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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
Joe Roberts ( Talks About Balance

By Charles Olken

I tend to like days when life is simple—like this one. I hit the computer about eight o’clock and checked my email and my favorite websites, both news and blogs, got a bit of writing in and then knocked for my usual morning chow. On tasting days, I am busy getting ready for that great pleasure and on non-tasting days, of which today was one, I have no set schedule and tend to alternate between writing, visiting wineries, going to ballgames on days when there are Wednesday day games, watching the occasional European soccer match, especially those featuring Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Today’s readings gave me the perfect topic for THE REPORT CARD, but instead of writing that entry, I left for the day and spent the afternoon at St. George Spirits, which is conveniently just down the road a few miles from me in Alameda over on the old Alameda Naval Air Station, immediately next door to Kent Rosenbloom’s new venture, Rockwall Winery. Today, St. George was brewing up a batch of its increasingly popular Coffee Liqueur called Firelit. I am not a coffee person, but Steve Eliot, CGCW’s Associate Editor is, and you can read his discussion of an earlier batch of Firelit under the Sunday listings for our blog.

Well, it's now bedtime and I have blog to write. I am wide awake, because even though I am not a coffee person, I tasted an entire line of experimental coffee liqueur batches today, and it turns out that they have a lots of caffeine. I think I like the advice seen in the “Press” section of the Firelit website, “good enough to drink for breakfast”. Next time, I will.




Earlier today, I was perusing the usual suspects among the blogs and came across Joe Roberts/1WineDude thoughtful essay about “balance” in wine. With all that has been written about this subject in the last couple of weeks, it was refreshing to see that Joe treated the subject as directly and rationally as he does virtually all upon which he comments. Joe is a winelover, not a wine geek. He likes all kinds of wine and likes wine to taste good. He has no formulas in his head for what is right or wrong. You won’t find Joe spouting off about TA (total acidity) or pH (pH—sorry, don’t know what it stands for) or ABV (alcohol by volume—or as CGCW calls it “alcohol”). Joe talks about how wine tastes and how it moves him.

His response to this topic is perfect for his style and his audience, and because his audience has wine pros as well as consumers, he was rewarded with a fairly extensive and wide ranging group of comments. The full article and the comments are worth reading. .

GRADE: A-/B+, but only because Joe was not trying to be profound, just honest and with no axe to grind.


I need to take up a little more of your time with an entry from today’s comments over on 1WineDude. Tim Hanni, was the first American to earn the coveted MW (Master of Wine diploma) along with our friend and former tasting panel member, Joel Butler. Earning an MW is no easy feat, and it is even harder for Americans because the MW program is run out of Britain and thus focuses almost not at all on American wines.

Lately Mr. Hanni has been researching the numbers of tastebuds on individual palates in an attempt to define what kinds of wines people with different amounts of tastebuds will like. It's fascinating stuff, and it is certainly true that each person has his or her own unique tasting acumen. I would argue that tastebuds are but one part of the equation. Experience, interest, even the chemistry of our mouths (some people have higher or lower pHs to their saliva. Some have more or less saliva. A great taster like Joel Butler, Tim’s comrade in MWism, professes to be less than adept at smelling TCA and the other anisoles that add musty notes to wine. My tasting compadre, Steve Eliot, is the first to detect low levels of volatile acidity in wine. Jeff Cohn and Matt Smith, the winemakers most often sitting in our CGCW blind tastings, can often tell not only the provenance of the oak in the wine but also, at times, the maker.

So, today, over on Joe Roberts’ site, Mr. Hanni, brought his “number of taste buds” theory to bear on why some people never like California wine (they have thousands of tastebuds), on why some people like California wine when they first encounter it but then shift their preferences away over time (these are people with multiple hundreds of tastebuds) and why some people continue to like California wine even though they have been exposed to it for years (those with almost no tastebuds by comparison to those other groups).

Needless to say, this is utter bunk. And I am forced to say so despite my admiration of friend Hanni. To put it another way, apparently 95% of people living in California are born with an insufficient number of taste buds and we just do not know any better. We have been born with the palatal equivalence of color blindness and tone deafness. And it is somehow a unique California affliction because we do tend to like California wine. Of course, the Aussies might also have it, but no one has told us that yet.

This theory gets what it deserves: F


Taste Sensitivity and give a brother a break
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/9/2010 4:00:49 PM

Hi Charlie,

I am delighted to invite you, again, to meet with me, call me, come have lunch for do whatever it takes to delve further into the complexity and depth of research that I have been investigating for nearly 20 years. Picking up on blog comments and then drawing completely incorrect conclusions and making things up out of thin air is a bit of an injustice, don'tcha think? If there is indeed any iota of admiration, professional courtesy or friendship you really owe me that.

I am pleased (make that proud as hell) to offer you a quote from our mutual acquaintance. This was in an e-mail he sent, along with permission to use the quote anywhere and everywhere I thought it might make a difference, after he spent some time learning about the research and my proposition to the wine industry:

"After 50 years in the wine business, my life was changed when I experienced the Hanni's research and learned about my Sensitivity Quotient. Boy, do I feel better about my own wine preferences – I always assumed there was something wrong with me because I liked sweet wines! I have literally gone my entire career thinking I had no taste buds.”

Harvey Posert, Author of “Spinning the Bottle”, consultant and former director of communications and PR for Robert Mondavi Winery and the Wine Institute

I saw Harvey at a wine event last week and he shared that this understanding had truly transformed his life. He had a cocktail in his hand. There was NO sweet wine for the 200 people at the event. He is now evangelist and dedicated member of the "Hanni Dark Side." Gimme a call, dude!

Give A Brother A Break
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/10/2010 11:35:30 AM


I think it would have been useful for you to explain your comment rather than to label my interpretation of it as incorrect.

Because, Tim, you did offer a story of three blind bloggers, the conclusioin of which was that the blind blogger with the smallest number of taste buds was the one who liked CA wine on a continuing basis.

I am happy to have you comment at any length--either here or to me personally by email. If I have misunderstood the implication that only folks with low numbers of taste buds can like CA wine on a continuing basis, then set me and the world straight.

It seemed to me that the story was pretty clear. If you have lots of tastebuds, you like European wine. If you have a middling number of tastebuds, you might start off liking CA wine but you will soon tire of it. And if you are one of those folks with a low number of tastebuds, then you will not tire of CA wine. Tim, set me straight or accept that you have said that the entire CA wine industry and all of the people in it are born with low numbers of tastebuds.

Talk turkey here, brother. I am all ears.
by John
Posted on:12/10/2010 1:58:03 PM

I'm not sure whether to laugh at or be insulted by Mr. Hanni's comments here and at Joe's blog. It's the holiday season so I will laugh.

I've been "investigating" wine for 35 years plus. I make wine for a living. I like "good" wines (my personal definition thereof) regardless of where they come from, or their alcohol level. I know far more than I ever thought I would about taste buds, having lost and re-grown mine.

I'm also a trained and published scientist. If Mr. Hanni is so sure of his facts he should write a paper and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/10/2010 6:29:01 PM

Just popping in to tell you and John that I love you both...and your tiny, flat little buds. I can say that cuzz I'm a French wine and junk.

by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/10/2010 7:11:48 PM

Dag-nab-it! Tried to be funny and I jack it up. That would be, "cuzz I am a French wine lover and junk"....season is already killing me.

French Wine Lover
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/10/2010 10:14:57 PM

Hey, just because you got all the tastebuds and the rest of us Californians got none, that does not entitle you make fun of our small buds. I have seen your new portrait on your website, and tastebuds are not all that you have.

A bud by any other name...
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/11/2010 6:39:03 AM

Mr. Olken....are you checking out my buds?! Why I never...

This bud's for you
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 8:28:43 AM

OK - so here is why I don't do this on a blog comment space - my work is complex, real and you (Charlie), choose to take things way our of context, draw crazy conclusions and then someone like John chimes in to demand scientific proof. So here goes, and I can only do this 8,000 characters at a time and have no ability to post supporting evidence. Ergo the invitation to call or come to lunch, dammit! :-)

BTW - John, welcome to the fray! Samantha - don't you dare try to be funny, these people will eat you alive!! :-)

Charlie - "If I have misunderstood the implication that only folks with low numbers of taste buds can like CA wine on a continuing basis, then set me and the world straight." Here goes – yes, you misunderstood the implication. The implication is people perceive things differently and balance is “in the eye of the beholder”.

 Perception is influenced by both physiological and psychological factors – in my comment at 1winedude I was referring only to the  sensory physiology dimension. The chemosensory perception of alcohol is a biggie in the balance conversation.  It is well documented that hyper-sensitive tasters typically experience a very high intensity and unpleasant trigeminal irritation that is described as a burning sensation especially when combined with bitter phenolics (why whisky burns more than vodka, heavily-oaked high alcohol wines burn more than less heavily oaked high alcohol wines or grapes that have different phenolic compositions due to variety, vintage, etc.). This hypr-sensitivity correlates to having more taste buds in general but there are many, many more variables – number of receptors on each taste bud, type of receptors, intensity of transmission of sensation, etc. There is a distinct population of people, comprised of a very high percentage of men (almost exclusively), who perceive the exact same levels of alcohol as sweet – no burn, no irritation and this correlates to having fewer taste buds – not bad, not less expert, not less able as a wine writer, critic or expert – just different. In conversations about balance and alcohol levels there is a lot of arguing, posturing and INTOLERANCE around the subject that can be easily explained and diffused by understanding the perceptive differences. ALMOST AS IF 3 BLIND MEN WERE TRYING TO DESCRIBE AN ELEPHANT BUT EXPERIENCE THE ELEPHANT IN COMPLETELY DIFFERENT WAYS.

Btw -We are also looking really closely at the trigeminal system and the role it plays in taste, touch and my research colleague, Dr. Virginia Utermohlen MD at Cornell, is expert in this field. There is a ton of scientific evidence to support my theories and I have the honor to work with people like Dr. Linda Bartoshuk, a team of non-wine sensory people at Davis and two mentors at Monnell Chemical Senses Center; Chuck Wysocki and Marci Pelchat. Or you can just google away using words like ‘alcohol taste sensitivity’ and you will find it or e-mail me and I can send you materials. Or come to lunch (I will keep saying this until you cave in!).

AND what we are doing goes way, way beyond the PROP sensitivity, ‘super-taster, taster, non-taster’ GENETIC work of Dr. Bartoshuk who, incidentally, called me her “hero” in the Wall Street Journal for the clarification and expansion of her sensitivity research and real-world applications I am working on. It is entirely possible, due to selective sensitivity, to be a PROP ‘super-taster’ and be a very hyper-sensitive taster. Just selectively, genetically unable to detect PROP – ask Harvey Posert, he is one as are many, many other people.

I was threatened by a beer conglomerate for the word BUDOMETER - can you guess who?
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 8:38:10 AM

Charlie: "the conclusion of which was that the blind blogger with the smallest number of taste buds was the one who liked CA wine on a continuing basis." This is your conclusion, not mine - I was making generalized comments that I erroneously thought were light hearted. And also the very predictable conclusion that having less taste buds is analogous to having something lesser or smaller for many other anatomical features. All California wines don’t seem to have the same balance – to me anyhoo. I could have been talking about 1947 Ch. Cheval Blanc. Hmmmm… the system for assessing quality of wines in France USED to be based heavily on how high a level of alcohol could be achieved.

John: "I like "good" wines (my personal definition thereof)" - my point exactly. People have different definitions and points of view and I, and my colleagues, are exploring the how and why. AND are discovering some cool things. You are invited to lunch to - my life's work may be "utter bunk" and get an F but I am a really, really good cook.

John - "I know far more than I ever thought I would about taste buds, having lost and re-grown mine." - Then you should know what I am talking about, otherwise take a refresher course.

"If Mr. Hanni is so sure of his facts he should write a paper and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal." We are. Being a scientist you may sell understand this takes a little time.

We have just released a report on an 8 year study. For this you will have to pay (OK – so now cry, “aha – he has an ulterior motive and tries to make money – this MUST be BS!). This is also a work in continual progress due to the unique nature of the hypothesis and complexity of the subjects. Working with me are some of the top scientist and experts and we are often using peer-reviewed, published works to correlate and then generate the new hypothesis that we are now studying. Out newest partner is Osmic Research and we are really cranking things up a notch for 2011 with the findings we have so far – for more info. We will be testing potentially 80-100 consumer and professional subjects this March at the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi on detection thresholds, discrimination and identification abilities for approximately 50-60 tastes, odors and trigeminal irritants. Y’all come join us. And for lunch.

OK – what ‘s next?

Alcohol sensitivity
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 8:48:23 AM

Charlie – since it seems you are reticent to pick up the phone or have lunch, here is a recap (and John, I am guessing this will not quesll your scientific cynicism so I will go get more). BTW – my work has many, many more dimensions that the scope of this PROP-specific look at the issue of alcohol sensitivity:

Genetic variation gives a taste for alcohol

People with a gene variation that dulls their taste buds to bitter flavours drink twice as much alcohol as those with more sensitive palates, suggests a US study. The discovery may assist doctors in the battle against alcoholism, which is strongly connected to early drinking behaviour.

People generally fall into three categories of taster. Supertasters have an acute sensitivity to bitter chemicals, while nontasters only sense bitterness at higher concentrations. Medium tasters fall in between.

Previous studies have shown that nontasters find alcohol - such as whisky, wine or beer - more pleasing and sweet than supertasters. There is also evidence that alcoholics and their relatives are more likely to be nontasters. But results have been contradictory, probably because grouping people into taster categories is partly subjective.

The bitter chemical 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) is often used in taste tests and in 2003 a gene influencing the sensitivity to PROP was discovered. The gene, TAS2R38, codes for a taste bud receptor and has several natural variations. for details

How about 'as out tastes mature?'
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 9:01:37 AM

I know – let’s talk about change over time!


Another myth is ‘as our palate matures people move up to “better” wine. Sweet and Hyper-sensitive tasters become habituated over time to flavors that are consistent with their sensory sensitivity, aspirations, positive memories and reinforced by peer and societal values. Our palate actually DETRIORATES over time (becomes less sensitive) but our habituation and neural programming very often supersedes the movement to ‘better wine’ vs. staying with the wines that give them comfort and pleasure. This also means that older people are more tolerant in general that younger people and something anyone who markets wine should carefully take into account if we want to understand and responsibly engage younger wine consumers. Much of the movement to dry and more intense wines is psychological and over time shifts in our physiological sensitivity play a role.


“Contrary to what has often been said about the subject, decline in taste sensitivity with aging characterizes virtually everybody and is not the artificial result of averaging large losses of a minority with negligible losses of a majority. This assertion is supported by six repeated measures of sucrose thresholds in each of 15 older (over 64 years) and 15 younger (under 27 years) adult subjects. Threshold was determined by a procedure similar to past studies and with the same results: much scatter and considerable overlap between the thresholds of younger and older subjects. A quite contrasting picture emerges, however, when each subject's six threshold determinations are averaged. Averaging shrinks the individual differences among subjects, as well as the over-lap between younger and older subjects. Although virtually all elderly subjects now revealed taste weakness, reliable individual differences in degree of weakness abound among them, suggesting various individual rates of physiological aging. In contrast young persons exhibit greater uniformity of sensitivity. These findings were brought out by inter-test correlations, which were much higher for the older subjects; i.e. an older subject who tended to score high (low) on one test tended to score high (low) on the other tests. The study confirms the tenuous nature of brief threshold tests as indices of personal sensitivity as found earlier also in olfactory thresholds and in concurrent measurement of two-point touch thresholds in the present study. This revealed correlated losses between repeated taste and touch thresholds from the same 15 older subjects, unrelated to their exact chronological age. Chem. Senses 20: 451–459, 1995.”

It's what's for dinner...
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/11/2010 9:02:27 AM

Time, "They will eat you alive" well why do you think I come here?

Holy Hell!
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:12/11/2010 9:04:52 AM

And even in the early morning hours I am a "ra-tard"...Jesus. That would be, "Tim, why do you think I come here?"....(wearing my "Oh goddamn it!!!" face)

Flowers, wood or PISS?
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 9:12:49 AM

I know, I know – what about smell? Perceptive variation occurs with all of our senses, from the frequency range of our stereo to the setting of our thermostate - people experience things differently. Hyper-sensitive people TEND to be hypers-sensitive to everything from the tags in their clothes to the 'silent' alarm that only they can hear that is ruining their dining experience. This is but a selective example - we are also exploring this dimension.


Dr. Chuck Wysocki did a demonstration of the radically different experience of ANDROSTENONE for 250 people at the Masters of Wine Symposium in 2006 that floored everyone. Jancis Robinson is a big supporter and investigator of my work – she also has taken the time to talk with me and had lunch many times…

“Depending upon the subject, it is reported to be an unpleasant, sweaty, urinous smell, a woody smell, or even a pleasant floral smell.[1][2][3]

There are two different genotypes that cause androstenone to smell. The first genotype, which consists of two fully functional copies of the gene, is the RT/RT allele, and the second is the RT/WM allele.[4] The OR7D4 receptor has two non-synonymous single nucleotide polymorphisms,[5] which cause the gene to have two amino acid substitution, which in turn cause the receptor to act differently. Those who possess the two proper genes, (RT/RT) for OR7D4 tend to describe the odor for the steroid as the odor of stale urine. Those with only one gene (RT/WM) typically described the odor as weak or were not able to detect it. They can also find the smell very similar to that of vanilla, a very pleasant odor.

The differences in perceived odor can be accounted for by the genetic differences in the OR7D4 receptor, which detects the chemical. People that possess two proper genes for OR7D4 tend to describe the odor for the steroid as likable to urine. Those with only one gene typically described the odor as weak or were not able to detect it. Those with mutated copies of the gene described the odor as pleasant or sweet.[6]

Californians Are Non-tasters
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/11/2010 9:30:36 AM

Good morning, Tim.

Your last post gets to the heart of the matter. You have (a) stereotyped CA wines as high alcohol in your objectionable parable over on 1WineDude and (b) you have here said clearly that non-tasters (your word, not mine) cannot taste alcohol and that is why, according to your parable, it is the non-tasters who like CA wine.

Tim, these are your words. You paint all CA wine with a broadbrush even though, as a Californian and an MW, you must know better. And then, having giving us this unfortunate and ill-conceived stereotype, you tell us that only non-tasters can like the kinds of wines that you have painted as "Californian".

That is what has hacked me off, Tim. You have fallen into two traps here and combined them in a parable that is misleading on its face, and then you have tried to back it up with what you describe as "science".

Winelovers and wines cannot be so simply pigeon-holed. This is a complex world. Your theories are free to go wherever you care to take them, but when they get used to demean CA wine and the very high percentage of people here in CA who like them, then you are off on the wrong track and need to get back to the rest of us immediately.

What is your problem?
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 10:07:17 AM

Charlie – it seems to me you are getting increasingly angry and upset ("That is what has hacked me off") – NOT my intention. I posted a parody of a well-known parable about differences in perception and description that I thought was fun and relatively innocent, at a web-site where I am welcome that is authored by a blogger who has taken considerable time to be open to new and different thinking. You have chosen to give me an F grade and attack my work while drawing unreasonable and sweeping conclusions that are baseless and angry. I invite you to settle down and relax.


“You have (a) stereotyped CA wines as high alcohol in your objectionable parable over on 1WineDude” – how, where? I don’t think that, never said that that I know of and apologize if I did!


“You paint all CA wine with a broadbrush” – where the heck did I say that? Help me out – seriously, show me the words where I said that.

“the conclusion of which was that the blind blogger with the smallest number of taste buds was the one who liked CA wine on a continuing basis.” – again, this seems to be your conclusion – where did I conclude this?

“(b) you have here said clearly that non-tasters (your word, not mine) cannot taste alcohol” If I said ANYTHING clearly about non-tasters it was that this (non-taster) is Linda Bartoshuk’s language, specific to varying levels of sensitivity to PROP; NOT my language. And never did I say Tolerant tasters cannot taste alcohol, I said they perceive it differently and are more likely to describe the sensation as sweet versus hot or burning – the point of this whole dang thing is about “balance being in the eye of the beholder”.


“And then, having giving us this unfortunate and ill-conceived stereotype, you tell us that only non-tasters can like the kinds of wines that you have painted as ‘Californian’.” I did all that – again tell me exactly where I did this. I thought I was illustrating a point with a fun parody of a parable. Again – where did I “paint” wines as being Californian?


Then John asked for the “science” and then when the science is provided I get dissed for providing background for my assertions – this is a no-win blogathon at its’ finest!

“Winelovers and wines cannot be so simply pigeon-holed. This is a complex world.” I probably know this even better than you and certainly offer no argument – why do you think otherwise? If someone remarks that a wine is red, does this mean they are off-base, dumbing down the complexity of wine and full of bunk because they do not understand the complexity of wine? I was using a simple parable to illustrate a general, and defensible, point.

Who Will Stop The Rain
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:12/11/2010 11:54:32 AM

Tim, time to stop the rain. You have had the chance to explain your thoughts at great length, and I welcome them here. You and your associates have done a lot of research and undoubtedly will do more and will learn more, will wind up with increasingly complex thoughts and will continue, I hope, to explore tasting preferences, methodologies and theories.

Thanks for stopping by. I wish you had not offered what I still consider to be a biased parable. You have suggested it was nothing more than a parody, a joke. I still don't see it that way, but I certainly prefer to view it in that light since I do not accept it as a teaching moment, which is what a parable is supposed to be.

Lunch any time
by Tim Hanni
Posted on:12/11/2010 12:26:18 PM

Thanks Charlie - I invite you, again, to really come explore this with me. Lunch any time!!!

Tim on the offensive
by John
Posted on:12/13/2010 11:03:04 AM
brevity is the soul of wit
by John
Posted on:12/13/2010 11:47:32 AM


by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:12/14/2010 6:22:47 AM



pH: potential of hydrogen

measures hydrogen ion concentration of a solution to a given standard solution.

Late to the party
by 1winedude
Posted on:12/15/2010 6:23:21 PM

My excuse of the tardiness - I've been waylaid in Portugal tasting Port and wines form Vinho Verde and the Douro.  I didn't say it was tough, just time-consuming!

Anyway - very pleased to see some maner of trcue and mutual respect take hold on this!


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