A Taste of Penn State in our Nation’s Capital

Penn State’s Research on the Road speaker series closed out its first season yesterday evening with a stellar event at the National Press Club in D.C.  This was our second program (but hopefully not our last–ideas abound for spring semester!) with the enthusiastic folks from the DC area alumni chapter. The talk was titled “The Science of Wine Tasting: Can Anyone Learn to Taste the Nuances in Wine?” with food science assistant professor and sensory evaluation researcher John Hayes. 


About fifty us gathered in the Holeman Lounge at 6:30 p.m., many alumni coming straight from work, for half an hour of socializing and networking—and eating!—before the talk kicked off at 7.

Some alums were longtime chapter members, but some were new Penn State graduates just starting their careers in D.C.

The National Press Club—where Penn State alum and chapter board member Joshua Funk works as director of business development—was a convivial location for our gathering, and has been host to other Penn State events, most recently President Erickson’s talk there earlier this month.


Rather than being a talk about wine per se, John’s discussion centered on the science of taste buds and sensory perception, and guided us through the wine tasting to illustrate his points. Every attendee had four wine glasses with different varietals to sample, at John’s direction, throughout the talk.

John (who has given an NPR interview on this topic) debunked some common myths for us (the tongue map?—bogus!) for us and helped us understand how environment and biology work together to influence our taste preferences. Did you know we’re hardwired to like the sweet taste? Babies in utero like it when sugar is added to their amniotic fluid and make “the yucky face” when bitter flavor is added. Did you know that, despite bitterness being our least favorite taste, we learn to overcome the distaste—and even grow to like it, as with coffee or a bitter ale—because we appreciate the effect the substances have on us.

Did you know that there are tools such as flavor wheels that help us become “callibrated instruments” when it comes to being able to taste and describe the nuances in things like chocolate, coffee and wine?

Everyone learned a lot, with much laughter during the hour presentation, and some tough questions from the audience as well. (“Can we develop more protein in our saliva as a result of being exposed to astringent tastes, such as dry red wine?” asked one alum. Answer: “Great question. I don’t know.” I warned you, John! Penn State grads will keep you on your toes.)

John Hayes with chapter communications chair Maria Recupero

Many thanks to everyone at the Metro DC chapter—Dave, Josh and Maria, in particular—for making our two events with you such a success. And ongoing thanks to University Relations and all those supporting the Research on the Road initiative. It has been a busy and successful semester of travel with our faculty researchers, touching down for talks in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s capital, and we look forward to good things to come this spring!

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