THE VARIABILITY OF TASTE

Last night, I went to D. R. Struck Landscape Nursery again, this time for “A Ladies Night Out.” Nowadays, it seems, I am almost always ready for a night out, especially one that features wine tasting and samples of various dips and sauces. The event was held in Struck’s large retail store, and there were goodies galore as well as a woman giving massages and another woman playing the keyboard and singing.  

The wine tasting was set up on a counter at the back of the store, and The Lighthouse Wine and Seafood Market, just down the road in Manchester, supplied the wine. One of the owners, Bridget Palmer, was there to pour and give advice, and she was aided by Corinna Rodrigue. There were six wines to taste—three whites, one red, and two dessert wines. 

Allow me a slight digression. I am currently reading a book called Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, which my friend Roger Carpentter encouraged me to read, and he even let me borrow his copy. The book is about how various nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, using creativity and intuition, have arrived at various truths about the brain, which have later been verified by scientists. As luck would have it, the wine tasting at Struck’s coincided with the chapter I was reading about Auguste Escoffier, the great French chef who wrote Guide Culinaire and discovered that we have a fifth taste, which has become known as umami. I’ll save the subject of umami for another posting because what is relevant to this piece are Lehrer’s observations about taste in general, especially when it comes to wine. It seems that with humans, there is great variability with taste and smell. What tastes good to one person does not necessarily taste as good to another person. Lehrer writes, “Science has long known that our sensitivity to certain smells and tastes varies as much as 1,000 percent between individuals. On a cellular level, this is because the human olfactory cortex, the part of the brain that interprets information from the tongue and nose, is extremely plastic, free to arrange itself around the content of our individual experiences. Long after our other senses have settled down, our sense of taste and smell remain in total neural flux.” 

The wine tasting gave firm proof of the variability of taste. Judy, a neighbor of mine, was also there, and we sampled wines together. Now, there were only three whites to choose from, but we each preferred a different one. She went with Gazela Vinho Verde, a wine that was sweet to her but slightly bitter to me. My choice was Austrian Pepper, which I thought had a smooth, fresh taste and none of the astringency of the Gazelo Vinho Verde. Judy’s response? It wasn’t sweet enough. 

More inconsistencies. As a rule, I am not very fond of sweet wines, but I have a weakness for dessert wines. Go figure. And while one of the dessert wines (B. Nektar Pyment) at the tasting remind me of cough syrup, I went gaga over Chocovine—yes, a chocolate wine. From Holland. It was so smooth, so good. A little like Bailey’s Irish Cream, and if someone offered me a glass right now, I wouldn’t refuse. 

Being weak when it comes to food and wine, I ordered a bottle of the Austrian Pepper and, of course, one of the Chocovine. After all, the holidays are coming, and ’tis the season of good cheer. 

Two more observations. First, my daughter Shannon came to the wine tasting, and her taste exactly matched mine. According to Jonah Lehrer, this is no surprise, as what we have grown up eating and drinking influences what we like. But those who like Ring Dings and Gallo wine can take heart. Taste is not fixed, and if we change what we eat and drink, our appreciation of what is good will also change. And second, the white wine that most of the women liked was neither the Gazela nor the Austrian Pepper. Instead, it was Working Girl White, a wine with an admittedly snappy name but for me, at least, with a taste that was too bitter. Obviously, other women didn’t agree. But I wonder, could the name have also influenced the choice? Lehrer states that labels do indeed matter, even with wine experts who should know better, and he cites an experiment where identical wine was served in two different glasses. Wine experts were told one glass was an expensive wine, and the other was a cheaper one. Guess which wine was chosen as the best wine? Hint: It wasn’t the so-called cheap wine.

All in all, last night’s wine tasting was as illuminating as it was fun, and best of all, I have two bottles of wine to look forward to drinking. With some help, of course.  There is a limit to how much good cheer I want at one time.

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