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Who makes the best wine critics, supertasters or the rest of us?

16 comments

 

Some years ago, there was a lot of talk about so-called “supertasters” — men and (more frequently, women) with more than the usual quantity of tastebuds in their mouths that makes them unusually sensitive to flavors.

supertaster

The term had been coined by a Yale professor, Linda Bartoshuk, who in 2004 vividly illustrated the difference between super- and regular tasters with this metaphor: “Supertasters…live in a ‘neon world’ of taste, while nontasters [sic] are in a ‘pastel world.’”

I remember at the time feeling slightly embarrassed that I wasn’t a supertaster. For some reason, I developed the feeling that being a supertaster made one a better wine critic. For example, Robert Parker was said to be able to identify wines double-blind, surely the mark of a supertaster. And Jim Laube’s well-known sensitivity to TCA, which suggested supertasting abilities on his part, was enough to bring wineries to their knees.

I, by contrast, had to be content with a palate that was, at best, no better, if no worse, than everyone else’s. It caused me some moments of imposter syndrome. Who was I to be telling people what wine tasted like, if I didn’t even have a super-palate?

All this was brought up again last Saturday night when I had dinner with old friends, one of whom is a supertaster. I knew she wasn’t a big fan of seafood, but during the course of our meal, her other food antipathies emerged. Rosemary, for example: she can’t bear it beyond a miniscule amount, because it overwhelms everything else in the food. Frankly, my friend confided, being a supertaster isn’t a blessing: it’s a curse. In fact, she added, that’s why she decided not to become a wine writer. (Her work is in a separate field of the wine industry.) She’s so extraordinarily sensitive to everything that she figured she could never be objective.

Well, that cast things in a different light for me. Maybe, I figured, it’s not so good after all to be a supertaster. So I Googled up the term and found a whole bunch of suggestions that supertasting ability can indeed be a drag.

For example, here, from Yale Scientific (Bartoshuk’s own university), the professor says supertasters are “also super-perceivers of…the burning sensation of…ethanol [the alcohol in wine],” which causes them “oral pain [and a] burning sensation.”

That, surely, must be a handicap, if not an outright bias, for  a wine critic, especially of California wine.

The British publication, The Guardian, addressed the issue squarely on when it wrote, “It is often assumed that the world’s top foodies must be supertasters, but the jury’s out on whether being one is something to brag about in the industry.” The website How Stuff Works amplified on this theme: “Usually, it’s great to have heightened senses like 20/20 vision or sharp hearing. But a heightened sense of taste, no matter how delicious it might sound, is really no joy.” Since everything is amplified, sensations like the pepperiness of a Syrah can be overwhelming. Slate Magazine, asking “whether being a supertaster helps you evaluate wine,” concluded that “being a nontaster [i.e. regular taster] was not the career death sentence [for a critic] it appeared to be. For another, being a supertaster turned out to be not nearly as good as it sounded; in fact, to the degree that it matters at all, it is probably more of a liability for a wine critic than an asset.” [Bold face mine] The “flavor of alcohol…astringency and acidity…spiciness [and] bitterness” that characterizes so many wines “may make wine–or some wine styles–relatively unappealing.”

Well, I’m ready to buy into Slate’s suggestion that “being a supertaster is no blessing when it comes to wine.” But it does make me wonder to what extent the modern wine style (often called Parkerised) of exceptional ripeness, fruitiness, softness and sweet oakiness is the result of the domination by supertasters of the wine criticism business over the past 25 years.

  1. Steve –

    You’re under no obligation to push the apocryphal stories that abound about Parker. He’s not able to identify wines even blind, but not double-blind, any better than most. Which is no sin; it just contradicts the legend.

    http://www.drvino.com/2009/10/02/blind-tasting-bordeaux-2005-robert-parker/

    That’s but one example.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Agree with the above. The stories about Parker’s “supertasting” ability were almost invariably legends spun out by Mr. Parker himself. He did little or nothing to ever prove those claims to the public.

    In fact, I would argue that his tasting methodology as blatantly explained to a 60 Minutes reviewer (“a wine tells me everything I need to know in five seconds”) was the heart of the problem with Mr. Parker. Running through 50-100 wines at five seconds apiece is going to lead one to start appreciating what I refer to as “smelling salt wines”–i.e. those wines that for some reason (excessive oak and alcohol, brett, VA) stand out and snap the taster’s head back amid the sea of sensory input.

    And while his supertasting ability are an apocryphal (and self-promoting) sham, his fondness for wines expressing excessive levels of oak, alcohol, brett and/or VA is well documented.

  3. Super taster nightmare… anything with a lot of pepper (of any sort) and sparkling wine. It’s actually very painful on one’s tongue.

  4. I wonder whether being a supertaster might not be a liability for a wine writer in another way. If only a small portion of the population are truly supertasters, then the wine writer who is perceiving what only that small portion can perceive is by definition likely to leave the rest of his/her potential audience out of the loop. (And, often, wondering how the heck said writer came up with the descriptors he/she did.)

    If you taste what the rest of us taste, and that’s what you describe to us, we have a better chance to understand what you’re saying. If you describe things that the rest of us don’t perceive, we may either fault you for being high-falutin’ or fault ourselves for “not getting it.” Neither of which is an optimal outcome of the interaction.

  5. Oh the supertaster bit of comedy again.

    Being able to “super taste” is quite distinct from the ability to perceive and describe flavors

    Tasting, which originates on the tongue, is rather bounded in scope.
    Perceiving flavors, which is largely a function of retro nasal olfaction as an input methodology to the brain, is considerably broader and responsible for the majority of what we obsess over in wine, food, etc; and is responsible for the majority of what wine critics write down when they attempt to convey their experience.

    I have to laugh whenever I meet someone who blathers on boastingly about how he is a “super taster”. Sadly this happens more frequently than one would imagine

  6. Moreover, a person’s ability, or lack of, to ID wines “blind” will not be a function of one’s status as a “super taster”.

    This topic needs to be dropped from wine writing/blogging/discussing

  7. Nice post from an extreme taster. Whether you belong to 1/3 public defined as super or the 1/3 taster or the 1/3 non taster folks, wine still brings the same amount of pleasure. I doubt if many of the wine writers or wine critics have been tested, so how would they know what camp they fall in. Educated guess? oiy ve…

  8. DR Says above: This topic needs to be dropped from wine writing/blogging/discussing …

    LOL I like what the Dr says. It is kind of like the discussion that surrounds Cork vs Screwcap…haha. Heck we are human so we must discuss.

    OK, Why did the Bronco’s lose that game against the Colts on Sunday Night? They were not in the Mood to play !

    How much wine in one sitting is over doing it ?

  9. Marie posted: “I wonder whether being a supertaster might not be a liability for a wine writer in another way. If only a small portion of the population are truly supertasters, then the wine writer who is perceiving what only that small portion can perceive is by definition likely to leave the rest of his/her potential audience out of the loop. (And, often, wondering how the heck said writer came up with the descriptors he/she did.)”

    There are plenty of analogies to this: Would you feel comfortable taking notes from a lecturer speaking in a language you don’t know, or being strapped into the seat of a car on the front row at Indianapolis when you only drive a Prius? Obviously the answer to these is no, however there is no reason that with time, training and practice someone can’t accomplish these. Wine is no different. Beyond that, I think that there are followers of wine reviews at many different levels, from the newest hobby blogger, to the 6000 word essay on a Bordeaux house. Someone like Steve, or any other critic who tastes a lot of wine, will attract and retain followers where the message has resonance to them.

    I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as a Super-taster, but have a sensitive nose for TCA. Last week I was just starting a day long tasting with a well regarded winemaker who is exceptionally fastidious in preparation and seasoning of stemware before pouring. I immediately noticed the very first wine was corked, something he hadn’t caught earlier yet agreed with 100% after I broached the subject.

  10. Blake Gray says:

    Steve: Really good topic.

    Supertasters tend to be unhealthy because the bitterness of dark green vegetables is unbearable for them. I wonder if acidity in wine would have the same effect.

  11. As Doug alluded to above, super taster and TCA sensitivity aren’t linked. Super-tasting is a factor of taste buds—a surplus of those that sense bitterness—while most TCA detection is olfactory. I have a very acute sensitivity to TCA but have been tested for “super taster” and know for a fact that I’m not one. I appreciate that as I it allows me to enjoy straight espressos that would send a super-taster into conniptions.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    MIKE STEINBERGER CONTRIBUTED AN ADMIRABLE THREE-PART COLUMN ON SUPERTASTERS FOR SLATE BACK IN 2007.

    ~~ BOB

    From Slate
    (updated June 20, 2007):

    “Do You Taste What I Taste?;
    The physiology of the wine critic.”

    [Part 1 of 3]

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/do_you_taste_what_i_taste.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    From Slate
    (updated June 21, 2007)

    “Am I a Supertaster?;
    The physiology of the wine critic.”

    [Part 2 of 3]

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/am_i_a_supertaster.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    From Slate
    (updated June 22, 2007)

    “Do You Want To Be a Supertaster?
    The physiology of the wine critic.”

    [Part 3 of 3]

    Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/do_you_want_to_be_a_supertaster.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

  13. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from “Blind Tasting: Guessing it right and guessing it wrong
    (but for the right reasons)” by Clive Coates, Master of Wine

    Link: http://www.clive-coates.com/observations/blind-tasting

    “I am not a very good blind taster. Perhaps, simply, I do not have that sort of memory. …

    “What I do think I can do, with some competence, is, confronted with a range of wines, place them in order of quality and pronounce on where they will be in five or ten years time. …

    “There are two ways of guessing blind what a wine is. The first is by logic. The second is by intuition. Sadly the ray of light out of the blue – the inspiration – does not occur often. So we have to fall back to brain power. …

    “Several years ago I was invited to a winey Sunday lunch. … The first red wine was served, and as happens so often, I was asked to pronounce before anyone else. ‘Ah, a fine grand cru Côte de Nuits, mid-1960s’, I said.

    “The wine was Château Cheval-Blanc, 1964. Much ribaldry around the table. Comments such as ‘These Masters of Wine know nothing’, and all the rest of it.

    “I FAILED TO TELL THEM THE, PERHAPS APOCRYPHAL, TALE OF THE LATE, GREAT HARRY WAUGH, WHO, ONCE ASKED IF HE HAD EVER CONFUSED BORDEAUX WITH BURGUNDY, REPLIED, “NOT SINCE LUNCH”. …

    [CAPITALIZATION added for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

  14. Bob Henry says:

    ADDRESSING EVAN DAWSON’S PROFFERED LINK TO DR. VINO’S WEBSITE ARTICLE ON ROBERT PARKER GUESSING 2005 RED BORDEAUX AT AN EXECUTIVE WINE SEMINAR, SEE THIS ARTICLE . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Weekend” Section
    (November 20, 2009, Page W6):

    “A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion;
    They pour, sip and, with passion and snobbery, glorify or doom wines.
    But studies say the wine-rating system is badly flawed.
    How the experts fare against a coin toss.”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703683804574533840282653628.html

    Essay by Leonard Mlodinow
    [teaches randomness at Caltech. His book "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" includes a chapter on wine scoring.]

    . . . [On the subject of “blind tasting” tests, Robert Parker says] “I generally stay within a three-point deviation,” he wrote. . . . he [Parker] sent me the results of a blind tasting in which he did participate.

    The tasting was at Executive Wine Seminars in New York, and consisted of three flights of five wines each. The participants knew they were 2005 Bordeaux wines that Mr. Parker had previously rated for an issue of The Wine Advocate. Though they didn’t know which wine was which, they were provided with a list of the 15 wines, with Mr. Parker’s prior ratings, according to Executive Wine Seminars’ managing partner Howard Kaplan. The wines were chosen, Mr. Kaplan says, because they were 15 of Mr. Parker’s highest-rated from that vintage.

    Mr. Parker pointed out that, except in three cases, his second rating for each wine fell “within a 2-3 point deviation” of his first. . . . One possible reason: Mr. Parker’s first rating of all the wines fell between 95 and 100 — not a large spread.

    . . .

  15. The mistake is to thing that there is a “best” in all of this. People who live in the Hyper-sensitive sensory world (supertaster is an unfortunate term) face all sorts of challenges trying to cope with the sensory overload they may experience. They often have to cut tags out of their clothes, are highly distracted and live in a cacophony of sensations that others cannot understand.

    I have studied this phenomenon, and how it effects wine preferences, for over 20 years. People tend to jump to all sorts of erroneous conclusions rather than looking at how differences in our sensory perceptive capacities explains so much in terms of how different the same wine can be for two different people. We can understand and celebrate our differences of opinions about wine preferences – there are no better or best tasters, just different.

  16. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    THERE ARE “SUPER TASTERS” AMONG US WHO CAN I.D. A WINE “BLIND.”

    HERE’S ONE: SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA-BASED GOURMET GROCER DARRELL CORTI.

    READ THIS QUARTER CENTURY OLD LOS ANGELES TIMES PROFILE ON HIS FEATS OF “PRESTIDIGATION.”

    AND I HIGHLY ENCOURAGE YOUR READERS TO GET ON HIS STORE’S NEWSLETTER MAILING LIST — A “MASTER CLASS” IN ALL THINGS FOOD AND WINE: http://www.cortibros.biz/

    ~~ BOB

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (Sunday, December 18, 1988, Page Unknown):

    “A Connoisseur’s Connoisseur:
    Darrell Corti probably knows more about food than anybody else in the state”

    link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/1988-12-18/entertainment/ca-762_1_darrell-corti

    By Ruth Reichl
    Times Restaurant Critic

    “Oh no,” groaned one of the guests, “do we have to?” A bottle of wine had just been plunked on the table, neatly wrapped in a plain brown bag. Once again it was time to play “Guess the Vintage.”

    The mystery wine was poured for each of the dozen invitees. They swirled and sniffed. They hazarded guesses. For this group of august wine experts, it was not a new game. Somebody suggested that the wine came from Napa. Another detected the flavor of the 1953 Medoc.

    After 15 minutes they had determined only that it was red, not American, and made before 1935. “Oh, let’s give up,” said wine authority Robert Finigan, “none of us has a clue.” There were nods all around the table as wine writer Barbara Ensrud, wine maker Jack Cakebread and wine connoisseur Narsai David all admitted that they were stumped.

    “Not yet,” said a measured voice from the end of the table; it was the first time it had been heard. “I know the wine. I’ve just been trying to decide if it was the 1928 or the 1929. I think it must be the 1928.”

    There was a gasp from the back of the room and winemaker John Trefethen announced the name of the wine he had placed on the table. Fifty-two years after the grapes were gathered, DARRELL CORTI had not only correctly named the vintage year, but placed the wine within yards of where it was made.

    Even the experts are not supposed to be able to do this sort of parlor trick; it is not for nothing that Corti is known as the “walking wine encyclopedia.”

    . . .

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