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Can you “train” a palate?



I picked up an older issue of Bon Appetit in which the “Starters” column (a sort of “Ask Bon Appetit anything you want” feature) has the following question from a reader: Dear BA, I often hear chefs on cooking shows…talking about a person’s palate…What exactly does that mean, and can I train my own palate?

The use of the verb “train” is strange here. I’m reminded of what I had to do when Gus first came to live with me. There was a lot of dog training involved: he was pretty well housebroken, but not entirely, and he had to learn—and respect—my voice commands, including “no,” “stop,” “sit,” “stay” and “come.” This training involved me—the dad—imposing my will upon Gus, the child/dog. It was a process of issue command—wait for result—impose result if necessary—repeat—and repeat—until the result was an obedient dog, which Gus is.

Does one “train” a chef’s or wine lover’s palate in the same way? (“Sit, palate. Give me your paw, palate.”) Bon Appetit’s answer person, Andrew Knowlton, defined a “great palate” for chefs in two ways: a more fundamental level in which a talented chef can identify the flaws in a dish and know instinctively how to correct them: perhaps by adding a pinch of salt or squeeze of lemon.

On a higher level, Andrew defined a great palate by the degree of “taste memory” the taster possesses. According to this approach, the only way to acquire an extensive taste memory is to taste a ton of food (and, for our purposes, wine) over a long time. That way, when you judge a food (or a wine) you compare it to the greatest similar food or wine you’ve ever had. This presumes, of course, that you remember that greatest food or wine, which is why it’s a function of memory.

Well, most of you reading my blog probably have tasted a lot of wine in your time, and you no doubt possess an extensive taste memory (kind of like having a lot of books in your library). Still, I’ll bet you wonder if you have a truly “great palate,” or just an ordinary one. Am I right? Sure I am. I think most of us doubt our palates from time to time, even though we might never care to admit it. I do admit it, and I did throughout my long career as a wine critic. I always did the best I could, honestly and diligently, but I knew that there were palates more acute than mine. There’s always a palate more acute than yours, just as there’s always someone better than you at (name it: basketball, math, making an omelet, dancing, sodoku).

There’s a meme in this business that the best palates belong to those professionals who have undergone some sort of formal training: sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Winemakers, too, are often known as great tasters. I’ve known quite a few great palates in my time. One was (and still is) the longtime winemaker at Jordan, Rob Davis, whom I once saw correctly identify, blind, twelve Cabernet Sauvignons concerning their origin, Napa Valley or Alexander Valley. That’s pretty good.

I once knew quite well a person who was studying for his MW. He’d been at it for years, and was therefore completely saturated in that hard-nosed, analytical approach. When he tasted a wine, blind, he’d go into a sort of mesmerized concentration: eyes scrunched shut, brow wrinkled in thoughtful meditation. Swirling and chewing the wine, he’d begin his written analysis, slowly and methodically working through all the wine’s parameters—flavors, acidity, complexity and so on—until he felt he had a good handle on it. (Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program.) Of course, the ultimate expression of this approach—the Gold Medal at the Tasting Olympics, as it were—would be to taste a wine double blind and announce that it is, say, a young Spanish Verdejo. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not Albariño, not Gruner Veltliner. This is the taster’s wet dream: to nail it in public. Polite applause (and perhaps envy) from the crowd—the taster’s reputation is enhanced—the story will go around the wine world via social media in no time.

Yes, that is one definition of a “great palate.” But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? You take years and years, do all that studying, all the hard work that goes into it, and for what?—so that you can nail Verdejo at a blind tasting? I’ve always said that the kind of tasting skills one develops depends on one’s job. Wine critics, of the kind I was and most of the well-known print critics are, do not need that particular skill. In fact, it may be detrimental to them doing their jobs well. Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials. Afterwards, such freakish analytical skills become less and less necessary, as the graduates find themselves careers in which other skills—business, teamworking, networking, accounting, organizing, writing, teaching, food pairing—take center stage. In fact, from the point of view of a consumer (which we all are), what skills do we want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us? Personally, I couldn’t care less if my somm or critic can nail Verdejo blind. But I do want her to know her wines, tell me stories, answer my questions, impartially help me make my decision, and maybe even be able to have a good conversation about something besides wine.

  1. Randy Caparoso says:

    Good read, Steve. You’re absolutely right that the “training” of one’s wine tasting palate to a certain degree of mastery is neither here nor there. But here’s another thing: it’s not just about mental ability to assess wine.

    The obvious proof is in the fact that there are certain widely followed critics with “taste memories” far beyond the scope of most other wine professionals who are also painfully blind to flaws so common to wines (oxidation, VA, brett, etc.) that you have to wonder: is their sense of wine tasting accuracy even capable of hitting the side of a barn?

    Taste-memory, in other words, is indeed the key to developing wine expertise, but it’s not the only thing. A basic sense of quality, or ability to apply valuations with any degree of usefulness, is just as important. To use an extreme analogy, people like Hitler, Mao and Stalin were political geniuses, but obviously (well, at least to most Americans) their sense of valuation was askew to say the least. In that sense, you can be a Master of Wine, Master Sommelier, or have an acknowledged mastery of winemaking, but that doesn’t automatically bestow an ability to assess wine quality or to produce an interesting wine. If your perspective is screwed up, who cares about vast amounts of taste-memory?

  2. Hi Steve
    The answer to me is yes, but to what degree and for which purpose.
    Having an ability to taste wines blind and recall all there is to know about that wine, is impressive. A bit like a sword swallower, but will it cut the grease off the lamb like good Bordeaux? You rightly point out, the skills we do want to see in the person who’s making buying recommendations to us, is getting to where our palate is and help us select something suitable.
    The majority of wine drinkers, seasoned and novices alike, just want to get a bottle of wine something close to what they are expecting to enjoy, every time. We all like to win at the wine lottery stakes, but we aren’t allowed to feel the fabric as much as we would like.
    What I find interesting is when a sommelier or a wine professional recommends three or four wines to a consumer; they take ownership of that recommendation. If the consumer finds it not as expected, back the bottle goes. But the moment the expert walks away from the ‘store’ and leaves the consumer with a wall if wine to pick from the burden of proof is switched to the novice.
    The whole concept of wine branding was to tackle this problem, yet with the advent of Lidil and Aldi certainly in the UK, breaking the glass ceiling of the 40 year old grip the supermarkets have enjoyed, consumers trust in the’ brands’ has started to wane.
    I believe that when this subtle switch is addressed, you will find it will be about the ‘training of the palate for the 80% of wine consumers who say ‘they don’t know anything about wine but they know what they like’. Generally speaking I have found they are able to sort out the mediocre, better and best of wines in fun blind tastings, the only thing lacking maybe an explanation as to why they are so.
    Wine apps are trying to address this very issue .we are having a pendulum swing from a handful of experts cramming a relatively few wines into the top 5 or ten points of a scale, to a large number of wines, by a large number of people, being crammed into a 5 star scoring system, with the middle swing being filled with people who say they don’t know anything except what they like.
    Looks like what’s needed is the equivalent of when quartz’s watches replaced the hand wound beautifully made hand crafted time pieces of yesteryear.
    All corked out changing the world of wine, a glass at a time.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Anthony Dias Blue blind tasted and rank ordered 8 samples of vodka on Myth Busters:

    (Sorry, I couldn’t find a better online version.)

  4. As a firm believer in “training” and as a WSET educator, I assure students that they won’t need to do what amounts to a parlor trick to pass their WSET tasting exams. You will not fail a blind tasting if you can’t correctly identify a wine’s origin, you’ll fail if you don’t write a technical tasting note that is accurate within a certain margin of error (we use ranges – medium to medium+ – to account for differences in perception) and if you don’t understand the quality of the wine. That said, if you’re a wine proffessional, the ability to confidently identify a grape variety, region, producer or vintage can help inform your work and, from my experience, improves vastly with practice. My advice to students of wine, keep at it.

  5. John Stallcup says:

    We all “train” our palate every day. Our brain changes during our life due to both maturation (growing up) and neuroplasticity (your brain tuning itself in response to what sensory stimuli are occurring). Soms typically are not any better at tasting or smelling than you or I, They have dedicated Malcom Gladwells 10,000 hours of focused practice with a “coach” to connect their sense of smell with their ability to speak. The part of the brain where this occurs is very plastic. The olfactory cortex connects directly to the limbic system (very primal parts of your brain) where memory and emotion are centered. So when you hook the hippocampus to the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex you become better and better at identifying smaller and smaller amounts of specific olfactory compounds remembering and then naming them using an agreed upon vocabulary. Som’s employ a northern european vernacular which is meaningless to much of the human race. No gooseberries in China but plenty of geese. When a Som gurgles the wine in the back of his mouth he is atomizing and heating the aromatic compounds in the back of his mouth to enhance his retronasal olfaction. The problems occur when the person asking for advice from a Som both differs genetically and has no experience with the aromas described in the wine. Some people just can’t smell certain compounds because the 350 olfactory receptors are all different for all of us. Taste is genetic because it isn’t genetically adaptive to eat poison and poisons are bitter. Put coffee on a babies tounge and they will frown. Smells are learned because humans don’t stay in one place so food and predators differ around the world. Whatever your mother ate while you were in the “oven” you will tend to like. . So enjoy the wine no matter what the Som says and honor the remarkable amount of dedication it takes for them to be able to do what they do.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    “Som’s employ a northern european vernacular which is meaningless to much of the human race. No gooseberries in China but plenty of geese.”

    John (who partnered with Tim Hanni MW on Vignon Flavor Balancing Seasoning) knows “a little bit” on this subject.

    And his comment reminded me of this article:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (March 14, 2013, Page D4?):

    “Lost in Translation: The Lingo for Tasting Wine”

    By Jason Chow
    Staff Reporter

    Accompanying sidebar exhibit:

    “You Say Cherries, I Say Chiuchow Master Stock”

    How do you describe flavors that are geographically and culturally foreign? Below, two separate sets of tasting notes for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Grands-Echezeaux 2002 by Simon Tam, head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house. One write-up is for a Western audience, the other, for a Chinese one.

    Tasting Notes in English

    ‘There are sweet, pure and classic pinot fruit aromas enhanced by subtle nuances of floral flower notes, damp earth, crushed cherries and fleshy raspberry, even a hint of aged game meat. The palate is muscular and reserved but somewhat backward. It is a very concentrated wine, but will need time to bring out its best.’

    Tasting Notes, Chinese translation

    ‘There are fragrant aromas of dates, Chinese herbal medicine and Chiuchow master stock [an aromatic, heavily flavored soy-based liquid used to poach meats], enhanced by sweet, fruity and lasting tastes, with even a hint of the sweetness of dang gui [a traditional Chinese herbal medicine]. This can be drunk now for its fruity flavor, or aged for another 20-30 years. Best to pair with crispy barbecue pork.’

  7. Part of the challenge of discussing whether one can train their ‘palate’ lies in ambiguity of defining a palate:

    1: the roof of the mouth separating the mouth from the nasal cavity
    2: usually intellectual taste or liking

    Thus the idea of “training a palate” is not a physiological exercise of teaching the roof of your mouth to do something (unless maybe tying a cherry stem in your mouth counts :-)), the training or education we refer to with wine is an intellectual (neurological) exercise and of course can this can be done.

    Sensory physiology is an entirely different discussion and people have vastly different physiological capacities for distinguishing certain sensations. Thus one person is experiencing a bitterness at an intense level and the person next to them does not have the same receptors and gets nothing. If you are color blind you cannot be ‘trained’ the colors that you have no receptors to distinguish. People with the ‘cilantro gene’ get an excruciating, horrible soapy flavor that people without the receptors cannot even imagine. This list is long and while we acknowledge that people perceive things differently most in the wine industry are ignorant of understanding the scope and details of our differences.

    As to the statement “But you have to ask yourself, what’s the point of it all? … Aspiring MWs and MSs do need it, for one reason only: to pass their respective examinations, so that they can get their credentials.”

    The training process for the MW tastings is something that is used far beyond just using “to pass their respective examination.” It is very different from almost anything incoming students expect and can be used professionally for almost anyone in the wine industry for their entire career.

    The Master of Wine examination requires a professional and deductive process for tasting wine, not just the ability to rattle off a bunch of descriptive analogies and metaphors then declare the name and origin of the wine. In fact much of the flowery and often ‘trained’ descriptive language popular in wine descriptions today will earn you score deductions. Yes, ability to identify grapes and origin is important but in a context of wine quality, character and the ability to discuss winemaking techniques is imperative.

    Here is an example of an MW practical tasting question form this year (for two of 12 wines in the first of 3 blind tasting sessions):

    Wines 1 and 2 are from the same country. They are both blends.
    For each wine:
    a) Identify the region of origin as closely as possible, comment with reference to the grape varieties used.
    b) Comment on quality within the context of the region of origin.
    c) Discuss the key winemaking techniques used to arrive at this style.

    Sadly most people who enter the Master of Wine program, and most likely the person you refer to “(Sadly, this person never did get his MW, and he eventually dropped out of the program),” do not understand the intention of the MW blind tasting and their previous “training” of their palate actually gets in the way of successfully passing the MW tastings – they are too busy scrunching their faces, gurgling, taking copious notes and have not developed the skills needed to properly answer the questions given the sensory prompts provided in the glass.

  8. Bob Henry says:


    For the cited MW exam question above, how much time is given to a test-taker to sample the two wines, contemplate the response, and write it out?

    ~~ Bob

  9. There are 3 blind tastings of 12 wines: “Practical – three 12-wine blind tastings, each lasting two and a quarter hours, in which wines must be assessed for variety, origin, winemaking, quality and style.” Link to past examinations –

    Each flight of 12 is broken down into groups of 2 or more wines, and each group has a set of questions about production/winemaking or marketing to address about each:

    Wines 1 and 2 are from the same country. They are both blends.
    For each wine:
    a) Identify the region of origin as closely as possible, comment with reference to the grape varieties
    used. (2×10 marks)
    b) Comment on quality within the context of the region of origin. (2×10 marks)
    c) Discuss the key winemaking techniques used to arrive at this style. (2×5 marks)

    Wines 3 and 4 are from the same country and the same grape variety.
    With reference to both wines:
    a) Identify the grape variety and origin(s) as closely as possible. (16 marks)
    b) Discuss winemaking with particular reference to maturation post fermentation. (14 marks)
    c) Comment on quality within the context of the region of origin. (20 marks)

    Wines 5 and 6 are made from the same grape variety.
    With reference to both wines:
    a) Identify the grape variety. (20 marks)
    For each wine:
    b) Identify the region of origin as closely as possible. (2×8 marks)
    c) Discuss style and commercial appeal. (2×7 marks)

    Wines 7 and 8 come from the same country.
    For each wine:
    a) Identify the origin as closely as possible. (2×10 marks)
    b) Comment on the winemaking. (2×8 marks)
    c) Discuss style and quality. (2×7 marks)

    Wines 9-12 are from four different countries and are made from four different grape varieties.
    For each wine:
    a) Identify the grape variety. (4×8 marks)
    b) Identify the origin as closely as possible. (4×7 marks)
    c) Comment on quality and state of maturity. (4×10 marks)

    1. Château Brown. 2013. Pessac Léognan, Bordeaux, France (13.5%)
    2. Châteauneuf du Pape, Domaine Vieux Telegraph Blanc. 2014. Rhône Valley, France (13.5%)
    3. Chardonnay, Clos du Bois. 2014. California, USA (13.5%)
    4. Chardonnay, Kistler McCrea Vineyard. 2013. Sonoma Mountain, California, USA (14.1%)
    5. Clos Windsbuhl Pinot Gris, Domaine Zind Humbrecht. 2013. Alsace, France (14.5%)
    6. Pinot Gris, Ponzi. 2014. Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA. (13.1%)
    7. Acodo White Rioja, Basilio Izquierdo. 2010. Rioja, Spain (13.5%)
    8. Albariño, Bodegas de Fefinanes. 2014. Rías Baixas, Spain (12.5%)
    9. Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontés, Dominio del Plata. 2015. Argentina (13.9%)
    10. Gewürztraminer, Waimea. 2014. Nelson, New Zealand (13.5%)
    11. Vouvray, Domaine Marc Brédif. 2013. Loire Valley, France (12.5%)
    12. Riesling, Ried Schütt, Dürnsteiner, Emmerich Knoll. 2012. Wachau, Austria (13.5%)

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