Illustration from The Five Senses by Maria Ruiz
A friend asked me the other day, “Are super tasters better wine tasters, or does it not matter?”
Which is something worth thinking about. The super-taster concept is well accepted in the world of wine. So well accepted that the personal taste of one self-proclaimed super-taster, Robert Parker, took hold of the market twenty years ago, and still hasn’t let go. Parker rates wines along the same 50-100 point scale teachers use to grade papers, which is an appealing subversive system to many Americans intimidated by wine. Parker published The Wine Advocate single-handedly for many years, and made or broke wine reputations with his scores. Winemakers began to change the way they made wines, so as to increase the chance of a better score. This would not have worked if Parker’s judgements had seemed to be ‘one man’s taste.’ He had to appear to have a superior sense of taste, to the extent that consumers would let Parker decide for them. In Lawrence Osborne’s words: “Remarkably, Parker’s reputation rests partly on certain purported properties of his own body. His palate is said to be equipped with a unique “cleft.” The Cleft, as it is known, is (one imagines,) a singular ravine over which the wine molecules play with happy freedom… The Cleft never tires…The critic therefore is not just an intelligent man with a singular passion; he is a deformity of nature equipped with powers that you and I do not possess.” (127).
This is not the description of a critic. This is the description of an athlete: increased lung capacity, longer legs, an extra chromosome. Foodies do not wax neurotic about their inability to taste the difference between local and industrial beef. Music fans do not discount their limited ear-drums– if only they were a super listener!
The super-taster myth, or reality, (I believe it is a little of both,) persists because people are insecure about wine. The West stresses that wine is meaningful– ritually drunk in celebration, romance, and religion– but people know little about it. To make matters worse, many wines are visually indistinguishable from each other once they’re poured. Drinkers have to rely on memories of taste and smell alone, stored in a much fuzzier corner of the brain. It takes focus and training to recall what a wine tasted like, and how the glass in your hand compares to it. If people can’t taste the difference, or know how to taste a difference, how can they decide what to drink?
Different taste ‘profiles’ occur naturally among humans. Some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Others can’t smell musty pig testosterone in their meat (for the best.) As far as I understand the science, its not a the sheer number of taste buds that affect this, but the genetic code within the taste bud cells themselves. Upbringing also affects the perception of flavor. Spice tolerance seems to be partly cultural, partly genetic. So is wine enjoyment. My sister and I were raised to pick out specific aromas in wine as a kind of dinner-table game. The power of suggestion always thwarted the objectivity of this, because as soon as someone said “This Riesling smells exactly like your hands after holding rebar,” everyone would suddenly start smelling it. The game was communal, not competitive, and the sway of perception brought everyone together. Some people seemed better able to do it than others, but once a ‘right’ smell was discovered, almost everyone became able to detect it.
When I studied at the International Wine Center in New York, I learned that the WSET suppresses this kind of specificity, and requires practitioners to stick to a close relative of the Davis wheel. This standardization works to keep wine equally communicable to all wine drinkers. I continued to keep private, ‘subjective,’ notes, but also wondered at how objective the list really was– one student’s ‘peach’ was just as valid as another student’s ‘apricot.’ The culture that envelops a wine– be it a community or a family– can locate elements that make it nostalgic or uncanny. The back of a wine label, written for the common denominator, can only mention “blackcurrant and chocolate.” At that point, that’s not a specific description of the wine– that’s marketing.
History strips the super-taster concept further. Food descriptors only came into vogue with the health food movement in the seventies. Before that, writers primarily relied on class and sex descriptors to talk about wine. Previous generations of super-tasters would have likened a generous red to a Rubenesque woman. We’ve lost sight of the fact that wine-tasting is a game of metaphors. Food descriptors have some scientific basis (the presence of malic versus lactic acid in the wine, for example,) but drinkers use the same apparatus to locate these flavors as they used to assign bosom proportions to wines.
There may indeed be super-tasters. Yet at the end of the day, does it matter whether the wine tastes like 80% dark chocolate, and not 65%? Is the inability to detect this a deterrence from getting into wine? While its enriching to remember what you drink, lists of flavor notes become arbitrary quickly. And these notes are affected by the cleanliness of the glass, what was eaten beforehand, your mood and the company you kept that night. So I place faith in the diametrical opposite of the super-taster– the suggestion taster. This is where the magic of wine-tasting occurs: when someone says, “This smells like a strawberry rhubarb pie,” and suddenly, the wine tastes and smells unmistakably like strawberry rhubarb pie. Everyone becomes connected for a moment, and transported together.