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Thresholds and Wine Preferences

Why we don't always like the same wines others do
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 27, 2013 10:08am ET

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.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 27, 2013 8:21pm ET
The link to this article from the homepage states "Harvey Steiman says genetic predispositions play an important role in our wine preferences", but in fact, in the article itself, you don't. Nowhere here does any scientist quoted as stating it; no studies describing a link. I don't think anyone doubts what you DID say ("everyone's different") but where did the "genetic" reference come from?

More saliently, I can't help but wonder whether "everyone's different" isn't the biggest source of the debate over what constitutes "balance". But I'm not sure it's entirely genetic, either. Maybe nurture (where we're raised, what foods we eat, our metabolisms, etc.) has an equal part to play, along with nature?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 27, 2013 9:31pm ET
Don, although I didn't use the word genetic, these thresholds are determined by our genes. We are born with them. Preferences are learned but our physical sensitivities are determined at birth. We just have to learn to live with them.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 27, 2013 10:12pm ET
I have to challenge your assertions, Harvey, if only on the grounds that you give no scientific evidence. Asserting causation does not make it so. Offer some evidence that "nurture" plays no part (or a minor one) and you might have a case to make. But I believe you're guilty of a great big assumption.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 28, 2013 12:09am ET
Challenge away, Don. Nurture may play a role in how we interpret the input we get from our taste buds and smell receptors, but our bodies define the thresholds that we can sense. Any flavor scientists out there who can help clarify?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 28, 2013 1:27pm ET
And, for a lay interpretation of the science, this quote from Barb Stuckey's book, Taste: "Our genes determine how intensely we smell things in the same way that they make some of us HyperTasters and some Tolerant Tasters."
Michael Wesson
College Station, TX —  March 30, 2013 10:44am ET
It doesn't take much Googling to pull up all kinds of information on this. It is a pretty well known fact. I think the term "supertaster" though was a poorly chosen one. I think your "hyper taster" is probably a better take.

People tend to get resentful when they are told about this and aren't "supertasters" because they feel they are missing out on something. Truth is, many supertasters would give anything to not be such - it is more of a burden than a gift. If we called it "overly sensitive taster" people would be more comfortable with it.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  March 30, 2013 12:32pm ET
Right you are, Michael. Being a SuperTaster is rather like having perfect pitch. Makes it hard to enjoy any music that isn't tuned exactly.

I have been tested, and I am neither a HyperTaster nor a Tolerant Taster. I am more or less in the middle. Besides, the chemical test for those distinctions is for sensitivity to bitterness. It's assumed that sweetness, acidity, saltiness and umami follow. But it doesn't necessarily carry over to the aromatic aspects of tasting, which have nothing to do with taste buds.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 8, 2013 6:47pm ET
Stuckey's quote doesn't mention, and therefore also does not rule out "nurture" in developing tastes (i.e. likes/dislikes). Just because a taster might sense one flavor very prominently doesn't mean they don't like it. I'm not arguing genetics don't play a role (because I "believe" they do), but it's an assumption to say that anything that is strongly sensed is disliked or unpleasant!

Your article starts with a "yuck" example (a dislike). But what we like or dislike isn't necessarily determined by what we sense strongly, so the whole discussion of supertaster is irrelevant, I think. Furthermore, as a minority among tasters, I wouldn't see how their reviews could speak to the public effectively, a point on which we apparently agree.

My "nurture" point might be illustrated by pointing out that after drinking a lot of good German and Austrian whites, I no longer enjoy domestic brands of Riesling that I used to. They'll crop up on tasting tables, and I'll grimace almost every time. In fact, I now routinely avoid them cuz I detect what I perceive as a flaw very readily. But I used to think they were pretty likeable. Now tell me nurture doesn't play a part, too.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 8, 2013 7:13pm ET
Dan, certainly nurture contributes to our preferences. Hops make beer bitter but many of us learn to accommodate to the bitterness. On the other hand, those who are very sensitive to bitterness can never like the sort of hoppy ales that make beer connoisseurs sigh.

Our individual threshold levels can explain why one of us can love a wine while the next says "yuck," because we all live in our own sensory worlds.

Perhaps another story about skunk can explain it better. Ann Noble, the UC Davis professor who helped created the aroma wheel, tells a story about opening her backpack one day only to have her friend sniff the air and muse, "skunk?" There was a bag of freshly ground coffee in her backpack. Her friend, it turns out, had a very low threshold for the subtle level of mercaptan in coffee's aromatics. That smell jumped out at her, overwhelming all the other other complex elements she (and most of us) love about freshly roasted coffee.

If you had a particularly low threshold for acidity, you might find a tart Austrian Riesling unbearably sour, while other are excited by the zing. Or, someone with a high threshold for mercaptans could ignore a real skunk in the room and enjoy a delicate Riesling (or perhaps a wine that reeked of brett to me).

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