As an aspiring wine snob, I like to try new wines regularly, sipping and swishing and savoring the novel flavors, characteristics, and textures that might be found therein. When I do this with my spouse, I sometimes ask, “What do you think of the wine?” More often than not, his response is something like, “It tastes like wine.” Our tastes vary across other gustatory dimensions as well—for example, I find whiskey too overpowering and he thinks raw onions belong in places I do not. So what, other than simple preference, might explain this difference in perception about wine?
Physiological And Psychological Factors
A decade ago, Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, published a book titled Why You Like The Wines You Like wherein he sought to uncover the subtle—though also sometimes obvious—physiological and psychological reasons people have differing opinions on wine. Hanni and Linda Bartoshuk, a psychologist and food science scholar, developed the “vinotype” assessment that explores people’s individual preferences for, and tolerance of, various external stimuli and relates those generalized preferences (or “tolerances”) back to wine.
Hanni and Bartoshuk’s assessment is both interesting intellectually for those who have had to reflect on taste differences among various individuals or groups, and relevant for those who want to learn more about some of the particular mechanisms that might lead someone to be “better” or “worse”—in terms of actual perception, no value judgment intended—at tasting or appreciating wine.
My spouse and I took the vinotype mini-quiz from the book (versus the more detailed version available online), and, unsurprisingly, I was rated as a “hypersensitive” taster, while my spouse’s score suggested he was in the much less perceptive (or “sensitive”) category titled “tolerant.” So much for getting more insight into these “stretch wines” while tasting with him!
Implications of Taste
The challenges I face with my built-in tasting partner aside, if wine may taste different for different people, what are the implications for wine educators or sommeliers and, more importantly, consumers? This discrepancy in experience between my spouse and I was also compelling to him, and, as he is a philosophy professor, he sought to think about it a bit more. He took a stab at the topic by surveying the existing philosophical literature in the realm of taste and ultimately produced an exposition on the “interpersonal variability of gustatory sensation,” which is a fancy way of saying people can, and do, have differing subjective experiences of taste sensation.
In his paper, Vaughn Baltzly concluded that even though most people have heard of “supertasters and cilantro haters,” the implications for those interpersonal variations remain underappreciated in an aesthetic sense. Consider, for example, whether we could adequately appreciate how differently people perceive visual art if we did not understand that people had differing sight experiences such as being near-sighted or color-blind. Baltzly’s analysis suggests that we must rethink how we think of cultural taste if we truly believe there are variations among gustatory taste experiences—which is already a forgone conclusion if you ask folks like Hanni and Bartoshuk.
Beyond those who have explored interpersonal differences in brute gustatory capabilities, there’s also books and articles dedicated to exploring the social and cultural significance of wine consumption. Some of these texts are aimed at the consumer directly; see, for example, Shea Sanderson’s From Cabernet to Zinfandel: Flavors, Pairings, and Personalities of the World’s Most Popular Wines or Jon Bonné’s The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know. Books like these seek to decipher the “expert” world of wine knowledge and bridge the gap between the connoisseur and the everyday consumer, all with the expressed goal of helping consumers find what they like.
In addition to such consumer-focused tomes, there are numerous other articles and books written by topical specialists who endeavor to uncover the intellectual, cultural, and environmental significance of wine (and/or other ferments). See, for example, my own musings on the implications, large and small, of Fermented Landscapes or Erika Szymanski’s recent monograph on the linkages From Terrain to Brain. Through such socio-cultural or socio-environmental examinations of fermentation, it is clear that when, how, and with whom you drink makes a tremendous difference in terms of your personal perception of and potential preference for a given wine.
So, in short: Why do you like the wines you like? A person’s personal preferences on the world’s oldest fermented beverage is determined by a number of factors across personal physiology and social context. In other words, your physical characteristics, cultural background (including your hobbies or occupation), as well as the differing environment(s) you may find yourself drinking in can all shape your personal sense of taste.
- Bonné (2017): The New Wine Rules: A Genuinely Helpful Guide to Everything You Need to Know
- Hanni (2013): Why You Like The Wines You Like
- Myles (2020): Fermented Landscapes
- Sanderson (2020): From Cabernet to Zinfandel: Flavors, Pairings, and Personalities of the World’s Most Popular Wines
- Szymanski (2023): From Terrain to Brain