Making Senses

Do women taste better than men?

No, life isn't like the movies, but if you operate under that delusion—and if you saw Sideways—you might think that women understand wine by making touchy-feely analogies, while men pontificate and prattle like insufferable blowhards. Sideways director Alexander Payne seems to be saying that for women, wine is a way of making sense out of the world, but for men, wine is a way of making themselves seem smart. On the other hand, here in the real world—or at least in tasting rooms and at wine dinners—you often hear that women have superior palates. "They" say that our taste buds and sensory perceptors are sharper; "they" say it's a fact. These days, however, you can find or create scientific data to back up almost every arcane idea under the sun, so empirical evidence suggesting that "they" are correct doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. If women have such sharp palates, why do so many of them fall for books like Leslie Sbrocco's Wine for Women, which equates different wines with pieces of your wardrobe (pinot gris is like your favorite pair of jeans, etc.)? And why do wine companies successfully market wine to women by putting cute, cuddly koalas on the label? Quoted in Tim Patterson's 2003 article for Wines & Vines, "Taste Bud Tales," Ann Noble, professor emerita of enology at U.C. Davis, says that focus and motivation—and most importantly, experience—determine how sharp one's palate is, regardless of gender. For Chinook Winery's Kay Simon, who directed me to Noble's comment, tasters are the best tasters. That is, those who cultivate their senses are highly sensitive. Chefs, therefore, make fantastic tasters, but then again, Simon mentions one prominent Seattle chef who routinely defers to his wife before making any final decisions for his wine-pairing dinners. Perhaps the chef's wife is a supertaster. Patterson's article also refers to Yale Medical School researcher Linda Bartoshuk's research on bitterness perception. Bartoshuk found that the world is divided into nontasters (25 percent of the population), tasters (50 percent), and supertasters (25 percent)—and guess what? Women are overrepresented within that last quarter of the population. But so much of experiencing wine is not just about taste but about smell. Pamela Dalton of Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, also quoted in Wines & Vines, found that women of childbearing age are "particularly adept at learning to notice low-threshold odors." The key there is "learning to." Bergevin Lane Vineyards winemaker Virginie Bourgue, who left the old world (France) to make wine in Walla Walla (and whose stunning, small production rosé you had best be on the lookout for around May) told me that she recalls growing up on her family farm, smelling the flowers and fruit trees and making jam and jelly. These kitchen and garden experiences, typically had by little girls while their brothers are blowing up Matchbox cars and launching rockets, give us what Bourgue calls "drawers in our brain." The drawers store memories of scents and aromas, and they come back to us years later as we're sipping viognier. But it must be that those boys, now all grown up, have equally sufficient memory drawers of burned matches, leather, and oil. As Patterson points out in "Taste Bud Tales," the folks controlling the wine scores in the glossy wine magazines (and therefore, by and large, controlling what consumers buy) are, for the most part, men way over the age of the average childbearer. Chinook's Simon and husband/partner Clay Mackey refrain from entering their excellent wine in competitions where arbitrary numbers are used to denote a wine's virtue. "Taste is personal and consumers should make decisions in great confidence that they know what they like," Simon told me. While I might like to say that women can do anything men can do better, the truth is that if your palate is finding you wines you love, then you have an excellent palate. Taste the wines of Washington's female winemakers at the Women in Wine dinner Wed., March 9, at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Five courses, seven winemakers, eight wines. $125 (exclusive of tax and tip but including valet parking). Reception with the winemakers at 6:30 p.m.; dinner at 7:15 p.m. Reservations 206-621-1700, ext. 3169. Full menu and further information: www.threeriverswinery.com/events/default.asp?event=62

 
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