Sunday, June 24, 2007

Full Disclosure

Michael Steinberger's three-part odyssey for Slate on "the physiology of the wine critic" is well-worth reading, particularly for his tongue-in-check exasperation at the discovery that he is, alas, the lowest of the low in the latest scientific parlance, a "non-taster." Steinberger rather bemusedly asks whether this unfortunate genetic reality -- which renders him insenstive to certain tastes -- ought to disqualify him as a wine writer/critic, particularly as Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker, and others have anointed themselves as prodigious "super tasters" (with Parker admitting a particular aversion to spicy and heavily seasoned foods).

Matt Kramer commented last year on the ridiculousness of such self-designations, and Aldow Yarrow raises some searching questions about the diversity of taste and the hegemony of a single critic like Parker, who doth bestride the narrow wine world like a Colossus (while we petty bloggers ... ). It is not at all clear whether a so-called "super taster" makes the best critic for a population that, on average, is decidedly un-super. Nor is it clear that the life of a super-taster -- with the attendant hypersensitivity toward certain tastes and general finickiness -- is a particularly happy and blessed one. But, as Kramer points out, the "super-taster" designation has become one way of heightening the distinction between amateur and professional in a field that has become inundated with new, untested voices (like yours truly).

So, in the interests of full disclosure, I thought I'd lay out my own taste profile, so readers can make up their own minds about the reliability of my judgments. While I don't have access to the same battery of tests and team of scientific experts that put Steinberger through his paces, I can answer the range of questions they put to him:

  • Do I have a low threshold for sweetness? Yes. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Do I like Scotch? Yes (with a preference for Island and Speyside malts, as opposed to Islay. Current favorite: Talisker 25). (Supertasters: No)
  • Do I take my coffee black? I don't drink coffee. (Supertasters: No)
  • Do artificial sweeteners taste different to me than regular sugar? Yes. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Am I a heavy salter? No. (Supertasters: Yes)
  • Did my mother suffer a lot of morning sickness when she was pregnant with me? Yes. (My mother still seemed bitter about that when I asked her yesterday.) (Supertasters: Yes)
Alas, as best as I can tell, these answers are a bit inconclusive -- all that's left for me is the genetic test, which will prove once and for all my natural prowess (or lack thereof). Seriously, arrangements for the test are in the works (though details remain murky), and I shall dutifully report back when the results are in.

For now, all I can say is this: for all those wine lovers who have always found Jancis overly fussy, it turns out it's not (just) because she's English.

Addendum: In a chat over Gmail, my co-blogger Jeffrey points out that Jancis is absolutely right in observing that this "super-taster"/"non-taster" business tells us nothing about the most crucial element of wine tasting: the nose. There is no evidence to suggest that being a "super-taster" makes someone more attuned to the complex array of aromas that gives wine its remarkable flavors. Most of taste derives from the sense of smell, yet all this test tells us is whether someone is more sensitive to bitterness, acidity, sweetness, astringency, etc. -- only the qualities one can deduce from the tongue alone.

I responded by noting that this test is probably most useful for determining broad stylistic preferences -- bigger, sweeter, more alcoholic New World wines versus more restrained, more classical Old World wines. This dichotomy certainly makes sense in the case of Jancis. But if Parker is, as he suggests, a "super-taster," then all bets are off.

1 comment:

Nick Simmonds said...

Actually, there is some evidence that being a supertaster allows one to pick out flavors, in addition to tastes, that others miss.

In any event, I myself am a confirmed supertaster, and yet I have a strong preference for sweets, and enjoy scotch (with a particular fondness for the Islays). Being a supertaster is more associated with extreme personal finickiness than with precise likes and dislikes for wide swathes of foods. I also very much enjoy spiciness. Maybe I'm just a food masochist.

I can't drink coffee, though. In fact, I once rejected a zabaglione desert because it tasted like coffee to me, and then later found out a coffee bean had accidentally been dropped in the batch, but removed shortly thereafter.