sensations they experience and some sensations may not be discernable for one person yet occur and very high intensity for another. Just ask those 4-5% of people who get the horrible, soapy and bitter sensation from cilantro!

  5. Glenn S. August 25, 2011 at 5:35 PM - Reply

    Hi, this is a well written post. Thanks for the thoughtful and well-written piece.

  6. Ken Hicks October 5, 2011 at 5:27 PM - Reply

    Well written article. What is this “It’s Mueller time” mean? I heard it had something to do w/Mueller-Thurgau. Are you familiar w/it. Is that not what Blue Nun was.?

    I am more in to Meritage and Cabernets, and Zinfandel like Bogle Old Vine, Sterling Collectors Meritage, and even Columbia Crest 2 Vines Cabernet Sauvignon.

    I had read that you were quite a winemaker and your Pinot Noir was rated the best by Carol Hicks, true?

  7. Wine Lover June 30, 2012 at 8:49 AM - Reply

    This is a really great article with all the opinions added to it. Keep up the great job.

Leave A Comment