By Gina Trippi
Learning about wine is a little bit like learning to swim. You just have to jump in! A wine education requires you to taste, taste, taste. That may sound like an easy and totally pleasurable assignment, but mastering tasting is not so simple or equitable as you might think.
When it comes to taste, we are not all created equally! Research shows that individuals are born with varying amounts of fungiform papillae, those tiny sensors on your tongue commonly called taste buds that enable you to experience flavors. And, accordingly, those with the most papillae are capable of the most intense taste sensations.
Researchers collate individuals into three categories: non-tasters, medium tasters and supertasters. Studies show that about 25 percent of the population is made up of non-tasters and 25 percent is comprised of supertasters, leaving the remaining 50 percent as medium tasters. Supertasters experience three times the sensations of bitterness, sweetness and spiciness discerned by the non-taster.
But when it comes to learning how to taste, scientific research shows that the playing field is not level: Women may have an advantage over men. Why? Simple: More taste buds. Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, found that supertasting abilities are more common in women than men. Research shows that 34 percent of women are “supertasters” compared to just 22 percent of men.
Then why are most sommeliers men? Robert Bath, a wine and beverage studies professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, says that while women outperform men in tasting tests and show better olfactory memory, women still don’t seem confident about their skills. “Men use confidence in lieu of ability,” Bath says.
Where is Asheville on the tasting scale? Are the women better tasters? Are the men winning with confidence? “While most of my early mentors were men, the Asheville wine and cocktail culture has a large and growing number of talented and confident women,” says Juniper Cooper, a wine sales representative for Mutual Distribution in Asheville. “When I am presenting wine trainings and tastings, I encourage each person to draw upon their personal lexicon of sense memory,” she says. “It is important to validate individual exploration of wine, and through that experience comes confidence.”
All that said, is there any way to build confidence and improve ability to taste? Indeed! “With practice, practice,” says Christie Dufault, associate professor of wine and beer studies at the Culinary Institute of America, “we see lots of improvement in everyone.”
But how do you practice? Blind tasting. This does not mean you will be blindfolded, but that the bottle will be concealed. With no information about the origin, varietal or price, you taste with no preconceived notions.
A good example of this principle is the fallout from the movie Sideways. The lead character, a self-described wine snob played by Paul Giamatti, famously shouts, “If anybody orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking Merlot!” Since then, many consumers think they shouldn’t like Merlot.
Blind tasting forces you to concentrate on the color, aroma and flavor. We offer the opportunity to learn about wine at The Blind Tasting League at Metro Wines the first Wednesday of every month. Learn, leave with confidence and level the playing field!
Gina Trippi is co-owner of Metro Wines, 169 Charlotte Street in Asheville. Committed to the community, Metro Wines offers big shop selection with small shop service. Reach Gina at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.575.9525.