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Steinberger on the Physiology of Taste

fungiform.jpgSometimes we forget that the world is moving along under our feet, sweeping its way around the Sun and that the human race is learning all sorts of stuff every day as we go through our ordinary lives. It's hard to observe, for instance, scientific progress being made. I know that I tend to forget that some of the things that we "know" about the world are still being figured out.

Take for instance, the mysterious and complex world of taste and aroma. Nobody has exactly figured out why wine tastes as good as it does, or why certain people prefer certain wines instead of others.

Relatively recently, however, scientists have revealed more about the way that each of us perceives taste. Perhaps you've heard of Tasters, Non-tasters, and Supertasters? These labels, which correlate to the density of taste buds on the tongue and sensitivity to certain chemical compounds, are the result of research over the past two decades into the physiology and neurochemistry of taste.

Recently some of the major wine critics around the world have announced, somewhat publicly, their status as Supertasters, with the resulting implication (intended or otherwise), that perhaps their station as critics might be due to their physiological superiority.

The little furor over these announcements seems to have inspired wine writer Michael Steinberger, who has written a three part series about his exploration of the topic that is so good, we might just even have to forgive his earlier lapses into insanity where Sauvignon Blanc is concerned.

In this series, which several readers alerted me to, Steinberger sets out to explore the topic of how we perceive taste, and ends up finding out that shockingly, he is a Non-taster, and must come to grips with the implications for his career as a wine writer.

The tongue-in-cheek drama of that revelation is good for a chuckle, but his explanation of the research and his cogent analysis of what these terms actually mean (not what you would think), is by far the best thing about the series. The articles are a great survey of what we know, and more importantly what we still don't know about the reason that wine tastes so good, and Steinberger hits a home run with the revelation that the research points to a reality in which the value of one person's so called "expert opinion" about wine can hardly be called expert when you look at things from a physiological standpoint:

"The research being done into the physiology of taste seemed to carry with it the suggestion that some palates were more naturally gifted than others and that scientists would eventually be able to identify the specific traits that separated the good ones from the not-so-good ones. The insights being gleaned about the psychology of taste appeared to point in a different, but also worrying, direction: namely, that because gustatory preferences were so individualistic and idiosyncratic, no one palate could ever be considered more knowledgeable than another, and any wide-ranging agreement about the merits of a particular wine was more likely the product of groupthink than of true consensus."
And if that is not proof that we shouldn't blindly follow wine critics around like we are on a leash, I don't know what is.

Anyhow, I highly recommend reading these pieces, as they are some of the better wine writing and reporting that I've seen this year, to steal a descriptor from a friend.

Part One -- In which our hero learns how we taste.
Part Two -- In which our hero learns that he doesn't taste so good.
Part Three -- In which our hero decides that it doesn't matter so much what he tastes like.


Comments (8)

rigaboy wrote:
06.23.07 at 5:30 AM

I enjoyed reading this article.

Arthur wrote:
06.24.07 at 9:21 AM

The Steinberger April 2006 piece is obnoxious and sounds uninformed, verging on ignorance. In his defense, Steinberger seems to have had a bad day which colored his thoughts and opinions. He redeems himself in the 3-article series, though. He answers his complaints (stated in the April 2006 essay) of smelling more than he can taste in the first piece, acknowledging that most of what we taste is actually aroma (the experiment of biting into a peeled potato or peeled apple with the nose plugged is a classic demonstration of that).

We can talk about smell and taste and insure our noses and tongues with Lloyds, but we forget the one organ that is the key to tasting: the brain. It does more than process the information from the olfactory receptors and taste buds, checking them against the memories of past aromas and flavors and wines and making a judgment.

It is the brain that knows how many different types of currants ("currents" flows through electrical wires and streams) there are and what each tastes like (there are: white, red and black but I doubt most people in the US have ever seen, let alone tasted them). The brain can also recognize the aromas and flavors associated with biting into a white gooseberry (there are also red ones) at different stages of ripeness. Our sense of smell, though limited by the number and location of receptors, still feeds into the paleocortex and the limbic system – evolutionarily, the oldest parts of the human brain which run our basest functions, including emotional responses.

It is understandable, then, why personal preferences further confound the issue of whatever physiologic limitations. On the other side of that coin is the encouraging finding that on can train their nose… errr…..BRAIN to recognize aromas we did not understand before. It’s like learning a new language: on the first day, it’s like walking into a room of people speaking a language we do not know – it’s just noise and hum. We may not even pick up distinct sounds unique to that particular language. In Chinese, there are two “P” sounds which most of us from the occident cannot distinguish – unless we were raised in China during that language-formative part of our childhood. For the more philosophically inclined, I offer the analogy of Foucault’s concept of a Grid of Interpretation. This latter is an interesting concept when considering the butyric acid food/body experiment.

Steinberger’s foray into the smell and taste laboratory points to one simple fact: there is no singular factor that can serve as a marker of ability of taste (or of good taste). This is a nascent science, and we need to see the whole forest and not focus on the pattern of the bark on a few trees. That is where Steinberger arrives after 3 articles – all very informative and well written - but I found myself tapping my foot, waiting for him to get to the brain part….

Tyler T wrote:
06.25.07 at 1:52 PM

Interesting article, though I find it noteworthy that this is a revelation to wine writers. You would think if they were going to educate themselves on at least one aspect of wine as they pursue their fun career it would be - above all winemaking/viticulture - the science of taste. Perhaps its too humbling.

I remember several years ago learning about non-tasers, tasters, and supertasters as part of our sensory course at Davis and I also remember distinctly being told that the choice of words ('supertaster') was misleading because it implied a qualitative nature to something meant to simply describe a physical phenomenon. That is, a super taster when it comes to actual ingestion has no superiority of discrimination. Therefore I found it amusing this last year when many writers began staking claim of their worthiness by noting their tasteability.

I'm not trying to sound like "I knew that band before they got big." But just expressing my continued surprise at how wine "experts" are often rarely educated into the science of tasting or wine which would provide a balance effect to their experience based knowledge (which is critical too). Alder, you humility in approach is what all of us need. Its nice to see this more reasoned - and researched! - article.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
06.25.07 at 2:05 PM

Assuming that someone with more taste receptors has a 'better palet' is like assuming someone with superior eyesight can read better. To go from a taste or smell to a description of a wine utilizes too many parts of the Brain to be that simplistic. Will these gifted ( self proclaimed ) wine critics begin interbreeding in an attempt to create a race of people destined to become wine critics? I would propose that if they wanted to have children that were hated when they grow up they just give them silly names.

Arthur wrote:
06.25.07 at 2:13 PM

Ahhh... yes. Wine eugenics....

Arthur wrote:
06.25.07 at 2:17 PM

Afterthought, Jerry:

Will that interpbreeding alter the styles of wine once again?

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
06.26.07 at 2:31 PM


First I see wine style as something that is constantly changing, far from static. Changes in technology for the vineyard and cellar, changing consumer profiles, global warming all contribute to the 'evolution' of wine style. If such a race of 'supertasters' were to be developed I would hope with thier superior genetics and superhuman sense of taste would allow them to get past the bigger is better mentality. With such fine tuned palets they should be able to actually pick up the SUBTLETIES in wines that previous generations of 'supertasters' seem to ignore. This could create a trend that might encourage wine diversity as opposed to extinguishing it. The other possibility is far to scary to discuss; ever read Frankenstein?

Arthur wrote:
06.26.07 at 2:58 PM

Hi Jerry,

I was actually having a little fun with the notion of breeding supertasters - with no disrespect meant towards you. I am in 100% agreement with you!

Would you contact me through my site as I have something about which I would love your opinion.

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