May 15, 1995
This Bud's For Them: Women Are Better Tasters
By Matt Kramer
Are women better wine tasters than men? My own experience in teaching wine classes leads me to reply: "Emphatically, yes." Since Mother's Day is soon to arrive, this is a good moment to note the superior ability of women as wine tasters. I cannot say that mothers, as a group, show any particular gift at wine tasting. But women as a group certainly do. I know this from 20 years of teaching wine.
But for those who prefer not to rely upon wine writers--an admirable instinct--science is marshaling evidence of women's superior tasting abilities. For example, the Clinical Smell and Taste Research Center of the University of Pennsylvania conducted a smell identification experiment involving 1,955 people ranging in age from 5 to 99. Among other things, the study revealed that women outperformed men as more acute in all age groups.
What's more, it has been discovered that not all of us are born with equal tasting abilities--at least as far as taste buds take us. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, asserts that people can be divided into three groups: nontasters, regular tasters and supertasters.
Supertasters, she says, have more taste buds than others--as much as 100 times as many taste buds per square centimeter compared to a nontaster. It is strictly an inherited advantage. Roughly one-quarter of the population are supertasters. Another one-quarter are nontasters and the remaining half of the population are regular sorts. Bartoshuk reports that women generally have more taste buds than men. Then comes the clincher: Two-thirds of all the supertasters are women.
But everybody knows that wine tasting involves more than just taste buds, in the same way that music appreciation is more than just having a pair of what audio sorts call "golden ears."
I submit that what makes women better wine tasters than men is an early (and lifelong) training in matters of nuance. After all, fine wine is really just a collection of nuances. Many men have a hard time even grasping the notion of nuance, let along finding it in a glass of wine.
Take clothes, for example. The most profound aesthetic decision a man makes in the course of a day is choosing the tie to go with his shirt. And most men, once having decided upon a particular tie with a particular shirt, subsequently never vary from what quickly becomes a routine decision. Women, on the other hand, engage in a mind-boggling array of aesthetic decisions about look, fit, feel and smell just simply to get dressed and out of the house each morning. It's a daily training exercise in nuance.
Men tend to keep things simple to the point of mental oblivion. As a (male) fashion writer pointed out not long ago, boys learn from their fathers one way to knot a tie and one way to part their hair. They subsequently never learn a different tie knot and continue to part their hair the same way for the rest of their lives, never mind whether there's any hair left. Can you expect such creatures to naturally become astute wine tasters?
My ideal wine-tasting class would consist of female lawyers. Why? Because as women they are already advantaged and, as lawyers, they are trained to think analytically and also to express themselves with some precision. My nightmare class, in comparison, would be nothing but male engineers. They seem almost incapable of accepting something that cannot be pinned down to the satisfaction and verification of all observers. Nuance drives them nuts.
Actually, I do know an impressive number of men who are good wine tasters (and dressers). But I've met only a few who haven't had to work surprisingly hard at it. Granted, everyone--male or female--has to apply himself or herself to become knowledgeable about wine. Like basketball, sewing or auto repair, it takes exposure, opportunity, practice and keen interest. But men appear to have a tougher time grasping the nuances of fine wine than do women, at least at first. Eventually, the two groups become equal in ability. But the early advantage belongs to women.
Matt Kramer is the author of the "Making Sense" series of wine books.
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