Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Physiology of a Wine Taster

At Shiraz I have posted a number of times on the difficulties that are inherent in wine tasting and on the concept of palate calibration. The physiology of taste and smell are fascinating areas of study and every wine drinker should have at least a rudimentary understanding of some of the evolving concepts.

Mike Steinberger, a contributor to Slate, has begun a set of three article on the physiology of the oenophile. First, he examines the question: Do you taste what I taste? Then he will be tested to see whether he's a "supertaster." And finally, he'll look at whether being a supertaster helps in the evaluation of wine. Those interested in the basic concepts behind taste and smell should find these articles of interest.

The first article "Do You Taste What I Taste?" makes some important points that are often overlooked (unknown?) among wine drinkers. For example

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?


Wysocki handed me a plastic tube holding a clear liquid and asked me to take a whiff; I couldn't smell a thing. The liquid contained andostenone, a mammalian pheromone found in boar saliva. In a random sampling of 100 people, around half will detect nothing, 15 or so will smell an inoffensive musky-floral-woody aroma, and the rest will be thoroughly repulsed by a liquid that, to them, reeks of stale urine or particularly nasty body odor.


It was less encouraging to discover how easily the nose can be led astray by the eyes. For his next stupid human trick, Wysocki produced two jars, one labeled "Food," the other "Body." I was told to sniff each. I actually was one of the few people not fooled by the experiment: I said both jars smelled like vomit. In fact, both jars contained the same chemical compound, butyric acid, which can be perceived as vomit but also as perspiration or Parmesan cheese. Wysocki told me he often conducts this test at seminars and that, on average, 60 percent of the people in the room will claim they enjoy the aroma in the "Food" jar, with most saying it's redolent of Parmesan cheese; but when he asks if anyone found the "Body" jar pleasant, no hands go up—the participants invariably claim that it smells of puke or body odor.

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