January 21, 2008
A Palette for the Palate

IMGP2565_edited.jpgFriday, I got a glimpse of the future, or what I'm starting to hope will be the future. It's blue, for one. More significantly, it puts the emphasis on the person rather than the product in wine appreciation.

We were at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa. A handful of prospective judges for the inaugural Lodi International Wine Competition in March had gathered for the first step toward having their palates calibrated to determine where they might land on a spectrum of sensitivity. The experiment is too involved and too tentative to explain in detail here, but if Tim Hanni's vision of how people taste continues on track, the entire world of wine judging, rating and communication will be shaken and quite possibly radically revised.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, Friday's participants had their tongues painted blue. It was just food coloring, meant to help distinguish tastebuds from the rest of the flesh and stuff that forms our tongues. This was important because our tongues then were photographed to help Hanni and his fellow researchers gauge how many tastebuds we each have. The total will help determine whether we can be categorized as a tolerant, sensitive or hyper-sensitive taster. Despite the unfortunate choice of nomenclature, no one classification is superior to another, but is meant to help determine whether we might be more astute at evaluating one broad field of wine than another. (One of the participants, Lily Peterson, a Copia wine educator, is shown here having her painted tongue photographed by Hanni.)

A word about Hanni: He's a longtime veteran of the California wine scene, one of the nation's first two Masters of Wine, recognized for his incisive palate, his development of the "progressive" wine list used by several restaurants, his development of the condiment Vignon to add to foods to make them more compatible with wine, and his intense research into why people react to wines as they do. (A profile of Hanni, in fact, appeared in this weekend's Wall Street Journal.)

At any rate, Friday's exercise included a few other procedures, such as smelling, tasting and ranking a flight of wines, and an introduction to the "budometer," an online tool to help people define their taste preferences. The "budometer" analyzes the respones to predict the kinds of wines the participant is apt to like. The questions ask about how much salt you like, how you would describe the perfect cup of coffee or tea, the style of beer you favor, and so forth.

My results summed up quite neatly the kinds of wines I see myself preferring, but the list of specific wines recommened by the "budometer" didn't include many with which I'm familiar, and most were outdated, not likely still to be found in stores. There were no pinot noirs, zinfandels or rieslings recommended for me, customarily my favorite varietals, but the tool is just being launched, and its database is to be gradually expanded. The results of the Lodi judging, in fact, will be the first major import of data from a competition. In the meantime, anyone can go to the "budometer" Web site to answer the questions, have their taste preferences analyzed, and be pointed to the kinds of wines likely to please them.

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