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Smell Bound

Author Edward Lewine

FEW OF US HAVE INHALED the aroma of a wet pebble with any seriousness of purpose, and it’s the rare person who’s tasted a gooseberry. Yet, wet pebbles and gooseberries are quite often used to describe wines in those fussy and intimidating tasting notes you read in restaurant wine lists, wine store display racks and the columns of wine critics. You know what I’m talking about — the paragraph-long blurbs on wine, written by so-called experts.

The distinguished and now deceased British wine critic Auberon Waugh (the novelist Evelyn Waugh was his dad) doubted that any written description could convey the flavor of wine to a reader. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, he suggested that wine writing therefore be “camped up” a bit, if only for entertainment value. “Bizarre and improbable side-tastes should be proclaimed,” he wrote, “mushrooms, rotting wood, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear.”

He was kidding, but you wouldn’t know that to read today’s wine criticism. Leaving aside panties and the Gare du Nord, such off-the-wall descriptors are now common-place. The question is, do they pass the sniff test? I flipped open a popular American wine magazine at random recently and found a white wine from the Loire described as redolent of “salted butter,” “brioche” and “blanched almond.” A Rhone red was said to smell of “braised chestnut,” “fig paste” and “hoisin sauce.”

The bizarre reference points pile up whenever wine is described. Melted licorice, scorched earth, smoke, seaweed and saddle leather—seems wine experts these days on are locked in a simile smackdown. “Descriptions are getting more florid, absolutely,” says David Scholefield, a wine consultant and a former wine buyer for the British Columbia state liquor monopoly. “There’s a race to be the most esoteric and arcane.”

Whatever the experts can or cannot taste, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, even in the wine business, who thinks the casual drinker can pick up on olfactory nuances like “autumn leaves” and “graphite” from a glass of fermented grape juice. As Gary Vaynerchuk, the influential and irreverent retailer and critic, says, “To most people, red wine tastes like red wine.”

So are wine connoisseurs really picking up on all those exotic flavors? And if so, can anyone else?

The Monell Chemical Senses Center is the world’s oldest and largest institute devoted to studying human taste and smell. Located in West Philadelphia, Monell has a faculty of around 50 biologists, zoologists and other -ologists, whose research is funded by government grants, foundation money and companies making things like deodorant, cookies and pet food. Between them, these fragrance nerds know pretty much everything there is to know about odor.

Monell researcher George Preti is a chemist who studies scent-producing compounds. His main work is in human body odor, but he said there’s no doubt that wine, like the human body, has the chemical complexity to throw off all sorts of smells.

“Wine is made from different kinds of grapes,” Dr. Preti tells me, “grown under different conditions in different soils and manipulated by winemakers. So, any number of compounds may be present in it.”

Behavioral neuroscientist Charles
J. Wysocki, whose research is focused on human variation in smelling ability, thinks tasting notes would be more accurately called “smelling notes.”

The tongue, he explains, is a blunt instrument capable of detecting just five tastes: salt, sour, bitter, savory and sweet. The nose, by contrast, has a repertoire of around 10,000 scents. Which explains why food doesn’t taste like much when you’ve got a head cold.

When you raise a wineglass to your lips, Dr. Wysocki says, molecules from the surface of the liquid in the glass find their way into your nose (others travel up your throat as you swallow the liquid). These wine molecules hit millions of sensory cells located at the top of your nasal cavity, which then pass messages to the brain. Some people smell better than others for various reasons, Wosocki says, but everyone has enough sensory cells to discern a wide variety of scents from wine.

The explanation for why most of us don’t perceive all those scents comes as a big shock to me. According to Danielle Reed, a psychologist at Monell who researches the genetic causes of variation in tasting ability, the issue is not biological but linguistic.

“The expert has a well-developed brain map of odors,” Reed says. “Untrained people can smell something and recognize it, but they can’t give it a name.” (Reed also notes that one reason women are better tasters than men, on the whole, is because they have a better vocabulary of tastes and smells.)

The good news is that anyone can develop their olfactory brain-map. The key: drink a lot of wine—sounds like fun—and try to relate what you taste in words. But until you develop your palate, which can take hundreds of glasses of vino over years, what are you to make of those outlandish tasting notes?

The trick to reading them, experts say, is to forget the more exotic parts of the description and concentrate on the basic ones. “The note might say a certain wine tastes of wet brick, which doesn’t make much sense,” says Robin Kelley O’Connor, the director of sales and education at Sherry-Lehmann Wine Merchant, one of New York’s grandest wine stores. “But the same note might also say the wine is flavorful, oakey and alcoholic. All of which you understand quite well.”

So it turns out there actually is a scientific basis to wine writing, even in its more eccentric forms. At the same time, it’s obvious that each of us—with our own individual chemistry and linguistic sensibility at work—will taste a wine differently and use different words to convey the experience. What I call gooseberries might be lemon-lime to you. A third taster might not detect that element at all, and that’s okay. There is no “right” way to experience a wine.

“Sometimes it’s not smoky notes you detect in wine,” Wysocki says with a laugh. “It’s smoke and mirrors.”

Mix and match By United Sommelier Doug Frost

Matching food and wine can be a lot of fun, but even for the experts it’s hardly a science. In fact, selecting a wine is as personal a matter as choosing a meal itself.

Everyone has his own individual taste. For instance, I happen to think raw oysters and foie gras are food for kings; others prefer a burger. I say, to each his own.

In my years as a sommelier I’ve always told servers that instead of matching wine with food, they should instead endeavor to match wine with the people whom they’re serving. Depending on a customer’s preference, he or she can opt for something subtle and elegant (like Pinot Noir), crisp and tangy (like Sauvignon Blanc), or spicy and buttery (like oak-aged Chardonnay). None of these wines are “better” than the others, though I’d bet everyone reading this has his or her own individual preference.

The first order of business for a server ought to be to find a wine their customer will like—nevermind what’s considered the “proper” pairing. And that’s the idea behind the wines we bring aboard United Airlines flights. For our upper classes of service on international flights, we choose one Champagne and four wines—two reds that cross the spectrum from big and bold to more mild, and two white wines that range from tangy to textured.

In the First Class cabin, we mix up not only the style of the wines, but the regions of origin as well. Of the two red wines, one is generally always from Europe, where wines tend to be earthier and less overtly fruity, and the other will be from wine’s so-called New World (the Americas, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa). We apply the same strategy to white wines, ensuring that the onboard “wine cellar” has something for everyone. Insisting on regional variety also offers passengers a taste of the many global destinations we fly to everyday.

United passengers gather from all points of the globe, and each comes aboard with his or her own culinary history. Some are drawn to foie gras. Others will gravitate toward simpler fare. In either case, rest assured, United offers a world-class wine that’s just right for your palate. Bottoms up!

A frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Edward Lewine is currently researching a book about wine connoisseurship.

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