Taste bud tales – wine tasting abilities of women

Taste bud tales – wine tasting abilities of women – related article: Wine Consumption Grows in China

Tim Patterson

True or false: On the whole, women have better palates than men.

Chances are you answered true. Both in the wine industry and the general population, most people share a vague consensus–maybe a hunch–that women have keener tasting and sniffing abilities. But what exactly gives them the edge? Is it better raw sensory equipment, or better language skills, more capacity to give that elusive aroma a name? Is the female advantage an evolutionary legacy from eons of handling the kitchen chores or an artifact of short-term socialization, in which little girls sharpen their senses through doll clothes and tea parties while little boys sharpen sticks?

If this gap is objective, can men catch up? Evidence suggests that with patient effort, males can master the art of doing dishes. But can they ever hold their own as wine tasters? Turns out there is a wealth of sensory research bearing on these questions, most of it done in the last decade. “When I started here 10 years ago,” says Pamela Dalton, a sensory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “I was almost embarrassed to say there was no lab evidence that women were more sensitive. It was silly, because we know women are more sensitive.

I’m pleased to say I no longer have to say that–I can provide the evidence.

Surprisingly enough, virtually none of this research directly involves wine, a product without peer for its complex mix of flavors and aromas. Undeterred, here’s a report from the frontiers of science.

Make Way For The Super-Tasters

One piece of research that has gotten popular exposure is the phenomenon of “super-tasters.” Yale Medical School researcher Linda Bartoshuk started by discovering that people had widely different sensitivities to tasting bitterness–from a small piece of paper laced with PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil, a thyroid medication). She went on to divide the world into super-tasters, tasters and nontasters. Super-tasters make up roughly 25% of the population, tasters 50%, nontasters 25%.

Varying responses to PROP bitterness are mirrored in reactions to sourness, sweetness and the capsaicin burn of hot peppers. “Super-tasters live in a neon food world,” Bartoshuk says, “nontasters in a pastel food world.” And sure enough, super-tasters do have more fungiform papillae, the structures that house taste bud receptors.

Women are over-represented among super-tasters: the lucky 25% of the population includes 35% of the women and 15% of the men. (Sadly, Bartoshuk herself is a nontaster.) Gender also shows up in preferences; female super-tasters dislike sweet and fat (at least in high concentrations), but male super-tasters eat them up.

And yes kids, you can do this at home. Bartoshuk’s stripped-down version of the laboratory test involves swabbing the tongue with blue food coloring and peering in with a flashlight. Against the blue-dyed tongue, the papillae remain pink; super-tasters show a carpet of pink, nontasters pink polka dots on a field of blue. (Wouldn’t it be fun to have Robert Parker over for dinner, and just before the brandy, break out the Q-tips, the food coloring and the flashlight?)

Taste preferences also come into play. In her studies of food cravings, Marcie Pelchat, another Monell researcher, concludes that women are more likely than men to crave sweet foods, though the particular targets of satisfaction differ from culture to culture (no, it’s not always chocolate). Bartoshuk’s research also suggests that tasters are much less fond of ethyl alcohol than nontasters, a finding that may have implications for the study of alcoholism. All these varying sensitivities and propensities–for sugar, alcohol and bitterness–could well correlate with how wine is perceived.

It’s All In The Nose

Most tasting isn’t about taste itself–sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami–but about smell. The flavors enshrined in tasting notes are mainly perceived through aspiration into the retronasal cavity above the mouth and behind the nose. “Most variability in flavor is due to smell,” Pelchat says. “The tremendous variety in fruit flavors is in the aromas, not the taste–there’s lust some sweet, maybe some sour. It’s the same for differences between meats or grains.” And since olfaction (sense of smell) is more likely to go on the fritz than taste–through disease, injury or just plain aging–it’s important to know who might have the better sniffers.

Pamela Dalton and her co-researchers discovered that women of childbearing age were particularly adept at learning to notice low-threshold odors. With repeated exposure to a variety of smells, they quickly got better and better at detecting something different (compared to clean air) and at recognizing and naming that something. By contrast, men just didn’t pick it up, nor did premenarche girls and post-menopausal women. In other experiments, women did better at spotting a target odor against a background of other aromas, a setting more like real-world experience. Dalton’s logical speculation was that the variance was hormonal; subsequent research has suggested (without full statistical rigor) that post-menopausal women on hormone replacement therapy come right back up to speed.

The good news for women is they’re better at sniffing the good stuff; the bad news is they’re also more sensitive to funky odors from “sick” buildings and excessive perfumery. Dalton thinks what’s going on is that as people (or at least the women) lower their thresholds from repeated exposure, more smell receptors are actually being sprouted. Since testing this hypothesis with electrodes in human nostrils would be a tad invasive, Dalton hopes to get results with mice.

All in all, it’s pretty clear that genetic and hormonal factors make a difference in how people taste and smell, and that some of those differences are related to gender. (Clearly not all of them; everyone has individual sensory “blind spots.”) Chances are there’s more to be found. Existing studies have barely begun to control for a host of other demographic factors–race, ethnicity, age–where differences could also be significant. Bartoshuk’s percentage breakdown of super-tasters/tasters/nontasters, for example, holds for Caucasians; Asians seem to have a higher proportion of super-tasters.

So far, no one has tested a random sample of winemakers in the laboratory. But here’s an experiment to try in your head in the meantime. Imagine an alternative universe in which the buying decisions of a demographically diverse group of wine consumers were shaped by the opinions of a handful of wine writers who, from a purely biological point of view, all happened to be male Caucasians over 50. Might this matter?

How The Sexes Got This Way

The common-sense explanation of women’s greater capacities is that they evolved through their long-standing role as gatekeepers of the food supply and nurturers of vulnerable infants. Men may do the hunting, but women do the cooking, and after a couple million years, it adds up.

Indeed, one school of thought in paleoanthropology holds that the onset of cooked food and shared meals changed the course of evolution. In a controversial 1999 article titled “The Raw and the Stolen,” Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham and several colleagues argue that the increased availability of cooked tubers (the article refers to “plant underground storage organs “–yum!) paved the way for the emergence of homo erectus, our direct ancestor, about 1.9 million years ago.

H. erectus arrived with smaller teeth, smaller digestive guts, a reduced difference in male and female body mass and a larger brain. This upgrade in the food supply, foraged for and cooked by women, was more dependable than the meat supply from male hunting, and may have been the edible centerpiece of a new and more complex level of social organization as well. (Further research: Might today’s wine buying pattern, with men tracking down the high-risk, high-prestige trophy wines and women foraging the supermarket aisles for something that goes with dinner, be a survival of this hunter/gatherer split?)

The sensory organ most likely to show gender-based evolutionary differences is the brain. If hormones are a delicate subject, brains are a tinderbox. There is a colorful and extensive history of pseudo-scientific theories about the alleged inferiority of female brains. “Superior male intellect,” for example, was long attributed to their larger brains; but simple measurement shows that, relative to body mass, women’s brains are slightly larger; and if size was all that mattered, whales would rule the world. Still, there is reason to believe that men and women differ in the mechanics of cognition, in how concepts are formed and particularly, in how sensory experience gets turned into language. The best known (and most over-used) concept here is the division of the brain into left and right sides, with an endless array of functional differences attributed to one or the other. The left side is said to be home to thinking that is rational, analytical and linear; the right side conducive to a more intuitive, hol istic, synthesizing mode. In broad terms, the left brain is more frequently the hub of language activity, the right brain the locus of taste.

Both men and women employ both sides, but the argument has been made that women tend to make more and better use of the right brain, men the left. (It has also been shown that right-handed people make more use of the left side, and vice versa.) This debate is one serious can of worms.

MRI studies have shown that men’s brains have more white matter, women’s a higher proportion of gray matter, and this, too could have something to do with how information is processed. (Forger Mars and Venus; maybe men are from Pinot blanc, women from Pinot gris?) There seems to be hard physical evidence of different wiring, which could well be related to the easily observable fact that women find it easier to talk about what they’re tasting.

Wine Educators Weigh In It’s the talking that’s critically important, according to Hildegarde Heymann, recently hired sensory specialist on the UC Davis enology faculty. Heymann and one of her graduate students at the University of Missouri examined how much work it took to train members of sensory evaluation panels and discovered women learn much faster, largely because they immediately start tossing out opinions and reactions. “We listened to the female tapes, people just talked and talked, trying to converge on the same understanding. In the male panels, someone would talk, then someone else, it took a lot longer.”

But eventually, everybody got it–once trained, male and female performance on the panels was identical. “Everybody is ultimately trainable,” Heymann says, “but I prefer to train mixed panels; the men learn faster with the barrage of female comments.

Looking over decades of training tasters at Davis, Ann Noble, creator of the Aroma Wheel and Heymann’s predecessor in the sensory slot at Davis, finds no significant differences between men and women. “Focus is the main thing,” she says. “If you focus, you will do better, even with a slight cold.” At Chico State, Marian Baldy similarly reports no notable differences in gender sensitivity from her 5,000 wine appreciation students over 30 years. Ditto Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and chair of the professional wine studies program at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone–though MacNeil notes that women frequently start her classes with sharper verbal abilities.

Baldy was, however, willing to offer one generalization about her experience with college-age students in a classroom situation: “Men are more inclined to talk, and more inclined to say something stupid. Women are less likely to talk, but more likely to be interesting.”

Socialization

If women have a head start at wine tasting, part of it surely is socialization. In fact, tasting wine at all requires a dose of social encouragement, since no one is born with an innate fondness for fermented grape juice. Alcoholic beverages head the list (along with chile peppers and horseradish) of what researcher Paul Rozin calls “aversive foods,” items that are initially rejected as distasteful but become, with repeated socio-cultural encouragement, objects of desire or even craving.

Along the socialization trail, women are more likely to learn to use and trust their senses and to rely on sense memories as reference points for talking about new experiences.

“Women bring a very highly tuned, finely detailed sense of smell and taste, developed since childhood.” says master sommelier and wine writer Catherine Fallis. “It’s just by nature of what boys do versus what girls do, putting them to use at an earlier age.

“It doesn’t so much have to do with man/woman,” MacNeil says, “but who does the shopping in the family, who decides this smells like a ripe cantaloupe, this one smells unripe.

Chefs, regardless of gender, make good wine tasters, because they’re practicing their sensory equipment. It’s equivalent to training for an athletic event: using those muscles over and over again.

Yet another vantage point comes from corporate flavor and product developers, where real consumer dollars are at stake. Carol Christensen, director of sensory and consumer science for International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), says preferences play a role: “Most food products are unisex, but women prefer some more than men.” Joe O’Keefe, a flavor chemist for Diageo, says for example that women generally shy away from acidic flavors like grapefruit and cranberry, preferring softer peach, pear, grape and raspberry.

Chris Findlay of Compusense, a Canadian flavor consulting company, says research on Scotch whisky indicates that “women like the sweeter, sherry-noted ones, men go for the smoky, peaty Islays. Bigness versus subtlety.” Vanilla comes up again and again as a female-friendly flavor: everyone agrees that women are the target market for the new vanilla sodas launched by Coke and Pepsi.

On the other hand, Kevin Sheridan, a sensory psychologist at IFF, finds it impossible to disentangle real gender preferences from the effects of marketing campaigns targeting different audiences. And preferences, of course, are not the same as thresholds, though the two can be related–it’s hard to have an opinion about something you can’t taste.

What’s certain is that a great deal of well-financed research, proving whatever it proves, stays locked up in corporate product development vaults and never makes its way into the more public, academic arena. The same may be true for wine research: major wine and spirits companies may know something about gender thresholds and preferences for oak, tannin, acid and other wine components, but the rest of us can only guess.

What Does It All Mean?

Fortunately, a large proportion of the men responsible for how wine tastes no doubt function at the top of their gender–the kind of people who took Ann Noble’s sensory classes, and paid attention, and followed Karen MacNeil’s advice to exercise those muscles. So despite the tantalizing evidence, it’s unlikely the fate of the wine industry will be entrusted to young, left-handed women of child-bearing age who are certified super-tasters.

Still, to be on the safe side, it may be just as well that women consumers make most of the wine-buying decisions.

RELATED ARTICLE: Wine Consumption Grows In China

Rapid economic development, improved living standards and awareness of health issues are contributing to increased wine consumption in China, according to the China Vintage Industry Association (CVIA).

Currently, China has about 450 wineries, of which 10 are capable of producing more than 10,000 tons each annually. China produced 300,000 tons in 2001, 19% more than in 2000, and CVIA estimated wine production will reach 500,000 tons by 2005. China also imports about 50,000 tons of wine yearly.

CVIA statistics show that Chinese people consumed 390 million liters of wine in 2001, a per capita consumption of 0.27 liters.

(Tim Patterson writes for a cuvee of publications about adult beverages (and makes his own) in Berkeley, Calif. where the wine country meets what’s left of the ’60s. He may be contacted through edit@winesandvines.com.)

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