“What I’ve come to understand is that women are inherently better tasters than men,” Cochran says. “Oftentimes when I teach classes I have beginners, and when I ask people to volunteer what they’re (tasting) the women are shooting their hands up. I can’t call on them quickly enough. Their descriptions from the wine glass can be so nuanced and fabulous. I’m like, ‘Who are you?’”
Other generalizations about gender exist: The male palate prefers hefty red wines, and women prefer easy-drinking white wines. In other words, women are from Sonoma, men are from Bordeaux.
Maybe it sounds sexist to say women have a superior palate to men, or that women gravitate toward certain wine styles. It could also taste like sweet revenge in the sometimes masculine-flavored wine culture.
“I think it’s cool that women have an edge in this area and it makes sense from a biological point of view,” Cochran says.
Wine drinking is enjoyed by slightly more women than men, according to a 2008 study by the Wine Market Council, a Napa Valley consumer research group. Their survey shows women representing 51 percent of the wine drinking population, while 49 percent are men.
But the survey indicates at least a couple of gender stereotypes hold true. Men tend to prefer red wines more than women, and buying expensive bottles is more often a guy thing.
The idea of white wines being mostly favored by women? That’s not true. The Wine Market Council’s research showed men and women prefer white wines equally. So much for chardonnay and pinot gris being just for the ladies.
More sensitive to subtleties
Heather Pyle Lucas still sees the semblance of a female palate as the winemaker at Lodi’s Lucas Winery. She also spent 17 years as a winemaker for Robert Mondavi Winery and its affiliated labels, specializing in cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and pinot grigio.
“I think women are more sensitive to bitterness and acidity,” Lucas says. “I think women want wines that are a little lighter, more European in structure and lighter in alcohol. Guys tend to go for that power.
“But in a casual survey of my career I’d say women are more tolerant to wines that are more subtle and less in-your-face. But these factors are multilayered and cultural, I’m sure.”
A few thousand Danish schoolchildren may hold the answer to which gender is blessed with the best taste buds. A study conducted in Denmark last September included 8,900 schoolchildren. Kids colored their tongues blue to have their taste buds counted and were subjected to samples of various sweet and sour tastes.
The conclusion practically had the girls singing “anything you can do, I can do better.” Girls had a better sense of taste than boys and were keener on recognizing various levels of sweet and sour.
It’s true women tend to be “supertasters” more often than men. Supertasters are folks who have greater sensitivity to taste, and prone to wince at flavors that are especially bitter or spicy. This phenomenon is thought to be caused by an increased numbers of fungiform papillae, the tiny structures on your tongue that house taste buds. Approximately 25 percent of Americans are considered supertasters. But just because more women tend to be supertasters doesn’t necessarily mean a female palate is more perceptive at picking out wine flavors.
“(Supertasting) is all about bitter compounds,” says Ann Noble, a retired professor at the University of California, Davis, and creator of the Wine Aroma Wheel. “Supertasters tend to have more taste buds, which you would assume would have more meaning (about wine flavor perception), but it doesn’t necessarily. This has all been way too hyped.”
Let’s turn to Tim Hanni to get a guy’s perspective on this possible gender divide. Hanni, a certified Master of Wine, founded the Napa Seasoning Company, which makes food-and-wine pairing products. His career concentrates on taste sensitivities and consults with sensory scientists around the world.
Hanni identifies four types of tasters: those who prefer sweet; hypersensitive tasters (those who favor finesse over power); sensitive (open to a broad range of taste experiences); and tolerant (enjoy everything, no matter the intensity).
“While there are gender biases, it’s not a blanket sort of thing,” Hanni says. “I know a lot of men who are hypersensitive tasters. I wouldn’t want to boil it down to something being just for men or women. It’s an injustice to ‘tolerant’ women or ‘hypersensitive’ men.
“Typically you do see women more in the ‘sensitive’ and ‘hypersensitive’ range, but that’s a gross generalization. There’s really something for everybody.”
It could be that biology makes no difference and socialization is responsible for taste sensitivity.
Food and drink tends to be part of playtime more with girls — think of little cakes being crafted in Easy-Bake ovens, the sweet and fruity smell of Strawberry Shortcake’s hair and tea parties with dolls and/or friends. Boys might have been more prone to kick up mud with BMX bikes and try to capture frogs for fun.
“There’s always exceptions — and I was a tomboy — but girls tend to do more things indoors than guys,” says Cochran, the wine author.
“I think it’s safe to say that girls were likely to spend time in the kitchen with their moms more than boys. That’s likely to gravitate toward thinking about food. From a very early age we’re immersed in the senses” of smell and taste, she says.
And then the describing
Perhaps the best tasters are simply the ones who talk openly, and it’s all just a matter of being verbal.
“What’s often overlooked in taste is the strong component of communication, and being able to address what you taste,” says Lucas, the winemaker. “That might give women a bit of an edge. Women are more verbal and can convey their senses more quickly. If you blocked out the use of language, people might not be so impressed.”
Be it communication or socialization, Cochran still champions the power of the female palate. “I think it’s a treat that women are more verbal, and that can give them a platform for talking about things they’re good at,” says Cochran. “Every bottle of wine is different, every vintage year there are new wines. This is something you can enjoy for the rest of your life.”