“Hocus-pocus” – The Taste Makers in the NYer

Over Thanksgiving, I finally read Raffi Khatchadourian’s 10,000 word essay in the Nov 23 issue of the New Yorker. Entitled “The Taste Makers,” Khatchadourian tracks a flavor scientist at a company called Givaudan, which makes such flavorings such as acai, pomegranate or kiwi-strawberry for bottled drinks. The author follows the Givaudan team to various locales where they smell, taste and capture molecular readouts of exotic fruit aromas. The team seriously geeks out over smells. The flavorists had this to say about wine tasting:

During a meeting with several flavor professionals in New Jersey, I compared a flavor chemist’s ability to break down the structure of a soft drink to the skills of Robert Parker, the wine critic. I was quickly corrected. “That’s kind of like hocus-pocus,” one of them said. “Parker may say that a wine has a nutty note or is oaky, but a lot of things can be behind that, and I don’t think he’s matching aspects of the flavor to a chemical compound and going, ‘O.K., this note here, it comes from methyl isobutyrate.’ ” And yet controlled experiments show that, no matter what a person’s professional vocabulary or expertise, aromas remain a blur: the average person, with minimal training, can perceive about three or four distinct components in a given aroma; professional flavorists-without leaning on their chemical knowledge of particular types of food-can do no better.

The article also provided a primer about sensory perception and brain function, noting that unlike sights and sounds, smells bypass the thalamus. So maybe our hard wiring is why we will never be wine-tasting robots, with pesky things like emotions and context getting in the way.

Smells, for the most part, are fed directly from the nose to a “pre-semantic” part of the brain where cognition does not occur, and where emotions are processed. The bypassing of the thalamus may be one reason why smells can be so hard to describe in detail, and also why aromas stimulate such powerful feelings. The smell of rotten meat can trigger sudden revulsion in a way that merely looking at it cannot.

Related: “WSJ: wine-rating system is badly flawed

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2 Responses to ““Hocus-pocus” – The Taste Makers in the NYer”

  1. Everyone who tastes wine, just like every driver, is convinced they’re above average. Any attempt to convince a wine snob they’re finding more than several aromas usually falls on deaf ears. They are also convinced of the absolute precision of their notes.

    I suspect is is possible to get a longer list of aromas tasting over an extended period of time. If you revisit a wine an hour later, you may notice something new or different. But I certainly doubt in the context of tasting a lineup back-to-back as critics often do that a dozen aromas and flavors are evident.

    I know from tasting different bottles of the same wine that I’ll often have widely varying experiences. Whether it’s bottle variation or taster variation, I’m fairly convinced the specificity and number of aromas listed is mostly bunk. They’re better of with ‘structural’ descriptions like fruity, earthy, acidic, red fruit, black fruit, etc.

  2. Tyler,

    Great article.

    It is true that wine aromas are chemically very volatile and complex – some say over 400 different chemical aromatic precursors in wine that are constantly in flux given their interaciton with oxygen. Even if we are only able to detect 3 or 4 or even 12, this helps explain why wine provides unique aromatic experiences given the individual taster and occassion. Indeed, one of the beautiful mysteries of wine.

    Jeff Mausbach
    Wine Education Director
    Bodega Catena Zapata


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