This weekend Napa Valley hosted the 2006 Symposium of the Institute of Masters of Wine. One of the most stimulating speakers was a chap under whom I studied Sensory Science at UC Davis, Dr. Michael O’Mahoney, a thoughtful and erudite chap who also brings his training as a Shakespearean actor to the lecture hall, and is never boring.

Michael doesn’t run with the traffic in sensory circles, and has for decades attempted to set the record straight about taste perception by digging into the literature to expose the shallow roots of the Basic Tastes theory.

Most scientists will tell you that until recently, studies had shown that there are four basic tastes into which the tongue discriminates all stimuli (not counting texture, which is touch, and volatile flavors, which are actually retro-nasal aromas). Some have added a fifth, umami or meatiness. Michael that there is not nor ever was a shred of evidence for basic tastes. His own research reveals that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of tastes: potassium doesn’t taste like sodium, sulfate is a little bitter and a little salty and a little umami, and so forth. Poor fellow has been crying alone in the wilderness for decades while lecturers and authors go right on harping on Basic Tastes — so much for scientific progress.

Dr. O’Mahoney offered up a fascinating discussion of human sensory foibles. His talk hadn’t changed much since I first heard it 24 years ago, but neither has his subject. Through optical illusions and other perceptive illustrations, he showed how the mind adjusts perception to enhance what it thinks is true. Sometimes we fool ourselves through attributes in our hardware; other times our personal experiences program us to respond differently from our fellows.

Mike was flanked by three other notables, who together presented a picture of the nature of human perception which contained some disturbing, and to my mind, somewhat misleading observations if taken by themselves, hence this blog: Dr. Charles Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Institute, the very entertaining author and anthropologist Lionel Tiger (who coined the term “male bonding” and gave us The Pursuit of Pleasure, a seminal book on behavioral positives), and Gallo’s consumer czarina, Jennifer Wiseman, who organizes consumer behavior in Gallo’s direction with crisp professionalism.

Dr. Wysocki, who has vast experience with smell and taste, demonstrated how different each of us is in our specific anosmic fingerprint – the pattern of smell “deafness” to individual chemical compounds each of us possesses. When you marry those notions with O’Mahoney’s, you can easily end up with a depressing picture of making wine that’s generally considered delicious as a hopeless attempt to shoot baskets in the dark.

This does not reflect my experience. We’ve done our “sweet spot” trials on thousands of wines, and we find very strong agreement on what is harmonious. Most of the time there are multiple sweet spots, hence two or three allowable possibilities for a style to market. But which are the harmonious possibilities and where the dissonant, harsh, aromatically impure wines position themselves is something on which we get very good agreement.

When I am adrift in such a philosophical sea as this concerning a question about wine, when I need to get sanely grounded, I ask myself the identical question about music. Do we all have different hearing acuities? Absolutely! Does our varied experience teach us to react differently to auditory stimuli than others might? Sure. Like when a car backfired and my roommate raised in Connecticut ran to the window while the one from Newark dove under the table. And for certain, we all have different musical style preferences.

But when the piano is a bit out of tune, everybody leaves the bar – most without knowing why. Everybody gets it that a major chord is happy and a minor chord is melancholy. And that the two played together give you not sweetness but dissonance. We all carry special detailed knowledge of what is harmonious, and we don’t need to be taught. That knowledge is very strongly shared.

So it seems there are different sorts of preference. Sweet spots and tuned pianos are a sort of primal harmonic preference which is non-experiential and strongly shared. Within the realm of tuned up instruments, style preference appears to be subject to whim and experience.

Take heart, ye winemakers, ye musicians, ye cooks. You need not have your taste buds surgically removed nor your ears cut off to do your best work. Those pleasant distracters are the portals to your soul, and provide a critical first step on the road to pleasing others.