Is tasting wine, cheese or any other foodstuff something your predestined with or something you learn? The “Nature vs. Nurture” argument fits tasting so well because we know so little about people’s ability to taste. One day wine professionals are talking about “supertasters” http://supertastertest.com who have extra taste buds on their tongue which makes them super sensitive to bitter flavors and the next day (minute?) we’re teaching people what “cassis” tastes like http://www.wine-lovers-page.com/cgi-bin/lexicon/gd.cgi?w=246. Can tasting be taught if your genes are predisposed to make you a tasting flunkie?
Since I’m writing a book I Drink On the Job right now about wine from the point of view of the Wine Basics 101 class that over 16,000 people have attended over the years at TasteDC, I’ve really been thinking about how people approach taste in wine classes, but cooking classes as well. Often, people ask me how to “describe” a wine, I guess they want to better explain what they’re experiencing. My weird reply is usually that we don’t know what you’re tasting, there is no way for us to measure that – yet anyway. If I’m tasting a piece of fresh mint, I can say it tastes like “mint” and you can agree, but I don’t know what exactly is going on inside your mouth, much less your brain. Many critics of frankly wine critics argue that we can’t have a true discussion about the objective quality of wine until we can agree to the terms. If new wine drinkers are relying on the accuracy of wine critics explanations in order to form their own tasting skills, how is this possible if there is no objective way to varify tastes?
In a society where science has become our religion, some technology people have attempted to break down how we taste from the receptors in tastes buds, to various tests of the brain’s response to aromatic stimuli. I think this is exciting, but frankly missing the big point: much of what we taste is part of our past experiences. I might be able to measure your brain wave response or see which parts of your brain are stimulated by certain smells, but what I can’t do is determine how your past experiences have effected that response. I’m even going to venture a guess and say that about 90% of what we experience in taste has to do with our past experiences, and most people think about taste when they’re eating. In a nutshell, no one should discount the effect of your family background and the times spent at the dinner table with them and the types of foods and beverages you consumed. Many early wine drinkers have a sweet tooth and I’ve noticed that many of them were brought up with highly sweetened foods and beverages. This kind of tasting “history” is cultural and seems to have the influence of making dry wines often seem unpalatable to these individuals. The effect on taste is so significant that I’m not sure any change in future habits can get this person to enjoy a dry wine, a significant issue because over 95% of wines sold in the U.S. market are “dry”.
In the wine industry and some degree the food industry, we need to better understand how past experiences relate to taste. Expectations of taste may effect us more than what we’re actually experiencing in our mouth, and this is one of the reason’s that people prefer more expensive wines if they are told the price before they taste themhttp://www.wine-economics.org/workingpapers/AAWE_WP35.pdf, while in actuality, most new wine drinkers actually prefer cheaper wines by “taste” if they don’t know the price of the wine. I don’t know which will win in the Nature vs. Nurture argument, but I will be willing to guess that one of the biggest influences concerning tasting wine will for the new consumer will be time – the more wine becomes part of our regular meal and tasting experiences, the more comfortable and knowledgeable we will become relating to our tasting it – the classic reply I have to “what am I tasting” should be only time will tell..
Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler