Is it…a Woman (and man) Thing?

Louisa Hufstader, writing for the Napa Valley Register, gets the prize for Best Line of the Week:

"Men are from Parker, women are from Robinson?"

Hufstader is writing in the context of a story on women in the wine business, which was the topic as a recent event at Copia. In the course of writing her story on this topic, Hufstader brings us around to a salient point made by Elizabeth Thach, Ph.D., a professor of wine business and management at Sonoma State University and Keynote Speaker at the event:

"Genetic differences between the sexes include extra taste buds for most
females, Thach told the group — and that could explain why reviews by
the wine world’s two top critics are often at odds with each other."

The point is that because women have more taste buds, they in turn have more discriminating palates. I’ve seen this claim before and I don’t doubt it for a second. What I’m not sure of is if the extra taste buds allow women to taste more of what’s in the wine of if they just experience an amplified version of what men taste.

From a marketers perspective I rather hope it’s the latter. It just makes things simpler. But as a fan of discriminating palates, I’d rather it be the former, thereby allowing women critics to offer up a fuller description of a wine.

But even in determining this difference, it doesn’t get me exactly where I wean to to be when it comes to reviews of wines, be they from men or women. The state of my taste buds has me much more interested in a wine’s texture than in its flavors. Frankly, the flavor of a wine is much less important to me than either its texture or it aroma.

I wonder if women FEEL the wine more fully than men do? And I don’t mean in an emotional kind of way.

However, on that point, I’ll never forget Milla Handley, the great winemaker at Handley Cellars, explaining passionately to me why women are better winemakers. It comes down to their innate ability to nurture…an ability that men seem to have in far less degree according to Milla. In my experience this is a truism.

Milla argues that great wine is made great through a nurturing approach to its production, just like children must be nurtured as well as guided as they develop and mature into adults. This analogy appeals to me in a number of ways.

But if we must compare the abilities and talents and tendencies of men and women and wine, then I propose we really do it right. I propose a WineOff between Men and Women Winemakers. Five women winemakers and five men winemakers. Each get a ton of grapes from the same vineyard and vintage. Each makes a wine from it. Then the same winemakers taste the wines and rank them.

Good lord, this would keep us writing, blogging and debating for days if not weeks.

14 Responses

  1. Dale Cruse - December 1, 2007

    Though it’s possible for some people to have more taste buds and therefore more taste receptors, it doesn’t necessarily mean those people are able to articulate the extra sensation they’re receiving.
    What plays a bigger part, to me, is how men and women often describe the same thing in different ways. Men are generally more into trivia – the vintage, the particulars of the terroir, scores, cases produced, etc. Women, on the other hand, often describe how a wine makes them feel.
    Who’s right? Both. “As in most things, the truth lies somewhere in between.”
    Alpana Singh’s terrific book “Alpana Pours” deals with this exact subject. I recommend it.

  2. Wine Scamp - December 1, 2007

    Seriously? “Women… describe how a wine makes them feel”? I’m trying to imagine this, really, but I just can’t. How would a wine make you “feel”? Happy? Cheated? Intimidated? Cold? Stimulated? Bored? Hysterical? And do we see a lot of women standing around the tasting table, saying, “Oh, I love this 96 Barolo. It makes me feel… beautiful.”
    This whole debate about gender differences in wine tasting really brings out the old “men think with their brains, women with their hearts” stereotype, and I find it very frustrating! There are many women interested in what percent malo or whether said vineyard is schist, including myself. I also know many men who don’t care what the vintage or varietal composition of a wine is as long as it simply tastes good.
    I agree with you, Tom, that if we are to discuss gender differences then we should do it with some objective evidence as our foundation, and try to leave our culturally influenced preconceived notions at home that day.

  3. RichardA - December 1, 2007

    I actually blogged about the taste bud issue very recently. It seems that the belief women have more taste buds stems from research done by Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of otolaryngology and psychology at the Yale School of Medicine, who coined the term “super taster.”
    She found that for American Caucasians, about 35% of women and only 15% of men are supertasters. But she also found that of those who are not super tasters, women tend to be nontasters (which much less taste buds than normal) while men tend to be tasters (with an average amount of taste buds.)
    The number of taste buds also varies by ethnicity. For examples, Asians seem to have a higher proportion of supertasters. Age also affects matters as older people have less taste buds.
    Thus, not all women have more taste buds than men. In fact, there are a fair share of women, the nontasters, who have less taste buds than men. Though on average, it can be said women have more taste buds on men.

  4. Terry Hughes - December 1, 2007

    There is no genetic male-female thing going on here. This sort of argument always reeks of bullshit new-ageism to me. It’s modern mythology in the service of some ideology. Light the friggin’ incense.
    There is a huge cultural divide, and so it is convenient to forget the likes of Michael Broadbent and Hugh Johnson — males, breeders — when it comes to the discussion of how one tastes and evaluates wine.
    My observation of people who slavishly follow points-mongers is that they are relatively new to wine, don’t have a deep understanding of wine or wine culture, and like the assurance of the wine equivalent of a Consumers Report rating. That’s OK, whatever works for you. But it’s hardly the basis for a comprehensive wine world view.
    If you counter with, “Well, Steve Tanzer and Bob Parker and James Suckling all do points and they know more than you,” I’ll reply: “It’s their business to stoke the furnace of points. That’s how they keep their influence and make their $$$$. So what?”

  5. Tom Wark - December 1, 2007

    Terry gets the award for best Saturday comment:
    “Light the friggin’ incense”

  6. Terry Hughes - December 1, 2007

    You know, Tom, it is my goal to be the first wine comedian. With a Comedy Central show.

  7. Jill - December 1, 2007

    I was going to post a witty and insightful comment, but since Terry already won the “best Saturday comment” award, I now have little to no motivation…

  8. Terry Hughes - December 1, 2007

    Jill, Jill, what would Oprah say if she heard that negative self-talk?
    Go for it!

  9. el jefe - December 1, 2007

    Between Tish and Terry hitting the comedy circuit, we’re all doomed… but a spot-on comment for sure!

  10. JohnLopresti - December 1, 2007

    Anybody know of organoleptic analysis of tannins in AJEV publications ($) differentiating between genders. I think there is sexism involved in the allure of the wine business. However, as a rare taster of wines, I continue to prefer the stomach grabbing and longlasting effects of reds that have enjoyed substantial skin time; yet, I avoid the hype about the merits of various macerated fermentations involving stems, which have many far more astringent and even off flavors and longlasting aftereffects than mere skins; there are lots of studies on seed compounds similarly, though I remain ambivalent about the benefits, perhaps some chardonnays, and other ultrapremium whites benefit from the medium astringency seeds impart. If I am going to drink a wine, make it a red. But an imbibing male red and imbibing lady white drinker arrive at similar physiologic condition, according to my hypothesis. I associate much of the disparity with tannins. Then there is the topic of tartrates, which I find mismanaged by equal proportions of red and white winemakers, respectively.

  11. gusano - December 1, 2007

    Will the one on the right be in the competition?

  12. Arthur - December 3, 2007

    This male-female distinction and the argument extrapolated from it would have a shred of merit if taste buds detected something more than sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
    Wine aroma is evaluated with the olfactory epithelium.
    Supertaster is a super myth. The key to successful wine assessment is experience and being a keen observer – not having lupine olfactory abilities.
    As far as neurobiology goes, women have a greater volume of their brains taken up by the thalamus than men do. This structure is integral to the limbic system involved in memory and emotions. It is (evolutionarily) an older part of the brain. Olfactory and gustatory sense are also more primal/primitive (paleocortical rather than neocortical) and have stronger connections to the limbic system. These two things considered, it makes sense that women will make a stronger connection between aroma/taste and emotions.
    No incense in the tasing room !!!! 😉 (no crystals or yoga either!)

  13. sao anash - December 4, 2007

    Wine transcends gender preferences. It’s a beverage for the people. Period. End.

  14. JohnLopresti - December 6, 2007

    Nice to see the neurobiology viewpoint in the comment above. My concept was the tasting criteria only extend as far as standard organoleptic analysis, which for many difficult and obvious reasons can go only as far as what colorfully is called the palate; however, there are more corporeal effects that are omitted. Among those impacts certainly are the corticocerebral considerations somewhat discussed above. How about gait and station, as the medics prefer to illustrate it. How about dermatomal distribution, as the photo might suggest, and sensorineural response parameters. These broadly characterized effects are addressed in the scientific literature, but judges cannot talk about them in awarding points, even though surely those expert tasters recognize what is beyond the scores is a world of body effects banned from ranking systems. Plus, my original comment addresses gender variant metabolic responses to tannin compounds, which, in turn, are functions of aging, among many factors, and directly correlative to whether the wine is a white or a red, as they diverge considerably in tannins; one might discuss, similarly, the known gender difference in reaction to sulfites, a common mechanism which is standard fare in the endocrinologic and allergy literature.
    Tom probes an interesting topic from a new perspective again.

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