Do you taste what I taste?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
June 20 2007 1:03 PM

Do You Taste What I Taste?

The physiology of the wine critic.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Do certain physiological traits make some wine critics better than others? In a three-part series this week, Mike Steinberger examines the physiology of the oenophile. In this part, he examines the age-old stoner's question: Do you taste what I taste? In Part II, he set out to discover whether he's a "supertaster." And in Part III, he examined whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine.

Contrary to the oft-cited aphorism, there actually is some accounting for taste. We know, for instance, that the vast majority of flavors that we perceive when eating and drinking are actually aromas, filtered up to our noses through a tube called the retronasal passage. Our taste buds, on the other hand, detect just five basic flavor sensations: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory. It is also known that some tongues have a higher degree of sensitivity to flavors and textures than others. As for the nose, while it is a more perceptive instrument than the tongue, and thus a more useful one at the dinner table, it is pretty limited in its own right; research has shown that human beings have remarkably poor olfactory abilities, both in the aggregate (dogs and cats can detect many more odors than we do) and episodically (we can sniff out at most four aromas at any one time).

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The tongue and the nose do not, of course, tell us what we think about the things we smell, taste, and feel; it is the brain that draws the conclusions. How the brain translates and interprets the information collected by the tongue and the nose is a dauntingly complex transaction—"higher-order processing" is the term of art—that is only just beginning to be understood. This much, at least, is clear: Memory, experience, and expectations play an enormous part in how individuals react to aromas and flavors, and may even be determinative. Why we notice some flavors and aromas but not others, and why we enjoy some but not others, results from the interplay of visual cues, genetic endowments, physical attributes, and personality features. Because these traits vary dramatically from one individual to the next, flavor and aroma perceptions vary dramatically from one individual to the next.

All of which raises, for wine writers, a truly buzz-killing possibility: Is there a grand fallacy at the heart of what we do? Those of us who review wines do so in the belief that our evaluations, while obviously subjective, are of some value to consumers. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that taste perceptions may be even more individualistic and idiosyncratic than previously imagined—and if our noses and tongues all operate on such different wavelengths, then who's to say what's good or bad? Is it really possible to agree about the attributes and virtues of, say, a Napa Cabernet, or are we—wine writers and wine consumers—just conning ourselves into consensus?

Admittedly, this kind of superheavy metaphysical question is perhaps better pondered over a bong than a bottle of wine. It is certainly not a topic that generates much discussion among wine folk. That's probably because the wine industry's critic-consumer apparatus seems to function reasonably well: Critics offer recommendations, and it appears that consumers are, by and large, satisfied with the advice. (Robert Parker didn't get rich steering people to wines they hated.) But it could also be that the physiology of taste is a discomfiting subject. Wine writing is an enterprise with few barriers to entry; a guy trying to make a buck off his presumed wine expertise probably doesn't wish to entertain the possibility that some people may be naturally better suited to evaluating Rieslings and Syrahs than others—or, alternatively, that no one is better equipped to judge wines than anyone else.

However, with scientists gaining ever-greater insights into the mechanics of taste, it is becoming harder for us wine hacks to ignore the biological dimensions of what we do. So, in the spirit of somewhat wary inquiry, I paid several visits to the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, hoping to learn more about the blossoming field of flavor hedonics—the study of gustatory pleasure—and to perhaps glean some insights into my own sense of taste. I first met with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction.