Am I a supertaster?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
June 21 2007 7:18 AM

Am I a Supertaster?

The physiology of the wine critic.

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I went to Philadelphia to meet with Reed, a playfully gruff woman who seemed bemused by my interest in this topic. (In an e-mail several days later, she would write, "Why is objective testing, e.g., genotyping, important to validate what people say they experience about the flavor of wine? We don't ask music critics to take hearing tests.") She first handed me a cotton swab and instructed me to rub it vigorously against the inside of one of my cheeks. This was the genotype test; as soon as I was done, Reed's assistant, Fujiko Duke, whisked the sample to the lab. Reed then handed me a Q-tip, and told me to dab the end of my tongue with some blue food dye, which would more clearly reveal the fungiform papillae. I placed a white binder ring on the tip of my tongue, at a slight angle from the center, and Reed began counting the bumps inside the ring, which required a good minute of fairly close inspection. (Fortunately for her, I'd forgone the onion bagel that morning.) With that, we were done; I took my blue tongue home to await the results.

Reed e-mailed them the next afternoon, and they were surprising. To begin with, I had, by her count, 64 fungiform papillae per square centimeter, which is almost exactly average. This meant I wasn't a supertaster, and put me squarely in the middle of the taster range. Then came the shocker: The swab test indicated that I have the two recessive alleles—that I am, genetically, a nontaster. This result didn't square with my pained response to the PROP test, and Reed seemed taken aback. She immediately called Wysocki to confirm that he had indeed given me the PROP test. She then informed me that the taster-nontaster split was not quite as black-and-white as portrayed: Around 5 percent of nontasters can actually detect PROP, she said, and it appeared that I was a member of this exclusive club. However, my extreme aversion to the PROP was somewhat unusual and would require further investigation, so she summoned me back to Philadelphia.

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So now I was a nontaster who … could taste, and apparently with enough clarity and intensity to know that I never wanted the taste of PROP in my mouth again. Not only that: I was a nontaster with the preferences of a supertaster—I was a dog that had somehow come to behave like a cat. On the one hand, I was pleased to discover that I was something of an oddball; I had visions of being dubbed Subject X and having my biology-defying palate written about in scientific journals. On the other hand, it occurred to me that owning up to my nontaster status might not be the wisest career move—who would take wine advice from a nontaster?

When I returned to Reed's office to determine if I was truly a freak of nature, the mystery was quickly settled. Reed handed me a tray holding eight plastic cups, each one containing a clear liquid. Some contained PROP-infused water, the others water alone; my job was to identify the cups with PROP. I took a big sip of the first cup, then sloshed the liquid around my mouth. By the third or fourth cup, I noticed a bitter taste in my mouth, but I had no idea which cup, or cups, was responsible. I eventually separated the cups, but it was pure guesswork. Reed then gave me the same test, using PTC-infused water. I still tasted bitterness, but I couldn't tell whether or not I was tasting the lingering effects of the previous tray. Once again, I resorted to guesswork. As I struggled to distinguish the indistinguishable, I felt like a blind man in an alley—or an inebriated wine critic fumbling for his notebook.

So there it was: I was a nontaster who could taste PROP, but with little clarity or intensity at lower concentrations. (As for PTC, Reed told me that nontasters are incapable of detecting it at any level; thus, it was likely the residual effects of the PROP that accounted for the bitterness I experienced while tasting the cups with PTC.) But why had I reacted so strongly to Wysocki's PROP strip? "You're just fussy," she said. "A fussy nontaster" (there's apparently no scientific name). As we chatted, a colleague of Reed's walked past her office. She called him in and asked if he was a taster or a nontaster. He said that he was a taster, whereupon she handed him a plastic cup containing a clear solution and asked him to splash it around his mouth. As soon as he did, he grimaced and shuddered. That, said Reed, is how a medium taster reacts to the PROP-infused cups that I had just tried.

Reed wasn't quite done with me. She then had me taste a light blue liquid. Suddenly I was the one grimacing and shuddering; it was grotesquely sweet, and casting aside my manners, I dashed over to her trash bin and spit it out. "Jesus, what the hell was that?" I asked Reed, who was laughing. It was Kool-Aid, spiked with three times the recommended sucrose level. She told me that I was the first person ever to spit it out; most people reacted indifferently, and some complained that it was not sweet enough. I told her I wasn't kidding when I said I had a low threshold for sweetness. Reed, herself a nontaster, took my cup and drank the rest of the Kool-Aid. "Quite lovely, actually," she said.