Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture: Wine-Tasting Edition

Photo by Kevin Buehler, ksbuehler on flickr
A recent study from Penn State has re-opened the nature versus nurture debate, this time as it applies to the tasting of fine wines. The study discusses so-called supertasters, who not only respond more acutely to taste compounds in wines, but are better able to distinguish between different flavors, than the average Joe Boxedwine. This has led to a lot of breathless chatter that some people are just born to be oenophiles. But the Washington Post disagrees.

If, as a wine writer, I’m an ‘expert,’ it’s because I’ve taken the time and made the effort to taste more wines than most people have. Taste enough cabernet sauvignon, and you’ll learn to tell it from merlot — if you pay attention. And I suspect that anyone who does that might become more sensitive to bitterness.
The key words are “if you pay attention.” People often tell me, “I had a great wine the other night!” When I ask what wine, they hem and haw and say, “Umm, it had a green label.” I can’t help those people. Even if someone wants to spend only $5 to $10 on a bottle, paying attention helps distinguish the plonk from the gems — and yes, there are gems in that price range. 
By paying attention as I became increasingly obsessed with wine, I not only began to distinguish wines I liked from those I didn’t, but I could explain why. By paying attention to the flavors in wine, I began not only to appreciate their subtle nuances (which, in turn, drove my price tolerance level skyward), but also to notice flavors and aromas in nature around me. Jasmine flowers? Viognier. Wet stones after a spring rain? Chablis. A barnyard pile of manure? Well, any number of faulty wines.
I generally agree. I'm always suspicious of arguments that try to throw us entirely on one side of the nature or nurture debate. Things are usually more complicated than that. Certainly with wine tasting, I've found that as I've learned to pay more attention to the wine, my skills have improved. Even just trying to guess the flavors you're tasting, before your palate has really developed, can help you taste those flavors better. And of course, one of the keys is trying more wine, something I'm more than happy to do.

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