Critics have always vied with one another, typically seeking to increase their own authority and influence at the expense (and disparagement) of the competition.
What's happened recently, however, is an almost desperate attempt by some of today's wine tasting potentates to bolster their credibility by suggesting a physical superiority, like 1950s Hollywood starlets insisting that their acting ability was inseparable from their mammary endowment. In wine's case, it's papillary.
This was brought home recently upon reading that Jancis Robinson, a well-regarded British wine taster, announced that she had her tongue tested and that, lo!, she is a "supertaster." More about that in a moment.
Wine critics have lately come up against new competition. Previously, it was a matter of who got published. Today, A.J. Liebling's famous dictum that "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," generates a new kind of freedom: the ability to run for wine office without the nomination of an established publishing party.
The line between amateurs and professionals in wine tasting is increasingly erased with today's every-man-a-king proliferation of wine blogs (a number of which are proffered by queenly women, it should be noted).
Consequently, professionals' desire of being seen as superior in literal matters of taste has become more pressing.
Keep in mind that wine criticism, more than other forms, relies almost entirely on perceived — and largely unprovable — credibility. What credentials exist are either highly technical, such as winemaking degrees from schools like Cornell or the University of California at Davis, or patently self-promoting, such as the transparently trumped-up Master of Wine designation. (The name alone is a giveaway to its priestly pretensions.)
The result of this arms race is that critics make ever-grander, even scientifically tested, claims to authentic credibility.
Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of otolaryngology and psychology at Yale University, published research in the 1990s about what she calls "supertasters."They are people with a higher densit of taste buds. Professor Bartoshuk's research shows that among American Caucasians about 35% of women are supertasters and about 15% of men are supertasters.
The test that Ms. Robinson recently took is straightforward: Blue food coloring is swabbed on part of the tongue.The fungiform papillae do not absorb the food coloring and thus appear as pink dots on a blue field. Within a small defined area, the pink dots are counted. Supertasters have at least twice as many taste buds as others.
This sounds good, doesn't it? Being a supertaster would seem an incontestable boon, like an acrobat being double-jointed. Not so fast. The problem with having a lot of taste buds is that taste sensations are intensified to the point of pain.
Supertasters, Professor Bartoshuk reports, typically dislike spicy foods, which irritate, as do fatty foods, which literally weigh upon the touch sensors in the fungiform papillae. (Supertasters also have more sensitive touch receptors in their tongues.)
Doesn't sound so inviting now, does it? Indeed, being a socalled supertaster is as much a prescription for painful sensitivity as it is an asset. A supertaster has to work around her genetic inheritance as much as with it.
However, saying you're a supertaster sure does sound good. It suggests a physiological gift, which is about as plausible as a film critic asserting superiority because of unusual light sensitivity. But in today's wine writing free-for-all, any edge in credibility is considered a wellplaced elbow in the ribs of the competition.
Indeed, no sooner did a member of the chat board sponsored by über-taster Robert M. Parker Jr. report Ms. Robinson's self-discovery as a supertaster than Mr. Parker quickly allied himself among the physiological elect, asserting that "I don't care for even mildly spicy or seasoned food." (Previously, Mr. Parker had ascribed his tasting acuity in part to having unusually deep crevices in his tongue.)
What we really need is less Yale and more Saul Steinberg. More specifically, we need Mr. Steinberg's famous 1976 New Yorker cover depicting the parochial world map of a New Yorker reconfigured to reflect various tasters' tongues.
Mr. Parker, for example, would have broad swath for Bordeaux receptivity on his tongue, as he is a famously good taster of red Bordeaux. Ms. Robinson, for her part, would vie similarly, although the lingual zone for "California" would likely be quite small.
And what of my own tongue, you ask? It would likely shift with the seasons, showing a "rosé zone" blossoming like a summer algal bloom, only to contract in winter and be replaced by a vast swath for Italian reds.
Actually, such maps exist. Every writer draws one for his or her readers. It's called judgment, which is always on display. Suggesting a linkage of taste buds to wine judgment is like confusing eyesight with insight. Otherwise, Ted Williams — with his legendary 20-10 vision — would be renowned today as an art critic.