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Take It Easy with Flavor Descriptors
By Rebecca Murphy
May 3, 2023
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The movie Wine Country directed by and starring Amy Poehler is a girlfriend’s weekend romp through Napa Valley.  Of course, I had to watch it a few years ago, but found myself cringing at a scene that illustrates the mistaken idea that we humans have a universal perception of aromas and flavors.  That is a fact worth revisiting.

The plot involves a birthday party group arriving at Artesa Winery, which is displayed onscreen in all its landscaped glory.  Abby, played by Poehler and birthday honoree Rebecca, played by Rachel Dratch, meet sommelier Mason played by Craig Cackowski who is pouring a Chardonnay for them to taste:

Mason: “Anyone picking up on the notes of honeysuckle?  Let me know what you smell.  There’s no right answers.”

Abby: “Green apples?”

Mason approvingly:  “Yes.  Very good.  Green apple.”

Rebecca tentatively:  “I wanna say … canned peaches?”

Mason:  “No.”

Abby:  “You said there’s no wrong answer.”

Mason:  “Yeah, but you know.  Peaches, there’s no peaches in there.  Okay, what else you got?”

Abby:  “Oh!  Lemon.”

Mason:  “Yes, very good.”

Rebecca, excited:  “Yes, I taste the lemon!”

Mason, disdainfully:  “You don’t taste it. You smell it.”

Rebecca:  “Grapes!”

Mason:  “Well, yeah, of course.”

Abby:  “Nice, that’s smart.  Definitely grapes in there.  Can’t go wrong with that.”

Rebecca:  “Jasmine.”

Mason:  “That’s…. egregious.”

Rebecca:  “Pinot gregious.”

Abby:  “Thank you.  You’re killing it!”

Mason walks away in disgust.

The first problem with the interaction on Mason’s part is the assumption that we will all be able to discern specific molecules of aromas and agree upon the title and definition of those aromas.  The second is that If you can’t do that, something is wrong with you.  The best part of the interaction is that the women were having fun and didn’t let Mason spoil it.  

I found myself getting annoyed with this interaction, because it happens too often with wine.  Wine is complicated and at the same time, it’s simple.  Complicated because it is a complex creation that one can spend a lifetime studying and still have more to learn.  Simple because it can bring great pleasure that requires nothing more than enjoying it.

The fact is that our ability to smell and taste is complicated and many researchers are working toward a better understanding of how it all works.  It’s the nose that discerns different aromas while the tongue identifies the tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.  Humans have a range of 5,000 to 10,000 taste buds and each of those taste buds have 50 to 100 specialized sensory cells.  Taste buds are on the tongue, the top of the mouth and the back of the throat.  The tongue map that you may have seen in school indicating that these tastes are sensed in specific parts of the tongue has long been debunked. 

Researchers have discovered that a person’s reaction to the bitterness of the chemicals PTC (phenylthiocarbamide) and PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil) can vary from very bitter to mildly bitter to no taste at all is related to a specific gene.  Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, is one of the researchers and gets the credit for calling those who were most bitter averse as “supertasters.”  In her 1995 paper on the topic, she noted that, “Supertasters also perceive stronger tastes from a variety of bitter and sweet substances and, perceive more burn from oral irritants (alcohol and capsaicin).”

Some people love the fresh, green almost grassy smell and taste of cilantro, while others hate it for what they describe as soapy aromas and flavors.  Julia Child made it known often that she hated the herb.  Charles J. Wysocki, Member Emeritus, Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, conducted a study involving sets of fraternal and identical twins and concluded that the love or hate of cilantro was based on genetics.  In 2012, a research team at the genetics firm 23andMe confirmed Wysocki’s opinion identifying the gene responsible, at least among European genetic populations.  

Additional factors affect our senses of smell and taste.  Conditioned taste aversion occurs when a person becomes violently ill from eating spoiled or poison food.  It can also develop when someone associates a food to an illness even though the food did not cause the illness.  You know, you ate too much cake at your sixth birthday and you can’t even look at a birthday cake anymore, much less eat a slice.

It is also possible to distort the perception of an aroma.  I experienced aroma distortion at the Master of Wine Symposium in Napa Valley several years ago.  Tim Hanni, MW gave three plastic squeeze bottles to be passed around the audience.  One bottle was marked as a cheese, one as body odor and one, I think, was marked as vomit.   We got to smell all three and they smelled just like they were marked.  The vomit aroma was putrid, the body odor was strong, but the cheese smelled like a beautifully aged Parmesan.  After the group had the opportunity to smell all three, Hanni told us that each bottle contained the same chemical, Butyric acid.

Anosmia is a condition that would be distressing for anyone and downright horrifying for a person who relies on the sense of smell in his or her professional life.  The most common causes are a cold, allergies or a sinus infection, which are temporary.  Other possible causes, which could last longer are injury to the nose, medication, cocaine abuse, radiation treatments of neck and head cancers, old age and medical conditions.  One promising treatment for someone recovering from anosmia is smell training using essential oils, usually rose, eucalyptus, lemon and clove.  According to the Monell Center, “For recovering anosmics, smell training offers a promising technique to retrain their olfactory sense.  In clinical trials, a significant number of patients who used smell training fared better in the areas of identification and discrimination of smells than those who did no training at all.”     

With so many factors affecting an individual’s sense of smell and taste, it is amazing that we find any agreement in the flavors of a wine.  As a wine writer, I try not to overdo aroma or flavor terms.  To me it makes more sense to focus on a how a wine feels in the mouth.  That includes the acidity, sweetness level, body, tannins, texture, alcohol and structure, such as linear or round.  Understanding that our taste perceptions have a genetic foundation and are unique can help us avoid being like Mason.