Read a very interesting article below published by The New Yorker
The fault was not in my stars, nor in myself, but in my fungiform papillae.
September 30, 2017
Illustration by Kati Szi
Iwas in my late forties when I finally admitted to myself that I would never love wine. As other women fake orgasms, I have faked hundreds of satisfied responses to hundreds of glasses—not a difficult feat, since my father schooled my brother and me in the vocabulary of wine from an early age. Confronted with another Bordeaux or Burgundy, I could toss around the terms I had learned at the dinner table (Pétillant! Phylloxera! Jeroboam!), then painstakingly direct the wine straight down the center of my tongue, a route that limited my palate’s exposure to what it perceived as discomfiting intensity.
That admission was a sad one, because my father, the writer Clifton Fadiman, who had died a few years earlier, loved wine more ardently than anything except words. He judged wine contests, supplied introductions to wine catalogues, and co-wrote an entire (eight-pound) book about wine. No other food or drink gave him as much sensory pleasure; no other pursuit made him feel farther from the lower-middle-class neighborhoods of immigrant Brooklyn from which he had worked so hard to escape. Ever since he had offered me watered wine (or, rather, wined water), when I was ten, I’d believed that if I was truly my father’s daughter I would love wine, too.
But at a certain point I realized that, although he had once written that “the palate is as educable as the mind or the body,” my own palate was never going to graduate from elementary school. Not only did it fail to relish Two-Buck Chuck; it was equally incapable of appreciating even the greatest of wines. This home truth was confirmed not long ago when I was invited to a mildly bibulous celebration at a friend’s house. My father would have loved it—first-rate minds, first-rate food, enough Wasps to make him feel he’d crossed the river from Brooklyn, enough Jews to make him feel he was not an outsider looking in. And, of course, excellent wine. To accompany the main course, glazed short ribs sous-vide, my host brought out a Bordeaux. Before he removed the frail cork and decanted the wine, he showed me the bottle. It was an Haut-Brion ’81.
Haut-Brion is generally considered the first wine ever to receive a review—by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who visited London’s Royall Oak Tavern, on April 10, 1663, and, as he noted in his journal, “here drank a sort of French wine, called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” Haut-Brion was drunk by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Locke. When Thomas Jefferson was the American minister to France, he bought six cases of Haut-Brion and sent them back to Monticello. I’d often noticed its label reproduced inside “The Joys of Wine,” my father’s eight-pound book, embellished with an engraving of a château whose towers looked like witches’ hats. Just below the image were the words “Premier Grand Cru Classé”: one of the five finest reds produced in Bordeaux.
My fellow-guests took their first sips. Several broke out into mmmmms and aaahhhs and little susurrations of pleasure. I later looked up tasting notes for this Haut-Brion vintage. Other people had smelled violets, sour cherries, white pepper, blue cheese, autumn leaves, saddle leather, iron filings, hot rocks in a cedar-panelled sauna, and earth. They had tasted pencil shavings, sandalwood, tea leaves, plums, green peppers, goat cheese, licorice, mint, peat, twigs, and toast.
I sniffed the wine. I couldn’t smell any of those things, except earth.
I swallowed a drop. It tasted, or so I imagined, like a muddy truffle that had been dug up moments earlier by a specially trained pig. I could tell I was in the presence of something complicated—intelligent, smoky, subterranean—but I could summon only the fragile ghost of a response. When the next course arrived, half an inch of Haut-Brion was left in my glass.
In the months that followed the dinner, I brooded about that half inch. My father had believed that there was something actually wrong with people who did not love what he loved. He wrote, “When you find a first-rate brain, like Shaw’s, rejecting wine, you have probably also found the key to certain weaknesses flawing that first-rate brain.” What weaknesses were flawing my second-rate brain? Not to mention my second-rate character?
One day, a friend happened to mention that cilantro tastes different to different people. I happen to abominate cilantro. I looked it up and learned that cilantro abomination is at least partly genetic. A surge of fellow-feeling rose in me when I found a Web site called IHateCilantro.com, on which my gustatory brethren described the object of our mutual disaffection as tasting like old soap, dirty laundry, paint thinner, burnt rubber, wet dog, cat piss, doll hair, damp socks, moldy shoes, old coins, feet wrapped in bacon, and “a cigarette if you ate it.”
I had never eaten a cigarette, but I felt sure that if I had I would have recognized the incontestable rightness of the comparison, as I did the others. The toast and sandalwood lurking in a glass of Haut-Brion may have eluded me, but when it came to cilantro I was on firm ground. Old soap—yes! Moldy shoes—totally! Feet wrapped in bacon—amen! These were tasting notes I could get behind.
The seed of a radical new thought had been planted. What if wine was sort of like cilantro? Though I didn’t abominate wine, I certainly didn’t enjoy it. Maybe my father and I were wired differently. Maybe wine was a blind spot not because I was morally, emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically deficient but because I was biologically deficient. That would get me off the hook, wouldn’t it? I’d be like someone who doesn’t enjoy reading not because she’s uncultivated but because she’s dyslexic.
I started thinking about other foods I didn’t like. Capers. Kimchi. Cloves. Pepper. Kale. Coffee was drinkable—in fact, positively delicious—only with milk and sugar. Seltzer required enough discreet mouth-sloshing to subdue the effervescence. And I couldn’t imagine why anyone would eat a radish unless paid. It was more like a bee sting than a vegetable.
What did these foods have in common with the way wine tasted to me (which was to say, sort of sour, sort of bitter, pucker-inducing, not just a taste but a sensation)? They were all too strong. And to whom did foods taste too strong? Supertasters.
I had come across the word when I looked up cilantro. You couldn’t read an article on taste without bumping into it. According to Linda Bartoshuk, the scientist who coined the term, in 1991, supertasters are people for whom salt tastes saltier, sugar tastes sweeter, pickles taste more sour, chard tastes more bitter, and Worcestershire sauce tastes umami-er. (Umami, the so-called fifth taste, is the meaty or savory flavor imparted by glutamate.) Their tongues have more—lots more—fungiform papillae, the little mushroom-shaped bumps that house the taste buds. Supertasters can be identified by either counting their papillae or placing on their tongues a filter-paper disk soaked in 6-n-propylthiouracil, otherwise known as prop. Sensitivity to the chemical varies by gender and ethnicity, among other factors, but everyone falls into one of three groups. To twenty-five per cent of the U.S. population, the non-tasters, the disk tastes like nothing. To fifty per cent, the medium tasters, it tastes bitter. To the remaining twenty-five per cent, the supertasters, it tastes so terrible that one unfortunate consumer said his tongue thrashed around his mouth like a hooked fish convulsing on the deck of a boat.
One might expect that wine connoisseurs—those people who confidently call a Syrah “peppery” or a Pinot Noir-based champagne “biscuity”—would all be supertasters. That isn’t necessarily the case. Extreme taste sensitivity can be a liability. If you experience bitterness, astringency, acidity, and alcohol (which is sensed as heat) more intensely than an ordinary mortal, you may find it hard to enjoy wines that are tannic or tart or have a high alcohol content. You want less. If you’re a non-taster, on the other hand, you want more. You have to clobber your palate in order to feel you’re tasting much of anything, and you’re at greater risk of becoming an alcoholic. The Goldilocks via media is happily occupied by the medium tasters. I couldn’t resurrect my father in order to ply him with prop-impregnated paper, but I’d have bet my unabridged O.E.D. that he was a medium taster and I was a supertaster.
Supertaster: Now there was an identity I could get used to. I was a delicate flower whose hyper-refined sensibilities were assailed by the crude world! I was off the hook, but not because I was dyslexic; my problem was that I read too well! I liked wine less than my father did because my palate was superior! I resolved to confirm my rarefied status without delay.
Not all taste scientists, I later learned, view prop as the alpha and omega of gustatory assessment. Although Bartoshuk found that responses to propcorrelate strongly with papilla density, as well as with many aspects of taste perception, others have since pointed out that it is possible to be insensitive to prop but have receptors that can taste many other bitter compounds; that taste sensitivity depends on the response to a variety of stimuli; and that prop testing ignores the role of smell in taste perception. In any case, I couldn’t find any online, so I sent away for a strip flavored with phenylthiocarbamide, one of prop’s chemical cousins. After it arrived, I read that PTC is poisonous. (One Web site reported that, pound for pound, it is “safer than a poison dart frog, but deadlier than strychnine.”) Although .005 milligrams would probably not have done me in, I retreated to Plan B: counting my fungiform papillae.
It had been delightful to reëncounter the word “papillae.” When my brother Kim and I were in junior high school, we had entered a jingle contest sponsored by Dr Pepper. Our collaborative offering:
Dr Pepper has a zest
Which makes it far the tastiest.
So buy a bottle, make the test!
Your papillae will do the rest.
Kim, who had a larger vocabulary than I did, was responsible for “papillae.” We were astonished and outraged when we didn’t win.
Making the test this time around, according to the papilla-counting guide I found online, meant using a Q-tip to stain my tongue blue with food coloring. Its spongy surface would allegedly absorb the dye while the papillae remained pink and prominent. Once that was done, I was instructed to place a binder-hole reinforcement on the middle of my tongue. My mission was to count the rosy bumps that lay within the reinforcement’s six-millimetre circle: non-tasters had fewer thanfifteen, medium tasters fifteen to thirty-five, and supertasters more than thirty-five. Unfortunately, the mirror fogged up every time I leaned in close, and, even when I wiped a patch clear for a few seconds, my middle-aged eyes could no more distinguish an individual papilla than they could a neutrino. I tried reading glasses, a magnifying glass, and a flashlight. No dice. I tried my husband. He couldn’t see anything, either. Finally, I conscripted my daughter and stuck out my bright-blue tongue.
She counted five papillae.
Five! Oh, my God. Could I be—I could hardly say it to myself—a non-taster? It wasn’t possible. I always did well on tests. Perhaps I had placed the reinforcement in a less than optimal spot on my tongue, a sort of papillary Sahara.
I moved it toward the front. My daughter counted eighteen.
I moved it to the very center of the tip. Twenty-five.
Better. Still, not exactly what I’d had in mind.
Smarting from my demotion, I decided to pay a visit to Virginia Utermohlen, a taste researcher who had taught for many years in Cornell University’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. I was interested in her claim that she has saved marriages by proving that spouses with divergent food preferences are not being fussy or stubborn; they simply live in different perceptual universes. I’d also enjoyed a paper in which she persuasively argued that Marcel Proust could probably taste prop.
When I arrived in Ithaca, I wasn’t sure why Utermohlen had reserved a table at a wine-and-tapas bar. I wanted to talk about wine, not drink it. However, I was delighted that she looked exactly the way a taste researcher should: pink-cheeked and round, as if she’d spent her life eating delicious foods. She immediately affixed her white cloth napkin to a necklace equipped with two alligator clips, a gift from a relative who had noticed that she ate with such enthusiasm that she often spilled her soup. She then ordered us each a flight of five local wines from the Finger Lakes region: a Hermann J. Wiemer Cuvée Brut, a Treleaven Chardonnay, a Charles Fournier Gold Seal Vineyards Riesling, a Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, and a Bellwether Sawmill Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir. I had told her beforehand that wine tasted overly strong to me, and she had told me that it did to her, too. In order to reduce its intensity, she swallowed wine down the center of her tongue, just like me.
Soon, along with several plates of tapas, our table was occupied by a brigade of tiny glasses. I cautiously sipped from each of them. With the exception of the Sauvignon Blanc, they were—well, much better than I expected.
Utermohlen said, “Of course they are.” She explained that at this northern latitude the growing season was shorter, the grapes developed less sugar to ferment, and the lower sugar levels meant less alcohol. The alcohol content of these wines was between eleven and 12.5 per cent, well below the fourteen or fifteen per cent that is now common in California. “You don’t like alcohol,” she said. “This is your wine country.”
The Sauvignon Blanc tasted bitter. “Methoxypyrazine,” she said. “That’s the Cabernet signature. How do you feel about green peppers?” I told her that I preferred red and yellow ones. “Of course you do,” she said. “The green ones have methoxypyrazine, just like this wine.”
The Pinot Noir was my favorite. “Of course it is,” she said. She explained that, compared with the Cabernet, it was lighter in every way: body, flavor, tannin, color. Pinot Noirs tend to be low in pigment because they are made from thin-skinned grapes, but the cool climate and long winters of the Finger Lakes afford the grape skins an especially brief opportunity to develop color, and the resulting wines are pale and delicate. Was it possible that I preferred this anemic-looking red—perilously close to a rosé, which my father had dismissed as sissyish and vulgar—to the Haut-Brion I’d tasted at my friend’s dinner party? I had to admit that it was sort of pleasant.
For a moment, a flicker of hope stirred within my fungiform papillae. Might these unintimidating wines serve as training wheels? Could I eventually graduate to Haut-Brion?
The flicker didn’t last long. “Sort of pleasant” was unbridgeably distant from “bottled poetry” (Robert Louis Stevenson), “constant proof that God loves us” (Benjamin Franklin), and “one of the indices of civilization” (Clifton Fadiman, who makes at least one appearance in every list of wine quotations).
After dinner, Utermohlen—who had grown even pinker, because she has an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency, which causes her to flush when she drinks alcohol—drove me to an ice-cream parlor where she was obviously well known. I had a large dish of mint chocolate chip and bittersweet chocolate. She had a kiddie-sized scoop of pumpkin in a sugar cone. We agreed that the wines had been pretty good but that the ice cream was better. Had my father been present at Purity Ice Cream that evening, he would not have been pleased. He once wrote that watching adults drink ice-cream sodas gave him “the same queasy feeling one gets from watching an adult playing with a rattle in a lunatic asylum.” Utermohlen would have had a good rejoinder. She’d told me at dinner that children avoid bitter and sour flavors because they have far more sensitive palates than adults. Their tastes change not because their palates improve but because they deteriorate.
The next day, Utermohlen photographed my tongue with her iPhone. She wasn’t interested in a six-millimetre circle; she wanted the big picture. “It’s a beautiful tongue,” she said. “It’s exquisite.” She zoomed in on the image and showed me a forest of papillae, including many, tucked into an inch-long fissure, that might not have been visible at home because, as she explained, fissures have a high concentration of papillae but tend to absorb food coloring. “You’ve got a ton of papillae—a ton, a ton, a ton. And look at how many you have on the side! An insane quantity. That’s why you swallow wine down the center. You are highly sensitive.”
My first realization was that I’d been mispronouncing “papillae” for nearly half a century. I’d never heard anyone say it until that moment and had always thought the accent was on the first syllable, not the second. No wonder Kim and I had lost the Dr Pepper jingle contest! My second realization was that Utermohlen had just snatched my tongue from the jaws of mediocrity.
However, she had called me merely “highly sensitive”; she had not used the word “supertaster.” I had an inkling why after I asked if I could see her tongue. Out it came, a very pink, very clean tongue, so extravagantly fissured that it deserved its own topographic map. It was the tongue of an imperial supertaster. My tongue was not in the same league. (She later confided that she can detect prop at a concentration of one part per billion, though she belongs to the camp of taste experts who believe that its importance has been exaggerated. She actually prefers the term “highly sensitive taster,” which encompasses the tasting cosmos beyond prop.)
Utermohlen confirmed her assessment by feeding me a peppermint Life Saver (which tasted stronger to me than it would to most people) and a cup of green tea (which tasted especially bitter). Then, after asking a battery of questions about my flavor preferences (“Do you like your chili hot?” “How are you with Listerine?”) as well as my father’s (“Did he like Parmesan?” “Did he drink his coffee black?”), she drew a chart. It listed some major oral receptors—proteins that allow for the perception of particular tastes and sensations—arrayed along a spectrum from cool (like peppermint) to hot (like chili). All the foods I enjoyed were sensed by the receptors on the left: the cool side (where, as it happens, low-tannin, low-oak wines like the previous night’s Pinot Noir were located). All the ones I didn’t were on the right: the hot side. My father’s favorite foods were concentrated in the center and near right. “Your father had the perfect palate for wine,” Utermohlen said. “The way wine was then. Lower alcohol content, higher residual sugar. The classic Bordeaux. He wouldn’t have liked today’s big reds, over on the right—too much alcohol burn.”
Before I left, Utermohlen told me that the tongue inspection, the Life Saver and tea tests, and the taste quiz had not been strictly necessary. She’d known the previous night what kind of taster I was because I had been interested in only a few things on the tapas menu (I’d shuddered at the thought of the warm baby kale with goat-cheese vinaigrette, pickled onion, and radish) but the ones I’d wanted (particularly the saffron risotto cake stuffed with Fontina) I’d reallywanted. “That’s what we’ve found with the highly sensitive tasters,” she said. “They have loves and hates.” Utermohlen’s own loves include empanadas (“but not with peas”), artichokes (“but not the hearts”), spinach (“Oh, my God”), and coffee mousse (“straight from heaven”). Her hates—“Holy mackerel! Hate, hate, hate!”—include hazelnuts, goat cheese, Brussels sprouts, peaches, and rice pudding. She dislikes going to other people’s houses for dinner because she’s afraid of encountering one of her hates, about which the host or hostess will invariably say, “The way I cook it, you’ll love it.” That, of course, is invariably untrue. Utermohlen left me with the impression that the term “picky eater” was invented by people with fewer papillae in order to diss people with more papillae.
A few weeks later, I spent an afternoon with Larry Marks, a scientist who studies sensory perception at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, at Yale. Marks was a distinguished gray-haired man who looked far too thin to be a taste researcher, and indeed had also published work on synesthesia and ventriloquism. He told me that his three basic food groups are black coffee, dark chocolate, and red wine, starting with Thunderbird at seventeen and working his way up to Côtes du Rhône.
Marks led me to a table on which sixty tiny plastic cups, each containing five cubic centimetres of clear liquid, had been arrayed in precise rows, as if for an unusually well-organized game of beer pong. First came the “gustation test.” The thirty cups on the left contained either plain water or water with very low concentrations—undetectable by some people, unidentifiable by many—of salt, sucrose, citric acid, quinine, or MSG. Following Marks’s instructions, I swirled the contents of each cup in my mouth, spat into a dedicated sink that had received the expectorate of countless tasters before me, rinsed with water, and moved on to the next cup: more or less like a wine tasting, but withoutthe wine. I wrote down whether each sample tasted salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami, or flavorless.
The thirty cups on the right contained either water or a very weak solution of blueberry, strawberry, peach, banana, or vanilla flavoring. They constituted an “olfaction test,” a term that led me to assume, incorrectly, that I’d be sniffing them. Instead, I was instructed to hold my breath, place each liquid in my mouth for a few seconds, and then spit it out. I couldn’t taste a thing until I exhaled, at which point I apparently experienced each flavor as its vapors wafted up my pharynx and into my nose. I dislike—in some cases, hate, hate, hate!—many fruits, and had not eaten a peach or a banana since I was a child, though I had smelled them, with displeasure, when others had eaten them in my presence. I did not expect to recognize these flavors, and when I did I wished I hadn’t.
After I’d completed both tests, Marks extended his hand, as if proffering an after-dinner mint. He was holding an envelope that contained several small white disks of filter paper. prop! I’d finally found it. Even though I knew that the trials I’d just undergone might be a more complete predictor of taste sensitivity, it still vibrated with talismanic power.
I placed a disk on my tongue.
It was the bitterest substance I had tasted in my entire life. And the bitterness lingered, even after I had plucked the offending scrap from my mouth.
Marks handed me a pencil and a sheet of paper with a seven-point scale. The instructions, though only one sentence long, were epic in scope: “Please rate in the context of the full range of sensations that you have experienced in your life.”
All sensations? Well, childbirth was worse. Also, to be fair, my tongue had not thrashed like a hooked fish. I drew a mark partway between the top two levels, “Very Strong” and “Strongest Imaginable.”
A lab assistant brought in the scoring forms from the earlier tests, and Marks summarized my results. In the gustation test, I had been unable to distinguish between the salty and the umami samples, but I had correctly identified four of the five water samples, four of the five sour samples, and all five bitter samples. In other words, I was sensitive to sourness and very sensitive to bitterness. In the olfaction test, I had correctly identified twenty-eight of thirty samples, including all ten samples of the flavors I hadn’t tasted in decades. I was exceptionally sensitive. In the prop test, I was exactly on the border between medium taster and supertaster. So close and yet so far.
Marks had been trained as a cognitive psychologist, and he cautioned me to remember that biology is not the sole determinant of taste preferences. Experience matters, too. For instance, he noted that, if a child grows up in Mexico and starts eating chili peppers as a toddler, she’ll get used to them, and probably even learn to enjoy them, whether or not she was initially sensitive to capsaicin. But he had no doubt that my sensitivity to bitterness was responsible for my dislike of wines with high tannin levels—the more tannins, the more I’d balk.
These propensities were later reconfirmed after I ordered a kit from 23andMe, a genetic-testing company, and spat into a little plastic tube. I was duly informed that I had several variants—none of them particularly rare—in TAS2R38 and TAS2R13, two of the genes that encode for the taste receptors that perceive bitterness. One set of variants intensifies the perception of bitter flavors in general, including prop; the other specifically intensifies the perception of bitterness in alcohol. All the variants were heterozygous, which meant that I had inherited them from only one parent (I feel pretty sure it was my mother, who loved milkshakes) and not from the other (the one who loved wine).
So there it was. I didn’t taste what my father tasted.
One night, as I was looking at a diagram of a tongue on my laptop screen, I thought: My father would have hated all this. Not because he disliked science; he had enjoyed reading biographies of scientists and edited two anthologies of stories and poems about mathematics. But he would have thought that “fungiform” was an ugly word—a word that Wally the Wordworm would never have wanted to swallow. (Wally was a small, bibliophilic invertebrate who ate his way through a dictionary in a children’s book that my father wrote.) In the Clifton Fadiman universe, reducing wine to a series of tests and charts and genetic acronyms would have been like feeding a Keats sonnet into a computer and spitting out an analysis of metrics and phonemes, or grinding up Chartres Cathedral in order to weigh the stone and the glass.
My father wrote that wine contains “an inexplicable élan vital.” Inexplicable. It not only couldn’t be explained, it shouldn’t be. He would not have wanted to know which receptors he had used to taste the 1904 Château Lafite Rothschild he was served at his eightieth-birthday party, just as he would not have wanted to read a chemist’s account of how it had been produced. He liked to think of wine as made partly by human beings but mostly by the glorious lottery of soil and slope and sun and rainfall, no two vineyards alike, no two years alike, no two bottles alike, the whole enterprise risky, suspenseful, and at least partly accidental. “Accidental” is another word for “miraculous.” If the opposite of science is religion, then my father’s feelings about wine were as religious as he ever got. My research confirmed that I was different from him not only in matters of gustation and olfaction but also in matters of character. He liked to leave some things a mystery. I’d rather find everything out.
I’m more open about my wine non-appreciation than I once was, and I have discovered that I am far from alone. Everywhere I go these days, I seem to run into people who belong to the club. Its members include two former students of mine, one who says that half a glass leaves her zonked and red-faced (I suspect an acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency), and another who invests in wine futures but has never sampled his stock because he says wine makes his mouth hurt (possible supertaster). A former boyfriend recently told me that his late father, who could have afforded Haut-Brion, opted for half-gallon bottles of S. S. Pierce Sauternes, into which he stirred half a cup of sugar (genetic variant for sweet preference).
And, of course, there’s my brother Kim, the co-lyricist of the Dr Pepper jingle. After I received the results of my 23andMe test, I called to tell him about TAS2R38 and TAS2R13. I thought that he might want to send off a saliva sample himself, but he didn’t. Like our father, he finds data reductive. Also, he’d already told me why he thought neither of us liked wine. I asked him years ago. He said, “Because we didn’t need to escape our origins.”
This is an excerpt from “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” to be published in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
- Anne Fadiman is the author of four books, including “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” a memoir about her father. She has been the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale since 2005.