Women Smell Better!

The following is a guest post written by Marlene Rossman.   See her bio at the end of this post.  Alternatively, read her full bio here: Marlene Rossman Bio. (please click “about” to get her bio).  You may also find her on Facebook by clicking here.

My husband often says that I smell great.  Partly joking, he explains that I have a more pleasing aroma than he does AND that I am very sensitive to aromas and odors in wine/food.  Walking into our home one evening after a nice restaurant dinner, I said, “Honey, I smell gas.”  He immediately said,

“It wasn’t me, it must have been the dog.” I explained that I did not mean that kind of gas, but the gas from the stove.  He did not smell anything, but I found that I had left a burner on very, very low!

So why has fine wine traditionally been the preserve of men? And how has the enjoyment of wine became a man thing? There used to be men-only drinking clubs and tasting events where men gathered to share Parker scores and boast about which wines they had the previous night. In 1978, I joined New York’s Les Amis du Vin and was the only women participant for many years. I was also thoroughly ignored by the all- male group, but that’s another story.

Desmond Morris, who gained fame with his 1967 book The Naked Ape,is a British zoologist who focuses on people. Dr. Morris caused quite a controversy in a 1994 TV documentary when he said, “it has been demonstrated scientifically that women have a better sense of smell than men. Men and women

Photo by StateofIsrael: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8465/8140902367_a8b170c2aa.jpg

evolved with different strengths and weaknesses, and to believe otherwise is to ignore what biology shows to be true… women, for example, will never dominate championship chess because of the nature of their brain functions,” he says. “Men, on the other hand, rightfully should surrender wine-making to women because of the female’s more acute sense of smell.” It has been hypothesized that women’s highly developed sense of smell is a throwback to when women had to identify their offspring by their smell.

Smell is the most important sense with regard to wine because most of what we call wine ‘flavor’ is its aroma. “Women are better at identifying aromas and can detect them at a lower PPM (parts per million) concentration than men,” according to Dr. Ann Noble, a sensory chemist and retired professor from the University of California, Davis, who invented the “Aroma Wheel.” (Dr. Noble’s wheel is credited with enhancing the public understanding of wine tasting and terminology.) That’s not to say that men aren’t terrific wine tasters and appreciators — of course they are (just ask any man!) Anyone can train themselves to be an educated taster, but wine is ultimately about enjoyment.

Backing up Dr. Noble’s research are a number of studies showing women outperform men in tests on odor sensitivity.  Tim Jacobs, Professor of Physiology at Cardiff University (UK), said: “Some studies have shown smells activate a greater region in the brain in women than men. There is a wealth of scientific data showing women’s superiority at identifying and detecting odors at even very small concentrations.” And two other U.S. studies (one in Pennsylvania and one at Yale) showed that women consistently outperformed men in matters of odor identification and smell.

When it comes to wine tasting, the nose will tell you that there have been impartations from oak barrels if you pick up on vanilla, nuts, bread, cereal, or butterscotch smells. Swirl the wine and sniff – if it smells like a wet dog, or a dank basement, chances are the wine has been spoiled by a bad cork (this only happens to about 3% of all wines) A corked wine does not mean that little pieces of cork are floating in the wine.  It means it is spoiled with TCA or trichloroanisole. Try tasting wine when you have a cold, and see what happens. Probably nothing, as the sense of smell is really the sense of taste.

Some research suggests that women’s greater olfactory sensitivity is linked to the hormone estrogen. And a couple of years ago in the United Kingdom, pregnant women were recruited by Tesco (a supermarket) as wine-tasters after bosses found they had better senses of taste and smell. Store chiefs stumbled across the secret when four pregnant women were working in the 40-strong wine department at its HQ. They could all detect subtle differences between wines. Now, bosses are taking on more moms as tasters to choose the best wines to go on sale. Wine-taster Helen McGinn, 31, who was 6 1⁄2 months’ pregnant, said: “Now we will be better equipped than ever to sniff out the best wines for our customers.”

© Marlene Rossman

According to her bio, “Marlene is the wine columnist for Chef magazine and writes on wine for Andy Dias Blue’s Tasting Panel, Sommelier Journal and International Sommelier magazines.  She was the Editor-in-Chief and columnist for Wine Country International magazine, wine columnist/editor for Orange County Home, New York’s Flatiron magazine and wrote for Beverage Media, and Wine Business Monthly. She was the featured commentator with Stephen Spurrier, in a program on “American Wine” produced by Associated Press Television News.  She is a member of the North American Sommelier Association.”  She is a former sommelier and currently the distinguished instructor of wine at UC-Irvine.

9 comments for “Women Smell Better!

  1. Marlene Rossman
    November 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Becca, the only things you left out of my bio is that I am the distinguished instructor of wine at UC-Irvine and a former sommelier!

    • Becca
      November 7, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Whoops! Sorry about that, Marlene! I’ve since updated the post!

      Thanks for the great post!

  2. November 9, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Hi Becca – great article and I am a huge Marlene Rossman fan! I am hoping to help clear up a lot of misinformation and erroneous conventional wisdoms on the sensory sensitivty front, and area of great interest for me for the past 20 years.

    It is easy to jump to the conlclusion that greater sensitivity = ‘better’ but it is important to understand that it is different, not necessarily better. Just ask the hypersensitive person tossing and turning all night in their hotel bed because the pillowcase and sheets are driving them crazy due to increased touch sensitivity! Sometimes greater sensitivity = distracting and downright unpleasant. More highly sensitive wine drinkers are likely to suffer from the effects of sulfites, are more acutely aware of bitter compounds, unpleasant aromatic characteristics (as noted in the article) and find higher alcohol hot, burning and annoying. At the opposite end of the scale, the more ‘tolerant’ tasters find the same wine sweet (that is how they perceive alcohol), smooth and satisfying.

    About 30% of the people in in the highly, highly sensitive segment are in fact men and many women fall into a much less sensitive category. Not better or worse, just different. The analogy I use to demonstrate the importance of learning more about this phenomenon is imiagine trying to buy shoes and the top shoe experts in the world do not know people have different size feet – and to top it off when the shoe does not fit and hurts the only response is, “if your foot were more mature you would appreciate this shoe – we experts tried it and declared it the best…” Using taste papillae as an example, some people have fewer than 500 and other well over 11,000. There are a lot of variables at play but this dramatically effects the range and intensity of what different people perceive and correlates to a general level of sensory sensitivity for the sensations of smell, touch, hearing and sight.

    Research in this area, conducted with my wonderfully hypersensitive colleague, Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, MD, a pediatrican at Cornell University who studies how differences in sensitivity and perception effect things like personality traits, behavior and even career choices. Our work together is focused on wine preferences and being able to better understand, and personalize, wine recommendations and wine value systems.

    “Tolerant tasters”, or Tolerant Vinoytpes as we call them, think in a more linear fashion, relate to the 100 point system and tend to be much more decisive. Sweet and Hypersensitive Vinotypes are accutely, distractedly and often painfully aware of sensations and tend to be much more ADHD, distracted and artistic. They hear ‘silent’ alarms, cut tags out of their clothes and usually HATE the wines the tolerant Vinotypes love most. In the middle are Sensitive Vinotypes who are most adventurous and experimental with the widest range of wine preferences.

    Fun stuff to be sure from my perspective. At the end of the day a better understanding of our inherent, biological differences goes a long, long way in explaining all sorts of arguements in the wine community and opens up new opportunities to better understand and celebrate our differences and a better understanding of personal wine preferences!

  3. November 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

    It’s a common mis-assumption that women have better acutity when it comes to acuity of their olfactory system.

    This is not so.

    Do people with perfect pitch have better ears?


    The difference lies in the brain. Women’s brains are built and wired very differently than men’s. The main differences are differing proportions of the volumes of the brain’s subsystems and more interhemspheric connections on the parts of women. The latter is particularly relevant as it gives women better access to and use of language. And language is what is critical to identifying terpenes, pyrazines, middle C and mauve.

    As to hormonal variation: again, it does not affect the olfactory receptors. However, you can bet that it does affect higher order functions. Patients with PMS and PMDD, when imaged at the best point and the worst point in their cycles show dramatic differences in function on scans like PET or SPECT.

  4. Marlene Rossman
    November 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    Tim, as you know, I am a huge fan of yours. Your research has opened many people’s eye on the many subjects, especially the “fifth taste.” Thank you for your comment!

  5. Marlene Rossman
    November 9, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Shut up and Make Wine, thank you for the insight.

  6. WineKnurd
    November 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Aren’t everyone’s brains wired differently? Even from woman to woman, man to man, cat to cat, etc., there are definitely differences. It seems that when we identify a “super-ability”, such as high IQ, musical ability, artistic ability, super-tasting, etc, we try and attribute this to the brain, specifically some abnormality. Only the extremes seem to get reported on, such as Van Gogh and his bouts with insanity, and we as observers conclude that his mental condition contributed to his artistic ability. Perhaps this is correct, but we have zero scientific evidence, and seems that this correlation is wishful thinking. A better example is the examination of Albert Einstein’s “genius” brain, which showed differences as compared to “normal” brains. Are these differences the explanation for the theory of relativity? We can only theorize that these differences allowed him to “think outside the box”, but there is no direct evidence of such. What about the brains of other great researchers, such as Steven Weinberg, Richard Feynman, etc.

    Tim, I am not familiar with the design of your tasting studies though I am familiar with the results. I speculate that the design suffers from the “wishful thinking” syndrome described above, which is an observer bias based on a predetermined conclusion. If you go into the study looking for reasons on why tasters are different, you will certainly attribute any difference as support for your conclusion unless you have proper blinds and controls in place. Again, I do not have all the details about your experiments and I am only offering my opinion based on what I have read in the WSJ and Washington Post reports, so please do not feel that this is an attack in any way on you or your research. I do have trouble agreeing with the conclusion of only 4 simple and easy categories of “tasters” based on the number of taste buds, and also feel that your test actually influences its conclusions. From the Washington Post article-

    “The extended survey will help people understand how experiences affect or even overcome genetic predispositions, he says. A tolerant taster might love French pinot noirs, which by the book would be too thin and dull to appeal, because he spent his honeymoon touring Burgundy.”

    Later in the article-

    “Janice Iwama, a 24-year-old research analyst who attended the recent tasting, for example, was happy to learn that she fell into the sweet category, which explained her intense dislike for red wines. Taster Tom Broughan, a George Washington University law student, said that “having guidelines is helpful to focus my picks and get away from things I know I don’t like.” His previous strategy was to look for a brand he knew his father liked.”

    It would seem from these two quotes that taking your test is akin to going to Burgundy, each an experience that irreparably influences wine preference decisions. Janice “learns” that she is a sweet taster and will now behave like a sweet taster. How does she behave like a sweet taster, by following your sweet taster guidelines:

    Hanni recommends:
    White: White zinfandels, sweeter Rieslings, Lambruscos, Moscato wines.
    Red: None (unless it’s sweet red dessert wine).

    From an observer’s perspective, it looks as though your study was designed in a way to always generate the conclusion, not to independently determine an outcome based on data. An appropriate control would be to tell Janice that she was a tolerant vinotype, tell her that she has a genetic disposition to like oaky, alcoholic wines, and then watch to see if her tasting preference changes from Rieslings to Cabernets.

    The concluding statement from that article, when discussing a diagnosed “Tolerant” taster’s preference for non-tolerant style French and Italian wines-

    “Hanni, however, wasn’t surprised at all. When he reviewed the selections she preferred at the tasting, he saw that despite her physiology, she did favor the delicate European wines. “The Budometer is geared for new wine drinkers,” Hanni says. “Once you graduate intellectually to Karen’s level, experience takes over.”

    This reinforces my point that taking the test is the “experience” which now influences the taster’s future wine preference decisions. It is great for new wine drinkers because they have no other point of reference, but unfortunately the taking of the test is now their point of reference, and any hypotheses from the test are self-fulfilling.

  7. November 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Hi WineKnurd,
    Yes, everyone’s brain IS wired differently.

    We have come a long way in our pursuit of a better understanding of consumer wine preferences since the articles you refer to. This is an on-going process and the four categories of primary Vintoypes are based on primary sensory sensitivity markers. Yes, they are oversimplified. And they are relevent.

    The neuroscience of it all is part of our process as well and we are coninuing to explore, and then factor in, learned and associative elements to the sensitivity platform. Again, the points you are referring to in your comments are over 4 years old.

    Our intention with all of the work on understanding Vintoypes is to be able to better understand both the physiological and psychologica factors that combine to create personal wine value systems. the next step we are working on is the means to connect people to the peers and critics who share similar sensory physiology, aspirations and values. There are certain people that are highly tolerant to bitterness and have certain personality and behavioral traits associated with how they perceive the world – perfect for the Robert Parker model of wine valuation. Others are living in a hyper-sensitive world and have very different perception and lean towards very different behaviors and attitudes. They most often feel disenfranchised, especially in terms of the wine community.

    Let me know if you would like to learn more about our projects – you can contact me through my website – http://www.timhanni.com. We welcome anyone who want to join in the exploration and I guarantee you will find the work se are doing is fascinating.

  8. WineKnurd
    November 12, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Hi Tim, I do hope to continue a discussion with you about your work. My use of the quotations is all we have access to, and the questions they raise (such as the ones I have mentioned) may no longer be relavent. As a scientist and wine-enthusiast, I take scientific wine studies very seriously, which is what attracted me to this blog in the first place 🙂

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