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OK. And more gourmet news from California now, about caviar and a man whose job it is to eat and grade caviar. Joe Melendez worked his way up from fish cutter to chief taster at Sterling Caviar in Sacramento.

Capital Public Radio's Elaine Corn reports on one man and his talented taste buds.

ELAINE CORN (Capital Public Radio): Joe Melendez is in the belly of production at Sterling Caviar. And caviar is everywhere. It's piled on screen, on scales, in bowls where it's mixed with salt. Melendez is suited up in a lab coat, rubber wading boots, a hairnet and sterile gloves. He's talking through a surgical mask.

Mr. JOE MELENDEZ (Chief taster, Sterling Caviar): I'm running around and I taste as I go. So I'll let you go ahead and see what I do.

CORN: Melendez supervises as workers remove the enormous ovary sacks from the female sturgeon. The sacks are as big as lungs and bursting with millions of the delicate eggs. Melendez lifts his glasses so his naked eye can focus on the size of the tiny beads. The smaller ones will be classic grade. The larger ones will be royal. Melendez lets me be a caviar taster.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Go ahead, try them out.

CORN: I'm going to guess: a classic.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Actually, they're okay. The size is okay, and the firmness is okay, so I'm going to go ahead and make them a royal. There's a grey line. That's the part that I'm here for, believe it or not. I have an imaginary line on my tongue that tells me that's still okay. It could be firmer, don't get me wrong, but it's still okay.

CORN: Melendez looks for firm eggs that burst on his palate. It's what tasters call the pop.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Do you like that pop?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORN: It's a royal.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Yes.

CORN: Like people, each fish is genetically unique. That's why their row is numbered, from removal to retail tin. Caviar from one fish is never mixed with the caviar from another. This batch of royal caviar is mounded into a decorative tin. It weighs 1,800 grams, equal to a family can of tuna fish. It's worth considerably more: $4,000. In other words, there's a lot riding on Melendez' tongue.

Peter Struffenegger manages Sterling's hatchery and caviar production. He says Melendez may have joined the business as a fish cutter, but soon showed he had a talent for something else.

Mr. PETER STRUFFENEGGER (Manager, Sterling Caviar): So when everyone was tasting caviar, he was the one was the one who goes mmm, you know, I taste this. And then oh, yeah. You're right. I taste it, too. So it became obvious that he was one that had those more than 40 taste buds. He was a super-taster.

CORN: Super-taster is a clinical term for someone with lots of taste buds. Super-tasters detest bitterness - think black coffee. Caviar's ingredients of only yolks and salt mean that even a hint of bitterness shouldn't be there. And if it is, it won't get by Melendez.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Sometimes I get an egg, and it'll taste to me like if you get a walnut that's fallen off a tree, and it's not ready yet, and you crack it and eat it anyway and you've got that really weird, bitter flavor in your mouth. You know, and you don't want that.

CORN: Nothing in his life growing up in Sacramento prepared Melendez for a daily diet of caviar.

Mr. MELENDEZ: Dinner would be whatever mom made: Mexican food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELENDEZ: Chili verde, chili colorado. You know, just regular Mexican dinners: tamales, you know, menudo, everything.

CORN: But no caviar.

Mr. MELENDEZ: This is the very first I ever had any type of experience eating fish eggs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELENDEZ: I've not gone to school to learn how to taste, like some chefs or some - I assume really, really get paid big money to taste. Like everybody else, they say fish eggs, and you go yuck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORN: But now, here in Sterling's sterile processing room, Melendez is not saying yuck anymore.

Mr. MELENDEZ: You can see why people buy it. You know, I do like it. Especially when it really, really tastes good.

CORN: And if the caviar doesn't taste really, really good, Joe Melendez has got a set of taste buds that can tell the difference.

For NPR News, I'm Elaine Corn in Sacramento.

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