I’ve heard it said a hundred times—women are better at wine tasting than men. But can that possibly be true? In honor of Mother’s Day, I decided to find out. First I interviewed 70 winemakers and vintners to get their opinions. Next I looked at what the most current sensory research has to say.
But before I continue, let me admit that I personally have always been wary of the idea. In part, that’s because in my experience, the people who most often trumpet the notion that women have a gender advantage are men. So when a man assures me that women have superior wine tasting skills is that a compliment? Or is that a deftly subtle way of dismissing a woman’s success (“of course she got the wine right; everyone knows women have an advantage”)?
It’s hard to know. And because it is, for this piece, I decided to take men out of the equation. The 70 winemakers and vintners I interviewed were all women. They worked in California, Oregon, Washington, Europe, South Africa and South America. The question I posed was worded like this:
Do women, by virtue of gender, have an advantage over men in sensory ability when tasting wine?
Nearly two-thirds of the women said no, women have no advantage. Interesting, 100% of the international women said no. (And I myself was in the “no” camp).
But a smaller group of women were emphatic that yes, women did indeed have a sensory advantage. And the reason they did, most said, was either because of evolution, societal norms, or language ability.
“Although I believe tasting ability is individual meaning both men and women can be great tasters and conversely some men and some women will be weak tasters, potentially yes, women may have a biological edge due to being the ones who carry children,” said Heidi Barrett, consulting winemaker and winemaker of La Sirena winery (California). “It may be a mechanism for protecting the fetus to have highly tuned tastebuds so as not to eat a poisonous plants or berries going back to evolutionary times.”
“By virtue of societal expectations, I think women are exposed to and pay more attention to aromatics then ‘MOST’ men,” said Lynn Penner-Ash, founder and winemaker, Penner-Ash Cellars (Oregon). “Perfumes in everything, soap, lotion, cosmetics. Cooking aromas and spices in the kitchen. This is changing as more men are active participants now. My generation straddles these two different societal expectations. I may be more aware of smells surrounding me, therefore, making me more sensitive or able to identify aromas than a man in my age group, but I don’t think my sex has anything to do with it. How I was raised did.”
And then there’s language ability, which I too, have always assumed plays a key role. In teaching thousands of wine students at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley where I’m the Chairman Emeritus of the wine department, I’ve observed countless situations where women appear to be more adept describing what they smell and taste. It wasn’t that they were better at tasting, I thought, just better at articulating their impressions.
“In my many years of the wine business, I’ve shared more wine tastings with men than with women due to the ratio of men to women in the business,” said Pam Starr, co-owner and winemaker Crocker & Starr winery (California). “I would say that women have the ability to express their sensory experience with words better than men. And, although women might be better communicators of their sensory experience, I believe that there are men who have supertaster powers equal to the supertaster powers of women.”
Other women who were in the “yes” camp noted that pregnancy was a dramatic form of personal proof. Said Ana Matzinger, owner/winemaker of Matzinger Davies winery (Oregon), “As a female winemaker and mother of two, I can attest to a significant increase in acuity to certain aromas and flavors to the point of distraction during pregnancy and nursing. Not only were certain positive aromas heightened, but tolerance for sulfide aromas and bitterness decreased dramatically.”
Many women gave qualified “yeses,” like Kerry Shields, winemaker of Côte Bonneville (Washington) who said, “Lots of studies have shown that women have a greater sensitivity to smell and taste. There is, however, a great deal of individual variation, not only between individuals but also by compound. The idea that one gender (or even one person) can smell everything to a greater degree is not true. One person may be more sensitive to, say, floral notes; while another is more sensitive to gamey smells. Individual sensitivity also changes with time and lifestyle.”
Hmmm. The time and lifestyle idea. That seemed like a logical consideration too. Maybe sex had nothing to do with it. But every time I wonder if my own ability to smell and taste wine is getting worse simply by virtue of age, I remember the great Andre Tchelistcheff, considered the “father of California winemaking” who up until his death at the age of 92 was a chain smoker and remained the most brilliant wine taster I’ve ever known.
And then there were the “nos”—the vast majority of women surveyed. Virtually every “no” respondent cited experience, not gender, as the defining element.
Marilisa Allegrini, co-owner of Allegrini (Italy) summed up this position when she said, “While some people seem to have a higher taste response than others, I don’t think that a superior palate is the sole province of men or women. In my experience, the palate is something you have to develop, and this only happens through practice and training. The more opportunity you have to taste (food as well as wine), the more sensitivity you can develop.”
Trizanne Barnard, owner/winemaker of Trizanne (South Africa), agreed. “To judge the quality and nuances of wine well is the same as doing anything in life well. It takes hours and hours and hours of practice, whether you’re female or male.”
Hours and hours of practice was something I could relate to—tens of thousands of hours of practice in fact. That seemed to me irrefutable. Tasting ability wasn’t gender based; it was a matter of hard work. You put it in; you get the payback. I was till on the “no” side.
Imagine how surprised I was when I read what the current science says.
Every bit of research I could find suggests that women as a group do indeed have a gender based advantage when it comes to smelling and tasting. Here are some of the surprising highlights:
Using a new technique called isotropic fractionator, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the University of Sāo Paulo, and the University of California/San Francisco discovered that women have, on average, 43% more cells in their brains’ olfactory bulbs than men. Counting neurons specifically, the difference reached almost 50% more in women than men. The fact that few cells are added to the brain throughout life suggests that women are born with this olfactory advantage; it is not developed later.
Research conducted by sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat PhD at Monell Chemical Sciences Center in Philadelphia, found that women tend to taste, smell, hear, see colors, and feel textures more accurately than men. Importantly, the research showed that women of childbearing age taste flavors more intensely than younger or older females, and that sensitivity also increased during pregnancy.
Also from Monell Chemical Senses Center, work by Charles Wysocki, PhD, revealed that compared to men, women can more readily increase their sensitivity to odors through practice. With six to ten repeated exposures, women (of reproductive age), not men, increased their sensitivity to an odor by 1,000 to 10,000 times. Said Dr. Wysocki, “I would speculate that if you had a woman judging wine, early on she would be as sensitive as a man, but with repeated exposure to the same wines, the woman would become able to make finer distinctions.”
Research by Kathrin Ohla and Johan Lundstrom of Monell Chemical Senses Center and the Department of Clinical Neuroscience Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, respectively, showed that women allocate more attention to potentially noxious nasal stimuli than men do, and that causes them to assess nasal irritants differently than men. The researchers also note that women exhibit higher trigeminal nerve sensitivity (the trigeminal system governs sensations such as burning, cooling and tingling). Further, women are more reactive to nasal stimuli that are perceived as emotional, unpleasant or threatening.
Some of the original research in the field comes from Yale University where famous researcher Linda Bartoshuk PhD conducted research that lead to the sensory division of the population into non-tasters, tasters and supertasters. Bartoshuk has shown that about 35% of women but only 15% of men are supertasters. Supertasters have up to four times as many tastebuds as non- tasters. It’s important to note here that supertasters are especially sensitive to bitter tasting compounds and often have an aversion to strong tasting substances—brussel sprouts, espresso, and grapefruit juice, for example.
So in the end, I was wrong. It appears that women (especially those of childbearing age) do indeed have sensory skills that on average give them an advantage over men in wine tasting. But much depends on the individual. And as every good wine taster knows, tasting with someone else who’s driven to excel sensorially (woman or man) is the most exciting kind of tasting of all. Anna Matzinger said it best:
“I believe these are organismic skills nestled deep within our biology for the purpose of ensuring the perpetuation of species, which evolutionarily speaking is quite the point. To be in a profession where one is called upon to regularly exercise these sensory skills feels quite lucky. But it’s a gift we all have as humans, the potential for greater discernment and appreciation within our sensory world, and we open ourselves to it by just paying a bit more attention.”
A toast to that.