Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Follow Your Nose

I don't really know why I chose a previous post to wail and gnash my teeth about a procedure I had where the inside of my nose was rooted out like that slow drain at your favorite seaside motor inn on the fabulous boardwalk of Myrtle Beach. Could it have been a clever scheme to trick you into visiting another page on my site? Perhaps. I'm that shameless. Irregardless, this subject (the nose) is one of profound importance, especially if your pursuits include an appreciation for wine.

Surely we've all had the thought: what's with all the pretension associated with tasting wine? If it's indeed the "tasting" we're after, practical thought would dictate that simply slugging down that glass of Cabernet, swallowing, and determining whether it tastes good or not should suffice. And yet, there's always seems to be this goofy tool- found anywhere a cork is popped or a delicious Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill is gently quaffed from a paper bag on Bourbon Street:

Your author. Goofy tool emeritus.

The holding of the glass up against the light. The swirling. The description of "legs" and "viscosity" and "hue". And the sniffing. Oh, the sniffing. It seems to go on for hours. When is this jerk going to drink the stuff? Certainly he didn't get that impressive double-chin by smelling his way to a life of "relaxed fit" jeans.

For those who feel this way about the consumption of wine, I can understand why many of you don't really care for the stuff. Why pay $20, $30, $50 clams for something that can often taste bitter, acidic, earthy, tannic (the "fuzzy" feeling that sometimes occurs when drinking a particularly heavy red wine), and that has nary a hint of the sweet, fruit-filled flavors you've known when eating a grape? Indeed most wines- especially fine wines- bear little-to-no resemblance to fruit punch. Perhaps that's why Arbor Mist is so popular. I mean, what better way to wash down the bitter taste of crystal meth? Fruity, boozy Arbor Mist: preferred 2 to 1 by meth-heads everywhere.

-With all due respect to pseudo-celebrity Beetlejuice (right), I can't say for sure that he's a meth guy. Probably Arbor Mist, though-

But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that if you do have ANY interest in learning more about vino, then it's the aromas- far more so than the taste- that I passionately feel will get you hooked. Think about it- the sense of taste can only detect 5 things: salinity (if you get a salty wine, something has gone HORRIBLY wrong), sweetness, bitterness, acidity, and umami- a relatively new flavor profile that can best be described as "savory" or "meaty".


If you rely on these 5 only, you're going to be left very disappointed. However, the olfactory system is able to detect thousands of scents and compounds. In fact, if you ever really "taste" something other than those 5 mentioned, then it's the work of the nose in conjunction with your chewing (or swishing). If you don't believe me, try the old trick where you take a piece of apple and a piece of raw potato, pinch your nose with a closepin, and eat them. I'm telling you: harder to tell apart than a Michael Bay summertime box office crapfest from a Jerry Bruckheimer summertime box office pile of hot garbage.

So, the next time you pour yourself a glass of juice, take a minute to stick your nose in it. Swirl it if you want; this gets some oxygen into the wine, making the volatile aromas airborne, heightening the experience. Yeah, you've heard the pretentious, goofy tools throw out "fuji apple, lychee nut, white peach, honeysuckle, violets, orange blossoms, blah, blah, blah." Now, in their defense, those who really train their nose can pick these subtleties out, and know that a fuji apple smells different than a granny smith.

But if you're starting out, don't get hung up on all this. I often argue that some experts have heard these "key descriptors" so many times that they've tricked themselves into pulling them out of a wine. Believe me- I've done it myself. The most important thing is to trust your nose. If you smell strawberries, then that's what the wine smells like. If you smell poop (which happens!), then that's what the wine smells like. Don't let someone tell you what you need to be smelling. Your nose is your nose. The "expert" might suggest some scents to look for, and that can help you pick them out. The olfactory memory is pretty amazing; you'll be surprised what you can detect with a little sleuthing. And if you want to get to the point where you can detect "white peach" from "plum" or "horse poo" from "sheep poo", then you can certainly train yourself. Don't think you have to be born with a great sense of smell! Here are some great resources if you want to get serious (you're on your own with the horse/sheep poo thing):

1. Gary Vaynerchuk: The undisputed king of Web 2.0 runs a great website, winelibrary.tv, with far more than a cult-following. He did a great video on tons of flavors you can use to train the palette. Sure, he's eating instead of smelling, but it gives you a great idea of the flavors that can be found in wine: Episode #148: How to get your palette trained

2. If you've got a bunch of dough to throw around, Le Nez Du Vin makes some great kits that have the concentrated aromas of wine in little bottles: http://www.winearomas.com/

3. The best way: go to the grocery store. Go to the local nursery (plants, not babies). Stick your nose in the fruit. Stick your nose in the vegetables. Stick your nose in the flowers. Yeah, you may look like a freak, but let's be honest: you look like a freak anyway.

Remember: start with your nose, and you're well on your way to a truly greater appreciation of wine. And if you can't smell, I know a good doc who can root you out.

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