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What’s That Smell?

December 5, 2010

This week I met a man.  It was Tuesday.  And I can already tell that this is an encounter I’m going to remember for a long time.  In many ways, this man is a lot like me.  He’s passionate and opinionated, which I respect immensely, even though we may not exactly see eye-to-eye.

And this meeting happened purely by chance, based on a string of unlikely incidents.

Little Miss Fussy and I headed out for a date to Crisan.  Father and daughter had planned to enjoy a little hot drinking chocolate and a croissant, only to find the bakery closed (on an extended Thanksgiving break).  So instead, we headed across the street to The Daily Grind for a lesser hot cocoa and something to eat.  Afterwards, I wasn’t quite ready to get back in the car, so we were going to just take a quick look around at the Daily Ground’s retail store upstairs.

A quick look around turned into a thirty-minute conversation with Lee Cohen, who is apparently one of the co-owners of the establishment.

We talked about a lot of things that morning, and would have talked more if Little Miss Fussy hadn’t had enough of my blabbering.  I may have to go back there just to hang out with Lee some more and engage in some spirited debates on taste.

What does any of this have to do about wine?  Good question.

Would you believe that something I said might have pushed a few of Lee’s buttons?  I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it may have been something about looking for more lightly roasted beans.  To make a long story short, he challenged me to blindly smell something and identify the aroma.

This is a really fun game.  But it’s really freaking hard.  So he takes a vial of something, opens it up and waves it under my nose.  I take a deep breath in, and it’s sweet with some more of what I thought was a caramelized underpinning.  The first thing I came up with was, “butterscotch.”

Wrong.  It was eggnog.

In my defense, I thing eggnog and butterscotch aren’t terribly far apart.  So we moved to round two, where the vial smelled medicinal but on a second pass smelled fruity.  I was thinking something green like honeydew, but I was told it was pear.

Dammit.  Still, I think if I could have spent more time with the aroma and had fewer distractions I might have done better.  Especially if I had my handy-dandy wine aroma wheel.

Now here is the million-dollar question: Does it matter?

I say no.  A wine has a dominant smell.  You say it’s blackberries and I say it’s currants.  Maybe someone can’t even put a name to it and just says that the wine has a pleasing fruitiness that’s remarkable in comparison to other wines.  If a wine expert comes along and says definitively that the smell is marionberry, does that make everyone else wrong?

Perhaps in their identification of the smell, but not in their being able to discern it.

You may like Coke over Pepsi.  Perhaps you can even blindly tell which beverage is which.  It may even be easy for you.  But you may struggle trying to put that preference into words that describe the sodas relative flavors.

In my mind the important thing is to be able to differentiate between two similar things.  Not necessarily even being able to tell which is which, but to consistently have the same preferences.

Being able to pick out individual aromas is a great party trick.  It’s also a good shorthand for helping to remember why one wine was better than another.  These words can even benefit you when wine shopping if you can communicate them to a merchant that is helping you pick a wine you’ll enjoy.

But don’t be fooled for a moment into thinking that you cannot appreciate fine wine because you lack a wine expert’s vocabulary or blind tasting skills.  You can.  And if you read this, you can prove it to yourself.

Should you want to work on your scent identification, there are tools for that.  Like anything else, if you want to get better at something, it takes practice.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2010 5:41 pm

    Daniel – FYI “There are tools for that” link not working.

    • Cindy permalink
      December 5, 2010 8:35 pm

      Hi Rambler: perhaps Daniel has fixed the link – I’m able to get to the “There are tools for that” link right now with no problem (6:34 pm, Sunday 12/5).

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