Monday, January 26, 2009

Sensory Discrimination and Experience as Wine-Tasting Values

Have you ever read the back label on a wine bottle or read a descriptive review and found something like this:  "This wine opens with a floral bouquet, with hints of honeysuckle, jasmine, and bougainvillea, while at the mid-palette, green apple, citrus, and pear come alive, and the finish is resonant of milk chocolate leather, smoke, and earth."

I see something like that and it means nothing to me because at most, I experience no more than two tastes or "hints," as the tasters often say.  I will get more tastes if drinking with friends and they mention a taste or smell, but only because of their cue.  So what's this tasting of wine all about?

Some recent research indicates that some persons, "hyper-sensitive" tasters, have 10 times the number of taste buds as some others.  The researchers have identified three groups:  Hyper-sensitive tasters (25% of the population), Sensitive tasters (50% of the population), and Tolerant tasters (25% of the population).

It's hypothesized that being a "hyper-sensitive taster, might be a disadvantage because of an over-abundance of conflicting data.  Many "hypers" prefer sweet wines, like white zinfandel, because "sweet" is one of the major taste groups and may override other conflicting data.  On the other hand, "tolerant" tasters seem to prefer drier, more tannic wines.  These are generalizations, of course.

These are not measures of anything but genetic make-up of the taster.  There is no "best" or "better" on the continuum, it's just a matter of taste-bud physiology.  Remember, our other senses, particularly smell and touch, play major roles in how we taste, so it's not only about the taste buds.

There's a simple on-line test you can take to determine where on the taste continuum you reside (I'll get you there shortly).  I've taken the test and I'm right on the upper edge of "tolerant," so I'm actually on the low taste bud range.  I guess you can call me "Bud Lite." (Pun intended.)

In addition to one's taste bud factor, one's experience and familiarity with wine is the other major element in wine tasting.  One can be influenced by visits to wine country, such as Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, and all those wonderful Santa Barbara County wineries.  At these locations, one can taste different varietals, both red and white, experience the wines of various winemakers, and join membership clubs.  In addition, you can spend hours in your local wine bars, comparing different "flights."

As "da Trader Joe's (ventura) Wine Guy," I have to taste many wines, not for my own please, of course, but to sacrifice myself for the benefit of our marvelous customers.  So yes, I taste many wines on your behalf and for your benefit.

To summarize, my lowly taste-bud count, in conjunction with my wine-tasting experience, makes me an experienced taster, not a sensitive taster.  Anyone can become an experienced taster, regardless of the number of taste buds one has as a result of genetic make-up.

Go to: and take the simple, short test to find out where your taste-buds lie on the continuum.  Then go out and taste some wine!

Tom da "Wine Guy"


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