This Friday night I will be hosting a wine tasting of Israeli wine at CBS. I’m no wine industry professional, but I learned a great deal about everything from the global wine trade to the evolution of wine terminology during a stint as a researcher for the SFMOMA exhibition How Wine Became Modern, which opened in 2010. I took a particular interest in wine from Israel, as the quality and number of wineries there has skyrocketed in recent years, and I had the opportunity to visit some of them during our past two summers. The irony is that, at the moment, I can neither drink wine nor can I taste much of anything.
I gave up alcohol for chemo; meanwhile, chemo returned the favor by destroying my taste buds. Bummer. It’s temporary, and it’s not completely obliterated, just muted, like the volume is turned way down. My tongue feels like it’s been sandpapered, then polished to a high shine, and all the flavors just keep slipping off. It’s incredibly disorienting, because smell is still there, and really smell is much more powerful, and my appetite is still there, but in between anticipation and satiety lies a gap where flavor used to reside.
But really, as I learned during my research, to say one “tastes” wine is actually inaccurate; the experts like to call it “sensory evaluation” because it involves all of the senses. Eyes register color and clarity, ears the pop of the cork. The nose can account for hundreds, even thousands of scents. And much of what we confuse with taste because it happens in the mouth is actually how something feels: texture, body, astringency. The tongue can only claim five domains, and of these, only three—sweetness, acidity, and bitterness—are relevant to wine. It is rather a blunt instrument; and yet, without it, the meaning of food and drink—of desire, memory, satisfaction, sustenance—simply ceases to mean quite the same thing.
The most powerful story I’ve ever read about the sense of taste is that of Grant Achatz, the acclaimed chef of Alinea in Chicago, who was diagnosed with Stage IV tongue cancer in his early 30s at the peak of his career. He refused surgery, but chemo and radiation entirely eviscerated his sense of taste for over a year, at a time when his restaurant was called by Ruth Reichl of Gourmet the best in the country. He made an incredible recovery, but it was also remarkable to read about how his sense of taste returned to him, one flavor dimension at a time—first sweet, then bitter, then salty…like colors on a palette. His first meal after he could taste sweetness again was eight courses of desserts. Interviewed now, he says that it was only by losing his sense of taste, and then gaining it back in these isolated layers, that he really understands how flavor is composed.
It’s hard to isolate the components of flavor, not to mention smell—which is what makes wine tasting so difficult, so metaphorical, and so infuriatingly pompous. I watched Ratatouille with my kids this past weekend; it’s a favorite of ours, and we love to quote Remy when he’s tutoring his boorish brother on how to appreciate food: “savor the flavor.” The scene bursts with colors, fireworks, symphonic chords. It’s this melding, this combustion that’s exciting. But I got a little insight into the science of the components of taste when I had the chance to visit UC Davis’s enology program’s tasting lab. One thing that a researcher there showed my colleagues and I was a series of Dixie cups with what looked like water in each, but was actually the isolated qualities of wine: one had sweetness, one acidity, one bitterness, one astringency. They do this to test each individual’s ability to sense these factors; many people are actually “non-tasters” when it comes to bitterness. My friends had no reaction when they put the bitter cup to their mouths; for me, it was horribly strong. It’s a relatively recent discovery that many people have these kinds of taste “blindnesses”—taste is, in fact, much more individual than previously thought.
It’s disarming to have spent a year or two learning all this, sensitizing my palate, and now to feel like I’m erasing it. I am grateful, believe me, that I am not really contending with horrendous nausea, which is a far worse fate. But the loss or attenuation of any sense is disorienting. When you bite into a banana and it feels like its burning your tongue, it’s as if the sky was suddenly polka-dotted—what next? The consolation is imagination; as the article on Achatz notes, “our memories of taste closely approximate the actual experience of tasting.” Even on an MRI, just thinking about a flavor lights up the same part of the brain as actually tasting it. It’s a good thing that I have some great memories of wine in the Galilee last summer to guide me on Friday night—that and my nose. I’ll have to rename the event “Wine Sniffing with Erin Hyman.”