Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC
Q: In Part 1 of your interview, you mentioned being a recovering alcoholic. How does a recovering alcoholic navigate the challenges of a career intricately entwined with tasting wines?
A: Remember that my interest in drinking and learning about wine started in 1966 when I was 14 years old. Not exactly normal for a young teenager in the 1960s. My dad, his dad, and many generations before me were alcoholics, and deep down I really knew I was as well. In 1990, I passed the MW exam, got divorced, and was going through a lot of soul-searching. Two years later, I started dating and then married Kate, the woman of my dreams, and I was on a fast-track to a second divorce. I decided it was finally time to consider taking action and entered a recovery program. I was ready to leave the wine business if that is what it would take. I rarely even taste and spit now, and it needs to be said that I work my program rigorously—some people can do this, and many people cannot! For anyone who is in or considering recovery, you must find professional help and work the program they recommend.
Talk about being at a crossroads in my career! I had just been promoted to director of international business development for what is now Beringer/Treasury Wine Estates—what the heck? The executive team was totally supportive, and I found that with my MW credential in hand, I could turn my attention to doing a deep dive into cutting-edge perception sciences, critically rethinking chronic questions that stymie wine experts and consumers alike, and focusing on how the wine industry can become better at communicating and building trust with consumers.
I very occasionally participate in wine judging, and I taste when I am consulting and conducting product development projects. I rigorously taste and spit (knowing some ingestion is inevitable), but if I EVER feel any compulsion to consume wine, I will walk away entirely. It is no accident that I have been sober almost 28 years, and my 28th wedding anniversary is coming up in May.
Q: Wow, that’s a seriously impressive feat—congratulations on both fronts! Speaking of spectacular accomplishments, how did you become the “Swami of Umami”?
A: Thirty years ago, my work led me to sensory scientists who were at the cutting edge of what’s going on in the world. I actually introduced, articulated, and presented the science behind umami taste. Before that, people had only divided taste into four categories: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. My identification of umami flavor led to working with the head of research in development for Nestle in Switzerland and scientists in Japan, among others.
The Japanese derivation of the word “umami” comes from the Zen for “oneness of the universe.” “Uma’i” is a general term for “good” in Japanese. There is evidence that derivations may even come from the mother of all words on the planet. “Uma” is the word for “mother” in Sanskrit, and “umi” denotes “my mother” in Arabic. The word “umaye” is found throughout two-thirds of Africa, and New Zealand Maori tribes had an earth womb, which is a luau pit, and it was called an “umaye.” And in Hawaii, the mumu is the “pregnancy” dress. “Mama,” “maman,” “mommy,” and similar words in Mandarin Chinese are used throughout the world—even by indigenous tribes in the Americas.
I was amazed by the amount of resistance I faced from the wine and food community back in the late 1980s when I started to lecture on the subject!
A good friend of mine, Pug Osling, was the owner of a wine bar and restaurant in Boise, Idaho. He said, “What you need is an official title”—and then dubbed me the Swami of Umami. Most importantly, he made me the official Swami of Umami t-shirt. So there would be no doubt, LOL.
Q: You’re not a big fan of the term “supertaster” because you feel it implies superiority rather than simple biological differences. What does it mean to be a supertaster, and why do you prefer to use “hypersensitive”?
A: “Supertaster” is a term coined by the geneticist Linda Bartoshuk. She identified a genetic sensitivity to a very specific and obscure compound that demonstrated we’re genetically different in what we perceive. There’s a group of compounds known as thiourea (PROP, PTC). A variation of thiourea is a prescriptive medicine for thyroid conditions. It was spilled in a laboratory about 100 years ago, and people working in the lab had very different reactions to this molecularly tiny dust ranging from horribly, even excruciatingly, bitter to “Okay, it is bitter, but you are overreacting” to “What are you all talking about?” Bartoshuk discovered some could taste a horrid bitterness in it while others thought they were overreacting. Then she did the research to find out whether people had a hypersensitivity, sensitivity, or no sensitivity to this specific compound.
Some people have more than 11,000 taste buds, others fewer than 500. There is no better or worse! And the people with the highest number are most likely to prefer sweet, low-alcohol wines (as discussed in Part 1). They have the highest perceptive sensitivity—an unimaginable level of sensitivity. They have so many sensations, they think they’re lousy tasters. They experience a chaos of sensations. Before they taste their food, they have to grab the salt to cover the bitterness. This goes all the way back to the womb. In utero, hypersensitives and sensitives can actually smell molecules in the amniotic fluid.
Q: Like many, I was born with an intense aversion to cilantro. It tasted like dish soap to me. I would try cilantro every so often to see if I still hated it, and I did. Then, suddenly, I started loving it a few years ago. I began using it regularly in my Mexican and Thai cooking, and now I miss it if it isn’t there. I do have the genetic markers that predispose me to cilantro revulsion, but somehow, I inadvertently overcame it.
A: The genetic cluster associated with an inherent distaste for cilantro is called OR6A2—if you have this marker, you tend to find the sensation of cilantro horribly bitter, soapy, and disgusting. Julia Child had it. We are taught that people dislike cilantro and like sweet wines because their palate’s immature. Our actual tastebuds and perceptions of taste change very little from the time we’re four years old. What can trigger a significant change can be pharmacological, trauma, or hormonal. Hormones are neurotransmitters—they take the information from our tastebuds to our brain, and the pathway they follow can be influenced from positive to negative over time and vice versa.
Some people find they can have a mild to moderate form of sensitivity to a particular flavor that can be rechanneled in the right context. Contrary to popular belief, our palate is not changing—or maturing—with time as much as we are led to believe. It’s happening either at a psychological or neurological level. Julia Child was one of those people who couldn’t positively adapt to cilantro because her experience of the sensation was too intense.
Q: You are president and cofounder of eCode.me (soon to become part of Calyber, LLC, a new, all-encompassing business that will also include Wine Business Education and myVinotype). How does your company identify new methods for market segmentation and marketing strategies?
A: We found that wine consumers—and consumers in a vast number of other product categories—could be served better by understanding more about the fundamental traits that are driving their preferences, attitudes, and behaviors. A big part of this came from our breakthrough in finding the market can be better understood by segmenting people with common sensory sensitivities and traits.
My first big success with this approach was the identification of the huge segment and opportunity for Moscato wines in 2007. My client was looking for “the next big thing” in wine and focusing on single vineyard Cabernet, obscure grape varieties … the usual suspects. I told them it was Moscato and led the product development, packaging, and positioning of their Moscato. In seven years, their Moscato sales went from 150,000 cases to 3.5 million! I was working with another large producer as well. Ultimately, Moscato came out of nowhere to become the #3-selling white wine in the United States.
We also consult for restaurants, retail/etail wine companies, winery tasting rooms, and other companies that would like to better understand the wine market and market opportunities across the entire product spectrum. We use our Vinotyping process to map products and communications to consumers, look for new product opportunities, and help find ways to improve customer service and customer retention.
Q: Tell us about your colleagues Danni Lin and Chris Cutler. How did the three of you begin collaborating, and what do each of them bring to the table?
A: Chris Cutler and I met when he was general manager at Swanson Vineyards, and I was doing a product development project for the winery. He was able to help me with a couple of my online wine business financial tools and other technology projects, and we decided to partner up. He has a great business, marketing, and technology background and is responsible for all of our programming and business in general.
Danni Lin lives in Seattle and contacted me about five years ago about my work. She was looking for help putting together a wine brand to export to China with a range of products based on preferences for different Vinotypes. I have been consulting and conducting all sorts of business in China for over 25 years. Chris and I helped her with the development of Percipio wines, and Danni has become an essential part of our companies. She has a strong background in data analysis and statistics and is now in the Wharton School of Business MBA Program. She drove the translation and publication of my book in China. She has opened Great Wine boutique stores in Bellevue, Washington, and Harbin, China. We’re working with Danni for events in China and are grateful to have her as an expert translator as we expand our business opportunities in China—once we can get back to traveling there!
Q: You are also credited with promoting the Progressive Wine List concept for restaurants and retail wine sales applications. Can you describe these tools and explain how the restaurant and wine industry can benefit from this approach?
A: Back in the mid-1980s, I was a wine broker in Atlanta, Georgia. Getting wines placed on wine lists was an important part of introducing and supporting the brands I was selling. I was approached by a local restaurateur who wanted to try a different format for his wine list. We broke the wines down into “flavor categories,” grouping wines with similar characteristics and progressing from sweet wines to drier wines to dry, more delicate/lower alcohol and eventually to big-ass reds. Over many decades, the concept was adopted by thousands of restaurants and then adapted to selling wines in retail and online environments. As the Vinotype concept became more articulated, the Progressive Wine List format also became a roadmap for making wine recommendations. Love a big-ass red? Here they are. Do you like a dry Riesling? They are here—the sweet ones are with the other sweet options you may like. See this article on wine lists for more details.
Q: When you cofounded Wine Business Education in 2020, you asked Chris Cook and Sarah Wolcott of WoW Communications to collaborate on the development of an eight-week online course on the business of wine. How did Chris contribute to the project, and why did you choose her to help realize your vision?
A: I have been developing and teaching wine business courses for over 30 years. When it came time to put together our online/on-demand course, we hired Chris Cook to edit the materials and ensure the continuity and flow of content. She and Sarah Wolcott were responsible for developing the course materials, writing the script, coordinating the videotaping of the lessons, and serving as on-camera instructors. I had great confidence in Chris’s abilities to understand the industry and package things in a way that would offer the greatest value to the people who take the course.
Q: You recently served on a panel discussion with Chris and Sarah at Oregon Wine Symposium, where WBE had a booth the last two years. What did the three of you discuss?
A: Chris talked about wine marketing, Sarah talked about wine tourism, and I talked about the financial calculators we have created for wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms. Our financial calculators are designed to be a bridge between the formal work of CPAs and winemakers, managers, and people planning to make an easy-to-use, online alternative to complicated spreadsheets for tackling financial planning and forecasting. Our panel drilled into the realities of marketing your winery and products, engaging consumers, and making sure you have the budgeting and resources to execute a strategic plan. These workbooks are available for a very low annual subscription fee, and we worked really hard to make them for people like me who hate finance and spreadsheets! We like to say they are like playing the videogame Farmville with really poor graphics.
I also have a longstanding relationship with Oregon Wine Experience, which takes place in Jacksonville, Oregon, and I was asked to serve as a judge on their wine-tasting panels four times. I love the wines, the area as a whole, and, most of all, the people in Southern Oregon.
Q: A Certified Wine Educator accredited by the Society of Wine Educators, you teach in several wine programs, including Napa Valley Wine Academy and Washington State University’s Wine Business Management Online Certificate. You also conduct an intercollegiate competition for wine students called the International Wine Business Invitational. What do you think is the most important principle for individuals entering the wine industry to grasp?
A: That business is business. Wine may be a diversion or hobby for some people who are willing to lose a lot of money, but for most people, there are too few courses, and there’s too little emphasis on what it takes to succeed in the wine business. Again, so much emphasis is placed on the passion and learning about the product, then people wonder why their wine businesses or careers are so challenging. I have always loved to dig deeper and get past all of the BS about wine and discover what it really takes to be successful in the wine business.
Q: You’re about to embark on The Perception Project, which Chris Cook will be involved in as well. What are your goals for this project?
A: The project as a whole is about fostering a greater understanding and awareness of how and why individual and collective perception can be so different. The Perception Project is intended to serve as a systematic and credible roadmap for learning more about the perceptive sciences and how genetics, physiology, neurology, and psychology combine to form our sense of the universe and shape our value systems, beliefs, and communications. The goal will ultimately be the creation of a new approach to personal and professional hospitality. It involves getting to know yourself and honing your ability to know and understand the preferences and needs of others—something that is sorely missing in the wine community!
Q: I understand you’re working on a new book. Can you give us a taste of what to anticipate?
A: The Perception Project is the working title. It starts with the premise that there is no human capacity for objectivity and perception is not reality. Perception is the individual human interpretation of reality and exists only in the mind of the individual—and it gets whackier from there! It is a rigorous process intended to help us all understand the human perceptive system so we can better communicate with one another, empathize at a deeper level instead of arguing over our differences, and understand there are vast differences in what we think is reality. This may be my final project in life and something I hope will have an impact far beyond the scope of wine.
I’ll close with a quote Jim Taylor, PhD, as a “taste” of what is to come: