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The Genetics of taste and smell

Your genetic structure may determine the wines you like to taste and smell. Some people have a genetic makeup that lets them like everything. These lucky souls are called "supertasters."

America (Country Appellation)

Your Genetics May Determine
The Wines You Prefer

Do we have a genetic makeup that determines everything we taste and thus like and dislike?

by Dan Berger
April 21, 2008

DropCap  For the last few years, a number of long-time wine industry observers, many of them in England, have addressed what they believe to be a great fallacy in the scoring of wines on a rigid, numerical basis. Their criticism is that a small number of mostly American evaluators seem to be smitten by a style of wine that the critics view as antithetical to the classic view of what a great wine ought to be.

Clive Coates, the noted French wine author, recently called to task one American critic (not by name) who loved a particularly controversial red Bordeaux. Wrote Coates, “Anyone who likes [that wine] should have a brain transplant.” It was almost as if the Brits viewed the Americans as being somehow genetically different from Europeans as far as wine tasting is concerned.

And evidence is beginning to emerge that how we taste differs radically from person to person. The latest bit of evidence regarding wine tasting’s connection to a hard-wired status comes from DNA research, and the investigation of the physiology of taste by scientists and amateurs alike.

Some of this research seems to be saying clearly that numerical scores that rate the putative quality of a wine really are little more than opinions, not in any way related to fact, because it is increasingly clear that each individual tastes differently - one man’s greatness is another’s gruel - and what we perceive, or fail to experience, may be related to what we were born with. Or not.

smell1.jpgSome of the research seems to indicate that our genetic makeup may well be as much a factor of how and what we smell and taste as any learned experience, certainly with regard to specific aromas and tastes. And, in fact, it is patently clear that some among us cannot sense certain elements, and that others have such an acute sense of the same elements that even a trace is overpoweringly noxious.

Moreover, we’re beginning to see that much of this is beyond our control. It is who we are that determines what we like and dislike. And although learning through a posteriori experience does play a role in our appreciation of certain aspects of wine, a lot of that presumably is limited to what we can sense and how we sense it.

And those who use numbers to persuade us that something is sensational (a score of 99) or wretched (a score of 58) are trying to persuade in a manner that recalls what sociologists call the Big Lie syndrome: the telling of a falsity often enough until it is believed. For instance, people who are told over and over again that red wines with strong aromas of oak (smoke, toast, vanilla, mocha, coffee, chocolate, and other euphemisms) are great wines soon begin to think that any wine is great if it has this component. This tends to follow the concept of pedagogy: an “expert” said it is so it must be true. But it also has the counter effect: Once people learn a specific connection, such as the oak analogy, they then also learn to dislike any wine without the fawned-over character.

Another instance where learning can be compromised by prior experience comes when we learn a basic fact about sound wine and then find one that doesn’t fit the “rules.” For instance, most quality table wines are defined as having a low level of volatility and no oxidation or maderization. So what is one’s reaction to a glass of Château-Chalon, the “famed” white wine of the Jura, also called the yellow wine? This wine is made not unlike Fino Sherry or Manzanilla; it is supposed to have both a volatile component and a certain level of oxidation.

I was served one of these wines blind some years ago. Not knowing what it was, I declared it horrid - spoiled. The person serving it said, “Nope, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” After a few moments of thought, I identified the wine: No other “fine” wine could be so strange, I thought. And yet I still hated it!

Here, my learning had gotten in the way of any potential appreciation of the wine on any level. I am sensitive to volatile acidity (VA) and have always associated it with bad wine. It’s difficult for me to divorce my academic ability to detect “flaws” from the rest of the wine experience, and thus hard for me to like a Jura wine. But at this stage of my life, I can still detect VA and other similar “spoilage” compounds for what they are. At the same dinner party, one otherwise wine-savvy person couldn’t detect the VA of that particular wine at all! (He had other reasons for detesting it!)

Does It All Come Down to Genetics?

So we get back to the hard-wired-ness of our abilities to sense elements in wine that have nothing to do with experience or learning. Does it come down solely to how each of us is taste22.jpgconstituted, from a genetic point of view, and in what concentrations can we detect certain common and not-so-common elements in wine?

Some recent stories in the popular press seem to buy into this thesis, concluding that it all comes down to genetics. Alas, this is an inordinately complex thesis that’s still in its scientific infancy. As recently as a decade ago, it would have seemed radical to even propose to do DNA research into wine aroma and taste. In the last few years, though, some sensory evaluation of wine based on DNA has begun.

Now that scientists are learning about how humans and other living things operate based on their genetic structure, we may well be within a few years of coming up with a DNA “picture” or chart of each individual that could be used to pre-select the styles of wine that he or she should prefer, and exclude the styles that won’t be preferred. (We already know that some people cannot stand the idea of dry wine; they prefer wine with some sugar. Is this learned or related to DNA?)

There are at least two elements to this research: smell and taste. Although these topics are linked, the research into one often excludes research into the other. Smell seems to be a bit harder to research, but anecdotal examples abound. For instance, when the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) was in the process of attempting to identify the origin of black pepper aroma in certain red wines, it discovered that between 10 percent and 20 percent of all tasters - including the lead researcher! - could not detect the black pepper smell in red wines. Also, one U.S. Master of Wine has widely acknowledged to colleagues that he cannot detect trichloroanisole-2-4-6 (the famed TCA compound that leaves a wine “corked”) at all. Even so, both of these examples are still anecdotal; neither has been measured in a scientific way.

The Sense of Smell Institute based in New York has created a strategic alliance that includes the Association for Chemoreception Sciences in Minneapolis, the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and UC San Diego. Dr. Charles Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist at Monell, said, “You can quantify aroma. It’s called psychophysical methodology;
There are at least two elements to this research: smell and taste. Although these topics are linked, the research into one often excludes research into the other.
in wine, it’s called organoleptic evaluation.” He said the sensory abilities of tasters as well as instrument analysis both play a role in determining how people smell.

Such research “allows you to generate real numbers that people can agree on, an

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [8]

Morton Leslie ,
Very good piece on a subject most writers oversimplify.
For years as an enologist I put on tastings for a group of winemakers. The wines were tasted double blind within a fairly tight protocol assigning points to various aspects of the wines character. In addition the wines were analyzed with every measurement available in the enology laboratory. The scoring was analyzed statistically and reported in detail.
Not only was I surprised at the wide diversity of scoring among professionals, but what really intrigued me was that any wine that was outstanding (by outstanding I don't necessarily mean good... but standing out) would have a greater deviation in scoring. Also, the deviation would be around a lower mean. We tended to score things we didn't like lower than we scored wines we liked higher. So I would find that the most distinctive wines would almost always have a lower average score than a middle-of-the-road wine that was adequate in everything: moderate in aroma, color, flavor, acidity, and finish. These were also the wines that seemed to prevail at the large fairs and other competitions.
So the question became: do I try to make distinctive wine or do I try to round its edges everywhere so that it fits in, measures up, but doesn't stand out. 35 years later I still don't have the answer because as you have pointed out... there is no simple measure of human preference.

Gabriel , Wine Retailer
Bellingham, WA
What a wonderful article! You answered quite a few questions that I have had for a while about super-tasters and such. I strongly approve of your findings regarding the frivolity of rating systems. Thanks!

Arthur Przebinda , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, So. Cal.
It seems to me that you are using a number of scientific publications to frame or support the argument that: "wine scores/numbers are useless because we vary genetically". The main problem confounding human sensation and perception research is that it is, on one hand difficult to isolate pure variables not affected by other aspects of cognition (like the recent Caltech FMRI study indicated) and, on the other hand, difficult to extrapolate pure findings (data) like density of taste buds and sensitivity to PROP into something meaningful (information) and applicable to wine assessment. That having been said, I accept and welcome sensory research, but the caveat of all research is that the way a question is asked so often dictates the answer. What is done with that answer is another matter.
It would be helpful if you had provided links to or the titles of the articles you allude to. For one, I'd like to know more detail about the "latest bit of evidence regarding wine tasting's connection to a hard-wired status comes from DNA research, and the investigation of the physiology of taste by scientists and amateurs alike". As with the other research you mention, I'd like to know if the focus of the studies was on olfactory receptor variance or on other genetically-determined, behavioral traits - like tendency to respond with enjoyment to one smell versus another and if environmental and lifestyle factors were controlled for.
You say: "Some of the research seems to indicate that our genetic makeup may well be as much a factor of how and what we smell and taste as any learned experience, certainly with regard to specific aromas and tastes. And, in fact, it is patently clear that some among us cannot sense certain elements, and that others have such an acute sense of the same elements that even a trace is overpoweringly noxious."
You are, of course, referring to hyposmia and anosmia. These make up about 1% of the otherwise healthy population. Additionally, and as I have observed, partial and specific anosmoias can be overcome, to an extent, which is demonstrated by this article: Sensory Detection of Glutaraldehyde in Drinking Water—Emergence of Sensitivity and Specific Anosmia. Still, not to be pedantic, but there is a difference between detecting or registering an aroma and finding it unpleasant or noxious. And I think it would have been a good point to make given what I understand to be your contention in this piece.
We enter a very peculiar, philosophical realm when we define anything in terms of the observer. Your Château-Chalon example is perfect for my argument. Is it a high quality wine when judged versus an Albarinio or a fresh CA Chardonnay? Or should it be judged within the parameters of regional style - which is driven by deliberate intent on the part of the producer? And here I agree with (what I think to be) your core argument that numerical rating of quality is very subjective.
Before I go too far afield - as this topic is rich fodder for discussion and debate - I think it's important to remember the pitfalls of taking the existence of sensory variation (which is often misstated and mischaracterized owing to the multitude of variables at play) to certain conclusions. Not the least of these is the fact that environment, previous (especially childhood) experiences and personal lifestyle and hygiene practices (which foods we eat on a daily basis or the use of scented products) do a lot to frame our preferences and impact our sensitivity/acuity.
I do not deny variation in acuity but I argue that it is not so limiting that people can not learn to assess wines for themselves and make their own decisions. Organoleptic evaluation has merit because, despite whatever the genetic variation, humans are able to reliably and reproducibly able to identify aromas, flavors and textures and they can also be trained to do so - else there would be no Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers.
Saying that "we are all genetically different and predestined to have certain preferences" still limits us in acquiring sensory skills.
Let me re-phrase that…
It limits our READERS. Wine writers and critics have as much an obligation to educate, inform and encourage as they do to engage in their tasting and assessment with integrity.
It may be utopian of me to think that if I encourage my readers to learn to make objective sensory assessment of wine and employ a deductive method to determine the value of the wine as a "sipper", a good food pairing or something that may be cellared, they will be better off and I'll forge a better relationship with them than if I just told them that I think a particular wine is good - numbers or no numbers. I guess I have the rest of my life (or at least my wine writing career) to find that out.

Michaela Roden , CEO
St Supery Winery, Rutherford, CA
Fascinating. Finally, the beginnings of some facts. Eagerly awaiting the next installment.

Karen Kuenen , Co-owner
Wilhelmus Estate Winery, Finger Lakes, NY
I found your article stating all the factors that can influence your wine preferences to be extremely interesting. It will be exciting to see what else becomes part of the criteria for judging and categorizing wines in the future.

Rob , Publisher
The Wine Road Less Traveled, Southborough, MA
I have always said that the best wine is the one that tastes best to you – regardless of what others say...

Jean , Old food/wine educator
Nags Head, NC
Mr. Berger:
I read your article with interest. I have wondered my whole life why some people taste so differently than others and have read articles, books, and medical journals on the subject. A few years ago two doctors won the Nobel Peace Prize for their research on smell and taste (done over ten years ago now.) Their more recent and continued research is far more interesting and applicable to your notions. I was surprised you did not delve into some of their very fine research.

Dan Berger , Editor-at-Large
Appellation America, Santa Rosa, CA
Thanks for your note regarding my article on genetics and tasting. You asked why I had not used the materials from the doctors who had done research on smell and taste. The researchers, Richard Axel and Linda Buck, won their award in 2004 for basic research done in 1991. Their continuing work was general and not specific to wine. The work I mentioned in my article from Pickering, Paine, Pretorius and others has been far more recent and was specifically targeted toward wine. The Axel-Buck work is very valuable, of course, but from reviewing some of their material, much of it was awfully technical and I don't think very easy to capsule for general readers of Appellation America.

I'm continuing to look into this most fascinating area of (wine) research.

Dan Berger

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