There’s a lot of understandable indignation about the lack of women in the wine industry. Whether it’s the wine glass ceiling or just the sexism women in the wine industry regularly field, women still – in 2017 – have roadblocks to making wine their profession. But this isn’t just infuriating – it’s actually ironic. Because according to scientists, women are better at tasting wine than men.
Dr. Paul Breslin, a professor at the department of nutritional sciences at Rutgers University and a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, has worked for more than a decade studying gender differences in taste and odor between men and women. Working primarily with fellow Monell researcher Pamela Dalton, Breslin tested women and men of different ages over several years to see if there was a measurable difference in how men and women smell. And what he found was astonishing.
It turns out that “cycling” women – what he calls women in childbearing years — were significantly more sensitive to odors than pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women (unless they were on hormone-replacement therapy), and all men. Women in their fertile years were able to improve their ability to smell in ways that men just weren’t.
“We gave subjects the same odor several times and repeatedly found that men have a stable sense of odor, while cycling women became more and more sensitive to that odor over time,” Dr. Breslin explains to VinePair. “Within the confines of our study, which tested them 20 times and sometimes more, each time, their ability to accurately discern scents became more refined.”
Drs. Breslin and Dalton found that women of reproductive age could identify smells at concentrations up to 11 orders of magnitude lower than men.
Breslin’s research was borne out by another study, conducted at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. This study also found biological evidence for women’s superior sniffers. In post-mortem examinations of olfactory bulbs (the region of the brain that receives signals from the nose), women were found to have on average 43 percent more cells and 50 percent more neurons in the region. In other words, maybe your husband wasn’t fibbing when he claimed he didn’t smell that diaper (but you were still totally right to make him change it).
So why are women better at smelling than men? Dr. Breslin posits that there are likely evolutionary reasons for this. “We are social animals, and women may have developed a keener sense of smell as a survival mechanism so that they could recognize their mates, children, and other kin in a big group,” he tells VinePair.
So does this mean that female sommeliers – not to mention plain old happy hour enthusiasts – have an edge over their male counterparts?
“I am speaking theoretically, not empirically, because I haven’t studied this specific angle,” Dr. Breslin cautions. “But if you take someone who is in training to be a sommelier or cicerone, and if they are focusing on becoming attuned to what is in the beer or wine — the smells and the tastes — women may have an edge on discerning low-level underlying cues.”
Still, Dr. Breslin says that focus, practice, and intellectual engagement are all integral to the process. “In our studies, we found that with practice, women became better at discerning specific odors, but their olfactory powers overall did not increase,” he explains. “So in order for there to truly be an advantage, they would have to train widely and be cognitively engaged. If you grab random people on the street, a cycling woman might be a little bit better, but not by much.” In other words, it’s in the brain, not the nose, that woman are outdoing men in blind tastings.
We reached out to some sommeliers to find out if Breslin’s research matched their experiences. Are women better at tasting than men? we asked five working sommeliers, two men and three women. Two of the women and one of the men do believe that women have a more subtle palate than men, especially in the first years of training.
But it’s a touchy subject. None of the five somms wanted to go on the record, though all five said they were familiar with the research.
“It’s tough enough being a woman in this business,” one of the women explained. “The restaurant industry is still in many ways a boys club. I don’t want to come out saying that women have a better palate because I suspect I’d end up paying for it now or down the line in some way. Plus, I like having a secret weapon when I go up against my know-it-all male colleagues.”
One male sommelier says that he has noticed that women tend to be “better able to discern subtle nuances” in the beginning, but that over a period of months and sometimes weeks of early training, men catch up.
But the other male sommelier and the third woman were skeptical of Breslin’s research. And they’re not alone. Rich Michaels has worked in the beer industry for more than 20 years and is a quality and innovation manager at FX Matt Brewing and a brewing instructor at Schenectady County Community College. He has trained hundreds of men and women over the years and had first-hand opportunities to observe gender differences in flavor perception.
“There is some research that suggests that women of child bearing age are more sensitive to some flavors and this can be heightened during pregnancy,” Michaels acknowledges. But he says he has observed over the years that flavor perception is “an individual experience.” Environmental factors, like smoking, foods recently eaten, or drink recently consumed have a more significant impact on flavor impressions overall then gender, according to Michaels.
Genetics also play a role, Michaels says. “Genetically there are different types of taste perception,” he says. Take, for example, the people known as “supertasters,” who have a heightened sensitivity to flavor. “Supertasters are very sensitive to some bittering compounds found in some foods such as broccoli and grapefruit,” Michaels explains. Supertasters have more than 100 times more taste buds per square centimeter than regular tasters, and make up 25 percent of the population.
But a study conducted at Yale by Linda Bartoshuk found that women are more than twice as likely as men to be supertasters, reinforcing Breslin’s conclusions, not Michaels’.
Michaels, himself a supertaster, acknowledges that women are more likely to be supertasters. Still, Michaels believes based on interactions with sommeliers that real-life experience and training seem to soften whatever edge female tasters have on paper.
But anecdotal evidence will always skew away from women, just based on the sheer lack of women in the industry. In the 1980s, the number of well-known female sommeliers was in the low single digits. Madeline Triffon, of Detroit’s London Chop House, became the first American woman to become a master sommelier. It would be another five years before another American woman joined her ranks. According to Bloomberg, about 32 of the world’s 229 master sommeliers are women. Most of them work in the U.S. In 2012, Nicole Earny became the first woman ever to earn the title of Master Cicerone, joining just three other individuals: Rich Higgins, Dave Kahle and Andrew Van Til.
With so few women in the ranks of the highest levels of sommeliers, it’s impossible to say whether their male counterparts are softening the edge of their hyper-sensitive cycling noses. But it’s time the wine industry recognized this female asset, and treated it with the respect it deserves.