Thresholds and Wine Preferences

Why we don't always like the same wines others do
Mar 27, 2013

You pour a wine you adore for friends. It hits all your buttons and makes your eyes light up. One friend takes a sip, winces, and utters, "Yuck." How does this happen? Chances are a characteristic jumps out at your friend, who hates it but it doesn't bother you. This simple phenomenon explains so much rancor surrounding wine.

My mother-in-law, rest her soul, liked the smell of skunk. She lived for a while in the Hollywood Hills, where many of the aromatic animals roam. As the skunk's mercaptan chemical wafted through the air, we would all wrinkle up our noses while she was breathing it in and smiling.

It's easy to forget that each of us has a different threshold to everything we can taste, and that includes every aspect of wine. Obviously, acidity, volatile acidity (vinegar), sweetness, bitterness and alcohol, the structural components of wine, are part of it. And flavor scientists have proven that some of us can smell certain aromatic chemicals in much smaller concentrations than other humans do.

I know, for example, that I am extremely sensitive to the leather, barnyard or hung-game characters produced by brettanomyces, a yeast that can develop in wines that aren't kept superclean in the winery. Most winemakers classify noticeable levels of brett as spoilage. But some, including some prominent critics, exult over wines that abound in it. I have to think it's because their thresholds for brett are pretty high; it doesn't bother them unless it's there in a very high concentration.

This is worth keeping in mind when we talk about wines we like. We all refract our perceptions through our own unique physical apparatus. We are not identical. Some of us, known as "super tasters," have several times more taste buds than others. I prefer the more accurate term "hyper tasters," because these folks, about one-fourth of the population, simply sense saltiness, sourness, sweetness and bitterness more acutely. This doesn't mean they are better tasters, but their bitter meter might flip to red when they eat kale, for example. If you do too, you might be a hyper taster.

But that's only the part of the iceberg that shows. Each of us owns a unique collection of taste thresholds and they, more than anything else, drive our taste preferences.

When I cofounded the San Francisco Fair wine competition in the early 1980s, I asked a Sonoma County wine lab to devise tests for various thresholds, which I required all the judges to take. The comparative tastings checked for sensitivities to such elements as volatile acidity, oxidation, sulfur dioxide (excess sulfites often inflicted their burnt-match aromatics on flavor profiles in those days) and sweetness.

The idea wasn't to qualify judges, but to be certain that I did not place three people on a panel with high thresholds for the same aspect of wine. I know, for example, that my threshold for sugar isn't particularly sharp. Some folks can sense sugar concentrations as low as 0.3 percent. Average is about 0.5, and I'm closer to 0.6. In determining whether a wine deserved a medal, it would help to know if that pleasant roundness were caused by residual sugar that ought not to be there.

In those days, levels of alcohol, oak and brett were not the touchy issues they are now. There's also a wide range of preferences for acidity in wine. Tart wines that make some people grin with pleasure may taste fine to me but make my wife feel like she's sucking on a lemon. An understanding of our individual thresholds can go a long way toward explaining how we can see those things in wine so differently. And maybe make us a little more tolerant of everyone else's tastes in wine.

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