The Frontal Cortex

Supertasters and Wine Critics

This is what happens when a wine critic decides to scientifically test his sense of taste:

She first handed me a cotton swab and instructed me to rub it vigorously against the inside of one of my cheeks. This was the genotype test; as soon as I was done, Reed’s assistant, Fujiko Duke, whisked the sample to the lab. Reed then handed me a Q-tip, and told me to dab the end of my tongue with some blue food dye, which would more clearly reveal the fungiform papillae. I placed a white binder ring on the tip of my tongue, at a slight angle from the center, and Reed began counting the bumps inside the ring, which required a good minute of fairly close inspection. (Fortunately for her, I’d forgone the onion bagel that morning.) With that, we were done; I took my blue tongue home to await the results.

Reed e-mailed them the next afternoon, and they were surprising. To begin with, I had, by her count, 64 fungiform papillae per square centimeter, which is almost exactly average. This meant I wasn’t a supertaster, and put me squarely in the middle of the taster range. Then came the shocker: The swab test indicated that I have the two recessive alleles–that I am, genetically, a nontaster. This result didn’t square with my pained response to the PROP test, and Reed seemed taken aback. She immediately called Wysocki to confirm that he had indeed given me the PROP test. She then informed me that the taster-nontaster split was not quite as black-and-white as portrayed: Around 5 percent of nontasters can actually detect PROP, she said, and it appeared that I was a member of this exclusive club. However, my extreme aversion to the PROP was somewhat unusual and would require further investigation, so she summoned me back to Philadelphia.

So now I was a nontaster who … could taste, and apparently with enough clarity and intensity to know that I never wanted the taste of PROP in my mouth again. Not only that: I was a nontaster with the preferences of a supertaster–I was a dog that had somehow come to behave like a cat. On the one hand, I was pleased to discover that I was something of an oddball; I had visions of being dubbed Subject X and having my biology-defying palate written about in scientific journals. On the other hand, it occurred to me that owning up to my nontaster status might not be the wisest career move–who would take wine advice from a nontaster?

Read the whole confessional. I think there are two additional points worth thinking about. First of all, the article hints at the surprising diversity of our senses. We naturally assume that our experience of reality is universal. But this is clearly a false assumption. Different retinas have different ratios of cones, different tongues have different densities of papillae, different noses have different odor receptors. Some of this variation is genetic, and some if it is the result of plasticity. But the variation is always there. Our sense of everything is unique.

Secondly, I can’t help but marvel at the irony of a “non-taster” dispensing wine advice. (Luckily for this critic, the taste of a wine is mostly a smell.) Of course, as I’ve written before, wine critics aren’t exactly marvels of accuracy. Most of them can’t even tell the difference between red and white wine.