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The Blogger and The Critic's Golden Tastebuds

When I was a kid, I didn't have a television, but whenever I got the chance at a friend's or neighbors house, I loved to watch Looney Toons. In particular, I loved the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. They were amazing in their ability to make you laugh with absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. It was the strangest thing when one day they actually had the first episode where Wiley talked. Initially I was shocked and outraged. But then he uttered what is still one of my favorite lines ever: "Allow me to introduce myself. Wile E. Coyote, SUPER Genius!".

Now just imagine if I started every wine review with something like that!

This week, one of my favorite wine writers, Matt Kramer has an article in the NY Sun on this very topic -- the fact that increasingly some of the big wine critics are underlining their authority not with experience or eloquence, but with claims of being supertasters.

For those who haven't heard of it, or who can't be bothered to click that link I just provided, supertasters have more tastebuds than your average human or coyote, which gives them a greater sensory range for perceiving various flavors. They also tend to be overly sensitive to some flavors, especially bitter ones (like broccoli). About 20 to 25% of the population are supertasters.

Kramer proceeds to rightfully skewer the increasing frequency with which critics seem to be justifying their authority using the "superior physiological gifts" argument, but in the process of unsheathing his quill, he offers up an astonishing reason why some of the established critics might be prompted to make such claims.

"Wine critics have lately come up against new competition. Previously, it was a matter of who got published. Today, A.J. Liebling's famous dictum that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," generates a new kind of freedom: the ability to run for wine office without the nomination of an established publishing party.

The line between amateurs and professionals in wine tasting is increasingly erased with today's every-man-a-king proliferation of wine blogs (a number of which are proffered by queenly women, it should be noted).

Consequently, professionals' desire of being seen as superior in literal matters of taste has become more pressing."

This is, of course, not so astonishing on the face of things. Most critics are no doubt aware of what's happening on sites like this one. But it's quite surprising to read Kramer implying that they see blogs in a competitive light, especially to the point that they might need to justify their own authority.

But then again, there are certainly signs that the mainstream establishment feels, if not threatened, then certainly in danger of falling behind the times. The major publications are starting their own blogs (Wine spectator, USA Today, NY Times), and those who are not have suddenly started allowing their readers to comment on their online news stories (Decanter).

Perhaps most telling is this fact: Most of the major food publications in the United States have published articles guiding their readers to the best wine blogs (and food blogs) on the Internet, yet not a single major wine magazine has published anything about any of the nearly 300 wine blogs in existence for their readership. For all intents and purposes, they might as well not exist. They haven't even referenced the phenomenon -- and this article by Kramer doesn't count because it was published in a newspaper.

While that may not quite have the smell of fear, it certainly does have the smell of confusion. I'm not trying to beat my chest here, but I marvel at the fact that Kramer might be on to something.

In any case, his article is not about blogs striking fear into the heart of the establishment, really. It's an examination of where any critic grounds their legitimacy and authority. The only place it makes sense to do so, as Kramer points out, is in knowledge and experience. Physiological attributes do not imply expertise. This, he correctly points out, "is about as plausible as a film critic asserting superiority because of unusual light sensitivity."

Read the full article.

Comments (9)

Joe Hinder wrote:
07.20.06 at 11:39 PM

I find this a little funny. I have what's called a geographic tongue. If you don't know that is, here's a short (not-quite-scientifically-accurate) primer. Skip it if you already know this:

You have 5 hairs on your tongue. 4 of them are called tastebuds. You get 4 flavors - Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty. So, what's the fifth hair for? Well, the 5th hair grows longer than the others, thus diluting, yet protecting, your ability to taste Sweet, Sour, Salty & Bitter. And, believe me, those buds need it.

You see, the hairs on your tongue die and grow back on regular basis. All 5 of them. For most people they die and grow back in the same place, but us 1%ers have the joy of them growing back in patches. So when your protective hairs grow back in a patch, they leave another area bare. And then, there's no protection for the tastebuds. Flavors go right to them. We get it all. And then our tongues swell.

The big fallacy here is that they call this supertasting. Simply not possible. 95% of the things that you think are flavors are actually scents. It doesn't matter what the concentration of tastebuds on your tongue is, because most of what we think are flavors are actually smells. Thank you olfactorys. Don't believe me? Break open some bread, hold it in front of your mouth and inhale. Smells like what bread tastes like, huh?

In fact, if there are supertasters - and the ability was based on tastebuds - they'd only be able to tell you that a wine tasted sweeter, saltier, more sour or more bitter. They could never detect notes of vanilla, chocolate, yeast or otherwise - those are actually smells.

Alder wrote:
07.20.06 at 11:51 PM

Thanks for your comments. And you’re right of course. Kramer points this out in his article too -- that most of what we perceive in wine is aroma anyway. Perhaps we'll next see critics bragging about the size of their nasal cavities.

sam wrote:
07.21.06 at 4:47 AM

since 20-25% of the population are allegedly "super tasters", I wouldn't be surprised if all wine and food bloggers happened to have superior tongues too! It aint so special.

More than once, on my own blog, after describing some particular strong like or dislike or taste sensation or aversion I have for certain kinds of food, I have been accused [?] by a commentor of being a "supertaster". I had never heard of them until then. I thought it sounded kind of cool and so I looked it up and found that whilst I indeed did seem to have many things in common with a 'supertaster', not everything was a perfect match, and so I determined I cannot possibly be one.

The prime example: "supertasters generally do not enjoy alcohol", according to Wikipedia. Which begs the question, why should a wine critic be so eager to boast about his or her supertaster status?

Rodrigo wrote:
07.21.06 at 5:26 AM

No wonder I am so seldom in synch with the critics. Remember that supertasters do not simply taste everything more intensely. They respond different to specific flavors (most famously the bitter compound PROP). Thus the underlying assumption that supertasters taste everything "better" is an oversimplification.

So, to push the case to an extreme, imagine a person whose ear picks up the musical note A (440)much more intensely than the rest of us. That person would find disonant notes in almost every piece of music he/she hears.

Now imagine a composer who has the same condition. His/Her musical pieces would only appear "right" to those listeners who have the same condition. The rest of us would find disonant "holes" in the melodies.

Now imagine a critic who claims he can hear A(440)much better than the rest of us. Would you trust his advice if your hearing was normal?

The analogy to the wine world is obvious. Presumably most wines are made by normal tasters, so they balance the flavors of the wine to their tasting capabilities. In contrast, wines that are made by supertasters would be balanced to their "higher" capabilities thus producing different wines. Although, admitedly, the winemaker as supertaster may be a theoretical construct since presumably the marketplace would have weeded them out of the wine-making business as they would alienate 80% of their audience.

If you are a normal taster, which most of us are, would you really want to listen to the opinion of a supertaster?

The claim of critic superiority due to physiology is not only oversimplified, as pointed above, but is also self-anihilating.

genevelyn wrote:
07.21.06 at 8:33 AM

Natural selection guarantees that some people will be more sensitive, run faster or be "SuperTasters", while others will not have these SuperPowers. There are gifted tasters who don't brag about their buds. There is a cause and effect in drinking wine. Wine, more than almost any other form of alcohol, surfaces latent hubris.

ss wrote:
07.23.06 at 9:58 PM

The fact is that practice is what makes superior tatsers. Facility with wine and its vocabulary takes years to refine. Sadly most of what gets through in print is mainly bullshit.
I find it incredibly interesting that Kramer et al are beginning to percieve the blogospere as a threat. When one posesses an authentic handle on the vernacular and can publish 24/7/365 the power dynamic changes. Hopefully for the better.

Tyler T wrote:
07.24.06 at 10:25 AM

I find the term 'supertasters' a real misnomer. It implies that the person does have superior ability to taste, and by that I mean assess what they are tasting in a critical sense. When in reality it just means they are more sensitive to certain compounds, particularly bitter compounds. Kramer does a nice job with this article.

Alder wrote:
07.25.06 at 8:37 PM

I must now make a retraction. I had not yet opened this month's Wine Spectator, but I finally did tonight, and lo and behold, Matt Kramer uses the words "wine blogs" in his August column. Amazing. Even more amazing is the fact that he says "The latest phase in writing about wine is blogging. Now I like blogs. For too long wine writing was like sending messages to Voyager II. We writers held forth and, apart from the odd letter (usually asking if an old bottle of Blue Nun the reader found in his mother's utility room is worth any money), we never heard anything back."


If you like them so much, why not share them with your readers?

mary anne wrote:
05.20.07 at 8:41 PM

Great article! I just spent the day in a media group tasting at eight different wineries in the Cienaga Valley near Hollister, CA. The wine critic from the San Jose Mercury News brought along her "supertaster" superior mouth and all that came from that was a constant flow of negative comments followed by a sneer. Drink what you like and toast the winemaker.

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