Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Great Cabernet Debate: Hypersensitive vs. Tolerant Tasters

I got so involved responding to a blog by Steve Heimoff today I thought I would tweak it a bit and make my own blog out of it! Lazy bastard that I am. And save your breath on the "this dumbs down wine" and these ideas are "stoopid and moronic." I know, I know. come have lunch with me.

Two radically different perspectives on the "state of the art of Cabernet Sauvignon" have surfaced the information superhighway over the course of about 2 weeks time. Just to be clear, I seriously LOVE both of the guys I will cite below who seem to be so diametrically opposed to each other on this topic. Both are brilliant, passionate men who very probably have VERY different sensory sensitivities that directly affect their experience of Cabernet Sauvignon. But I, on the other hand, give them something to agree on - ME! They both have really passionate, strong and generally negative views on a new initiative I have undertaken to create a process and new event with consumers formally evaluating wine and generating peer-to-peer recommendations. This is being done with my partners Pooch Pucilowski and Aaron Kidder (sorry to drag you guys into this! :-) ).

Steve recently posted a sarcastic (more like a thinly-veiled attack, but maybe I am being hyper-sensitive?) on the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi event that is one of my pet projects. I take it all in stride (sniff). Conversations I have had with Dan Berger have demonstrated he agrees with Steve in principle that consumers are not generally fit to evaluate wines in a formal tasting situation. Says Steve, "With this breathless hyperventilation, the producers of the latest get-rich-quick “wine awards” gimmick announce yet another effort to 'democratize' wine assessment by taking it away from — gasp! — evil experts like me and handing it over to that ever-popular bastion of populism — the Consumer! We’re seeing these 'consumer-judged wine competitions' multiply like e coli in a petrie (sic) dish..."

The intention is not to take anything away from "evil experts" - just seeing if we can find a way to bring more people into the wine community fold and have them feel welcome. For the whole enchilada go to on this conversation at Steve’s blog go to .

Below are links to the Berger article and Heiman blog that set this up "great Cabernet debate" so nicely. I have also provided some snippets taken from each.

In one corner we have the Steve Heimoff opinion, “Well, these certainly are wines that have become spectacular in recent years. You really do have to wonder where their evolution will take them. I know some people who don’t like the Napa cult style, which is based on super-mature grapes (with consequent low acidity) and generous dollops of new oak. They’re entitled to their opinion; I happen to like it.”

In the other corner we have this just in from Dan Berger's recent article, "For more than a decade, I have hoped for a miracle. Then last week I realized the worst: Cabernet Sauvignon has changed so appreciably that I fear we’ll never see it in the way we once did... A long book could be devoted to this sad tale of decline."

Consider for a moment that on one end of the spectrum we have, Dan Berger, a hypersensitive taster whose tongue, general taste sensitivity and wine preferences I have personally analyzed, is writing about his very real and very passionate views on what Cabernet should or should not be. His hypersensitivity provides an experience such that high alcohol burns and that modern Cabernets and many other wines are over-blown, over-oaked and not nice with food. For Dan, and anyone else with his sensitivity and values, this point of view is dead-on correct: “There are complicated reasons for this turnabout, but the bottom line is that we may have lost cabernet for all time. I can’t drink them young; I can’t imagine they will age well, and I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them.” Spoken like a true hypersensitive taster! And perfect advice for other hypersensitive and many more-sensitive tasters.

People at the less-sensitive to tolerant end of the spectrum will more predictably LOVE the high-alcohol, oak and intensity that have come to define great Cabernet for the Parker/Laube crowd. And with food as well! The alcohol tastes ’sweet’, the oak and tannin are not at all overbearing and in fact the very same wines are perceived as smooth, rich and balanced. This level of extract and intensity is the source of ‘great’ for many tolerant tasters.

I can pretty much surmise that the getting to the source of these differences in opinion lies in better understanding the vastly different experiences from people at different ends of taste sensitivity continuum. I have not had the pleasure of personally assessing Steve H.’s taste sensitivity profile but will when/if he comes to lunch. I have personally tested thousands of people. I know that people like Tim Mondavi and Jancis Robinson, along with Dan, are both at the hypersensitive end of the spectrum and very predictably in the same camp with Dan Berger on the unpleasant direction things have gone with ‘too much’ oak, ‘too much’ alcohol and their experience that the food and Cabernet affinity is lost in all of this extreme flavor.

Steve responded to my on of my comments on his own blog, "But is a hypersensitive palate necessarily a good thing in a wine critic? I don’t think so." My response - it is not good, not bad. Just different sensory physiology and the source of a lot of unpleasant disagreement between wine critics and experts.

The first thing to understand about what we are looking at is there is not a 'good, bad, better' to taste sensitivity. It just 'is what it is.' Some people have as few as 300 taste buds, others over 10,000 and this plays a very significant role in establishing our individual perception of wine and everything else. All of our senses come into play and taste sensitivity correlates to our sensitivities to smell, sight, touch and hearing as well. A person with way less taste buds has many advantages and the people with the very most taste buds often have preferences that make the wine industry howl in horror! Just ask Dr. Virginia Utermohlen at Cornell University, one of our key research partners who studies this phenomenon in the context of personality development and behavioral traits and is a super/uber/hypersensitive taster. She is one of our 'poster children' for the most sensitive tasters of all - what we call SWEET tasters. If it is over 10% alcohol and less than 3% sugar, count her out. Just like MILLIONS of consumers in the US and BILLIONS around the world.

To Steve H.'s point "But is a hypersensitive palate necessarily a good thing in a wine critic? I don’t think so." Not a good thing, not a bad thing - just a very important thing to understand so that the differences in our opinions, so brilliantly lit up by the 'Great Cabernet Debate', can be better understood in a very cool and valid new way. Also PLEASE keep in mind we are simultaneously studying the psychological phenomena that have us move about with our preferences and passions.

Dan Berger goes on to note rhetorically, “P.S. Is there any connection to the decline in Cabernet style and the dramatically increased sales of pinot noir?”

This actually points to our studies of the migration of more sensitive tasters (NOTE: not inferring “better tasters” or anything of the sort!!!) to lower phenolic wines which they have a more natural tendency to enjoy. Then you can see the Hypersensitive vs. Tolerant division erupt in the same way over Pinot Noir style between the people who love and savor delicacy and finesse vs. the high extract, high alcohol and heavy oak camp (read more tolerant tasters).

Steve then commented on my observations, “As for Tim’s observation that the “decline in Cabernet style” is connected to the rise of Pinot Noir, I don’t agree. Over the course of my career, many experienced collectors told me they started off with Bordeaux/Cabernet, and then, when they got older, found themselves preferring Burgundy/Pinot Noir. I think that’s a natural progression, and not due to any modern style of Cabernet.”

I am saying that the ‘decline in Cabernet style’ is a point of view largely held by hypersensitive, and more sensitive tasters in general, and that the migration to Pinot Noir is more predictable for this sensitivity group. Our research on the subject points to traits which are very typical of a hypersensitive taster's view of things and their often predictable migration to less intense, less bitter and astringent wines. It is not a universal or uniform progression to Burgundy or Pinot Noir, more like the 'March of the More Sensitive Tasters' with a lot of passion and intellectual elements involved! Many people are absolutely satisfied to stay with their intense, extracted and oaky favorites.

Understand the examples I am providing here are greatly generalized insights from the nearly 20 years of observation, research and learning with the participation of really great researchers and scientists around the world. There are variations and mitigating factors that abound in all of this. It is a wonderfully complex and fascinating area of science and learning we are exploring and I invite any and all of you to jump in with us to continue learning more.

My usual response when people get really upset about my point of view is to invite them to lunch. I will reiterate my invitation to Steve H. in his blog: Hell – everyone is invited to my place for lunch to learn what we have discovered and argue and attack all of the premises for my outrages claims. I will cook, and I am serious.