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The Blank Palate Debunked

Posted on | February 8, 2010 | Written by Christy Canterbury | 3 Comments

Finishing up Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature last night, I couldn’t help but think about how Pinker’s rebuttal of the dogma of human nature known as The Blank Slate applies to our palates and wine.

The claim of The Blank Slate is the idea that the mind has no innate traits and that it is literally an empty tablet on which society, the environment and the individual can develop a “new” person with no historical or hereditary ties.  Steven Pinker uses 444 pages of text (footnotes not included) to debunk The Blank Slate, but to deflate The Blank Palate, all I needed was to I recall a presentation made by my wine theory mentor, Tim Hanni MW, at an Masters of Wine Seminar at Napa Valleys Villagio several years ago.  (I’ve heard Tim’s speech a few times, and it ignites the crowd every time.)  Tim has poured years of research into understanding how our individual biology—from the number of taste buds on our tongues, to whether or not our moms had morning sickness, to whether we perceive a difference in real and artificial sugar—determines what we like in wine, as well as what we don’t.

I then thought of the oft-used phrase “an acquired taste.”  Food and wine professionals talk about “beginner” palates and whether foie gras or sardines are too edgy in flavor (or in concept), or whether mature wines with waning fruit can be fully appreciated by the food or wine novice.  For example, just last week during a tasting panel for The Sommelier Journal, Steve Olson called out a few wine educators (yours truly included) for using the terms “entry-level,” “beginner,” “uninitiated” to reference consumers and “accessible,” “approachable” and “easier to understand” to reference wines.  I think these words are valid in the context of attempting to communicate wine styles given the nebulous terminology of wine, but Steve posed the question, “Don’t people know when they like what they taste, regardless their experience in wine?”  Sure, they do, but I’d also argue that most of us can name a handful of foods we wouldn’t touch when young (one of mine was liver) that we relish today and vice versa (keep the soda away, please).

My experience as a sommelier and as a person leads me to believe that people’s tastes do change, and as tastes change, so do the foods and wines people enjoy. We may be products of our own biology, but we know that aging changes that biology. We get older, and Pop Rocks lose their zing.

So, let’s combine these various concepts.  While we can certainly acquire tastes throughout life, we do seem to have genetically wired preferences.  Mike Steinberger’s three article series in Slate Magazine elaborates on the process of discovering his tasting heredity versus his tasting reality, and it gives further credence to my suggestion that we’re more than blank palates.  Perusing the subject might help all who drink wine—regardless how deep or varied their tasting experience—better understand why they like certain wine styles, but there’s more to wine appreciation than our physical attributes, like our ability to smell and variety in experience.  After reading up on a few of these philosophies, the results begin to blur like I’ve had three glasses of high-octane red without one bite of dinner.  Nonetheless, there’s no question in my mind that The Blank Palate does not exist.  What does your experience tell you?


3 Responses to “The Blank Palate Debunked”

  1. Shayn Bjornholm
    February 9th, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    I doubt I will add anything new to the conversation, but I believe our innate inclinations are every bit as important as our experiences in regards to palate (and a lot of other things) and preference of flavors/textures/etc. I am with ya, Christy!

  2. Nicola
    February 10th, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

    I agree with you that the true blank slate doesn’t really exist. At the basic level, we acquire the tastes of our parents. As we age, these genes are reinforced because we are more or less under the control of the foods and tastes our parents like and consequently bring into the house. As we become more independent, we explore and try new things, acquiring a broader “database” of tastes and preferences. Fundamentally, psychology suggests that humans gravitate toward what’s familiar, even if only remotely so. As we age, the “database” of what’s familiar grows and with this we’re often more willing to diverge slightly from the familiar and try something new. And, the cycle continues. When I first started drinking wine, I liked the simple sweet wines, cheap Rieslings that gave the style a “bad name”. I think this was because it was a taste closest to what I was most familiar (apple juice, etc). The more I explored different types of wines, and brought these profiles into my “database” of familiarity, the more I wanted to explore further and find the more esoteric wines. It’s a process, building blocks, but we all start from some level and I don’t know how that level can ever really be blank.

  3. Kerry-Jo
    February 10th, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    It’s nature versus nuture. Everyone should go to the Natural History Museum and pay close attention in the human origin section. There are very simplistic, yet extremely informative dioramas and videos of how genetics work. We are all connected to the past and our natural attributes, yet the beauty of life is the fact that as we move along into the future, we can evolve and change. I feel that happens on a personal as well as global/societal level. It all works together. It is obvious that America is beginning to adopt more of its European background in wine, food and how we appreciate cuisine in general. The pace of American lifestyle and lack of respect for food is a major source of issues whether it be stress, obesity, depression and so forth. Another great book: “French Women don’t Get Fat,” by Mireille Guiliano, former CEO of Veuve Cliquot. She has two other books, “French Women for All Seasons,” and “Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility.” Check them out people!!! 🙂

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