When Jessica Tallman walked into Peet’s, I was at once captivated by her immediate smile and generous nature – she gave me a hug even though we’d never met! In short order, she shone a spotlight on why we like what we like – a small glimpse into the secret life of a Sensory Scientist. She honed her skills in the craft beer and wine industries, but this “science of the senses” applies to many of the products we buy and use on a daily basis.
Her journey might have appeared accidental, but after explaining, I knew all along she had a plan to put together her creative nature with her academic prowess in the sciences. I always find it thrilling to meet scientists and engineers with personality-plus and Jessica never disappointed in taking me along on an educational journey. She told me she had wanted to be a chef before college, but that through her bachelor’s and master’s programs, she discovered that she could marry the creative arts with the academic by majoring in Food Science.
As consumers, we understand, at least in theory, the idea of pairing food with wines. We can adopt the basic rules of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or chicken and some of us have developed palates to take us well beyond the basics, but I doubt that any of us mere mortals that drink for leisure enjoyment have considered that there are 60-100 components of taste and smell that a Sensory Analyst might consider in a wine! Her work in the sensory realm was to train people in the language of taste.Her subjects were trained as human instruments in the fine art and science of sensory analysis!
What does a sensory language in wine sound like? Most of you are familiar with Chardonnay having two primary flavors – butter and apple. She talks about intensity and the “fingerprint” of a wine which might encompass the range in sweet, sour, bitter and how heavy it is in the mouth, but can you imagine talking about 60 more distinct attributes? The science helps us understand that the tannins from a red wine cleanse the palate from a rich steak with flavor fatanoids. Okay, that’s not a real word! I just had to come up with something creative of my own!
Asked about the greatest insight of her work, she looked at me with the spark of passion in her eyes, “tasting some great wines!” She’s tasted 80 different wines in two hours but says that even with crackers and water to cleanse the palate (and mind you she warns, you don’t ingest it!), that’s far too much for the casual wine taster! For a wine tasting party, ten wines might be plenty to imbibe and enjoy over the same timeframe. She emphasized that time and water inure carry-over effects from the different wines. I’ll definitely consider that the next time I need to taste test!
“We’re real people here!” she quietly emphasized which made me flash back to the unpretentious underdog triumph portrayed in the movie, Bottle Shock. In essence, don’t worry about subscribing to Wine Connoisseur Magazine to be an expert! Try a Pinot Noir paired with an Italian Cambozola (or an English Stilton or just ordinary Blue Cheese – you don’t even have to vary the spelling into the French to enjoy the match). Discover how the earthy note in the Pinot marries beautifully with the blue (or bleu) cheese, while the cherry and oak complement the rich creamy flavors and you will have discovered your own divine expertise.
Always the parent that I am to help kids find their passions…If you have a child of pre-college age or wandering around trying to find their mission in life, you might consider dangling this fascinating mix of the creative and science as an option. UC Davis has programs for Food Science, Food Engineering, Food Safety, and even helping students to become Culinologists to develop new food products! Starting salaries in fields like this may start at $50-60k/year and there are many exciting directions to go!
Jessica’s strong gravitational pull towards the creative has pulled and pushed her into photography which is how I found her but she’s grounded in the sciences. Her husband whom she met while training her sensory protégées, is the head of Chemistry at a large winery in California. Her gifts are numerous and I’m so glad I got a chance to hear about this little known field and to meet such a lovely young woman.
With her interesting background, I asked Jessica to consider teaching us more of her secret arts with a wine and beer dinner hosted at a local restaurant. She says she’s interested! We’re looking at October. Let me know if you might be interested in attending!