We have all met people who just scare the bejusus out of us.
There suddenly is a recognition on our part that the person standing in front of us is seeing us in all of our true colors. And it ain’t pretty. These daunting people have come to an understanding of what makes us tick, why we do the things we do and how completely screwed up we are. We are naked to their insights.
Tim Hanni is such a guy. Okay, so maybe he is not all that frightening, but he does have insights and viewpoints, reasoned out and proven by practice, taking what we thought we knew, and then tossing it out the car window. Children, do not throw anything out the car window. Leave that to trained and educated adults, like Hanni.
A bit about Hanni: he is a professional chef; he was the first of two resident Americans to earn the coveted and difficult to obtain designation, Master of Wine; he has been involved with culinary and wine education for 35 years; and he is self-proclaimed the “Swami of Umami.”
Which brings us now to what you need to know about your own senses of taste and smell. The taste thing is relatively straightforward. On your tongue are taste buds, specialty items which participate in how you taste and what you taste. Keep in mind the word “participate.” There will not be a test later but you will need to refer back to that verb.
In truth, the human mouth, and its taste buds, can only taste five things. Think about all the flavors you think you are tasting. But, alas, you can only really “taste” five.
For the longest time, scientists defined only four. Those were salt, sweet, sour and bitter. That, so the theory and proof said, was as far as we could taste. Notice that our sense of taste does not include strawberry, rutabaga or Snickers.
Then in the mid-1980s, along came another base aspect of taste, umami, which is the ability to discern a savory aspect to what goes on in our mouth. And that’s it for taste. We have likely more than 4,000 taste buds on our tongue (there is a scattering of other taste buds along the sides and roof of our mouth) and each taste bud possesses 50-100 receptor cells. All this bodily architecture to pick out only five defined taste sensations.
Our sense of smell, olfactory, can discern quite a bit more territory, probably numbering way up into the hundreds. And those smells we receive can be identified by our brains in pretty minute quantities. It really is the “smells” that provide us the “tastes.”
Putting the whole picture together is where it gets really interesting. You were wondering when that part was going to begin, weren’t you?
And this is where Hanni steps in and mucks up what we think we know.
Those of us who are a bit along the road with our wine appreciation efforts tend to look down upon people who enjoy white zinfandel, a freak of winemaking and a mistake of vinification that has become one of the most popular wines in the world.
Flying into the headwinds of wine snobbery, Hanni looks upon people who enjoy sweet wines, like white zinfandel, as candidates for the designation, “Super Taster.” Did you see that one coming? His research has proven that these folks, the sweet wine lovers, have greater sensitivity to certain aspects of wine and food, and can discern/appreciate the presence of sugars and salts better than most “wine lovers.”
One of the tests Hanni uses to determine the sensitivities of Super Tasters is to ask them if they wear their underwear inside out. Seems being sensitive in the area of taste also translates to the sense of feel, and softer fabrics, with no labels against the skin, is what these people must wear to be comfortable. Wonder if he gets slapped a lot at cocktail parties and wine tastings while doing research.
Then there’s the matter of food and wine pairings. Hanni has turned that world on its ear. He says that the whole area of pairing wines with foods needs to be relegated to the dust bin, assuming any of us still have dust bins.
“I think we should be pairing food and drink with the diner, aligning tastes that work for us individually, not because some lecturer tells us that pinot noir absolutely works well with salmon, or that cabernet sauvignon and chocolate are a match made in heaven,” Hanni notes.
It’s all quite fascinating, and the entire story of taste and smell, as laid out by Hanni, is eye-opening, to clumsily mix a sensory metaphor.
Hanni has even created a short questionnaire, really simple and to the point, that will tell you immediately what indications point to what kind of taster you are. The fun exercise is located here. (Click on "My Vinotype" towards the bottom.)
The tasting categories into which you may fit are Sweet, Hypersensitive, Sensitive, Tolerant, or some variation/combination of those. I am, according to this exercise, Sensitive. But then you, and everyone who knows me, know that. I am a real sensitive guy. Okay, which one of you laughed out loud? ‘Fess up.
Then, if this topic really interests you, and it should since the more you know, the more you are able to gravitate to what you like, Hanni has written a new book, fascinating in every way, Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the Way the World Thinks about Wine, which can be found on Amazon, of course.
Hanni sets very high goals for himself, as you can tell.
Anyway, just having this knowledge gives you a better idea about what wines really ring your chimes and what foods do the same. This information could be about combinations that maybe never occurred to you. Or avoiding combinations that are unappealing but you keep hearing are the “perfect pairing.”
After all, who else is going to take any interest in you and your likes if it’s not you? Nuh uh, don’t look at me.