by Tamara Scully
Winemakers know that consumers taste preferences can be influenced by learned experience. As consumers become educated about their food – and wines – they use this knowledge to change shopping behaviors. However, food science points to an inherited trait, which also influences food preferences. This trait has been overlooked in the wine industry.
Jie Li, Ph.D. candidate in Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, presented findings from field experiments to determine what role innate taste preferences might play in wine selection. Li’s experiments were designed to “focus on taste physiology from a marketing perspective,” she said.
People with an inordinately large number of taste receptor cells in their taste buds are known as supertasters. These folks comprise about one quarter of the overall population. Coffee, kale, chili peppers and bitter wines are disliked by supertasters, who experience burning and irritation from these types of strong flavors, due to enhanced protein reception. Sweetness, however, can mitigate the effect.
Supertasters are more likely to be of Asian descent, use added sugar in coffee, and prefer flavored drinks, Li said. Supertaster personality traits include a focus on accomplishments, and a promotion-dominated mentality. They are very rarely older males. Wine reviewers are primarily older males, so it is likely that supertasters are not represented in this demographic, and the wine industry is not focusing on their needs.
So how does this taste physiology affect consumer purchasing decisions when it comes to wine?
Li tested the pull of physiology as well as the role of tasting notes and labels in determining preference and wine purchasing decisions. Professional wine maker tasting notes were manipulated by researchers into three different versions. Participants in tasting sessions were given access to the wine notes, and then allowed to taste the wines and rate their wine experience.
Tasters were also given a paper strip, saturated in a bitter compound and placed on the tongue for 30 seconds. Participants then evaluated the taste sensation on a zero to 100 basis, with 100 being an extreme or intense experience. Those who found the taste extreme were designated as supertasters. Li was then able to compare differences in supertaster’s perception of wines as influenced by wine labels, in conjunction with their unique physiology.
Tasters were given samples of the wines after being allowed to read the notes. They then answered questions about their wine experience. Neither group of tasters – super or non-super – paid attention to wine notes for less expensive wines. However, higher price wines generated interest in the notes. The various versions of the notes, manipulated by the researchers, caused both groups of tasters to respond. Responses were more positive when tasters were given dry wine descriptions if the testers were non-supertasters. Supertasters responded positively to sweet or fruity notes.
The wine industry is under-represented in Asian markets, and Asians are more likely to be sensitive to bitter tastes. Winemakers can benefit from increasing their awareness of how physiology effects consumer wine experiences, as well as how tasting notes can change perceptions.
“The wine industry really needs to take into account this taste physiology,” Li – who is a supertaster herself – said. “Dry wine is the dominate wine style in the whole wine industry,” yet many consumers prefer sweet tastes.
Li has recently been awarded the Bob Kalik scholarship from the Wine Market Council. This award will allow her to expand ongoing research into determining whether a wine maker’s motives influence the quality and price point of their wines. Comparing wine reviews and ratings, and extensively questioning wine makers in non-traditional wine making areas, such as the Finger Lakes, about their reasons for entering the business has allowed Li to examine if the owner’s underlying motivation for becoming a wine maker ultimately impacts the quality or pricing of the brand’s wines.