Sunday, August 7, 2016

Confessions of a Noseless Wine Reviewer

"Noseless Wine Reviewer":  Probably not the most promising title for a resume, right?  Well, I do feel I owe an explanation for my significantly reduced output of reviews at Spirit of Wine (from reviewer "jorray"); and so I will tell you a brief tale of my odd and improbable path through the land of noseless wine reviewing...

It began innocently enough nine months ago, in November, 2015, with a two mile morning walk to my office.  While crossing one intersection as a pedestrian that morning, a car that was stopped at a light made a right turn on red, running into me as I crossed the intersection and tapping me to the pavement.  The hit was at a slow speed, but the fall caused my head to hit the road.  The resulting damage to my head had ominous descriptions, like: "multiple skull fractures", "concussion", "subdural hematoma", "right occipital, temporal bone and facial fractures", etc, etc.  As I personally experienced it, it was a situation that created vast pools of blood, gave me huge headaches and generated a subsequent loss of memory for most of the time surrounding the accident - plus it left me for a bunch of days in our local hospital's intensive care unit.

Weeks later, many of my most obvious injuries were healing, and I was back home, looking a little less like Dr. Frankenstein's failed first edition of a monster.  At home one day, I applied cologne to my face following a shave, and noticed that it felt like I simply had applied water.  I sought an opinion from a second fully-functional nose nearby, and was assured that, yes, it was, indeed, cologne  on my face - and a quite potent cologne at that.  That gave me pause.  And it also caused me to generate a scary hypothesis- one that had not yet been offered up by my medical practitioners at the hospital.  And, sure enough, further experimentation on my part and some simple online research confirmed my fears - I had entirely lost my sense of smell!  (Medically, this condition has a name - anosmia - and has been reported in as many as 30% of cases of traumatic brain injury.)  The causes can be varied, as are potential paths to recovery, but I won't detail them here.  In the majority of cases, full recovery, if it is ever to occur, generally is said occur within a few months of the accident.

So, at nine months since the accident, without full recovery, I have not been among the luckiest of traumatic brain injury victims, olfactory-wise. (I have been fortunate in my recovery in some other respects, including, in particular, awesome support from family, friends and co-workers.)  As a burgeoning wine-reviewer, home wine-maker and (very modest) wine collector, you can imagine how troubling a prospect it was for me to think of spending the balance of my life without being able to enjoy all those aspects of a wine that come through the sense of smell... the swirl of aromas, the emotions those scents evoke, the anticipation of the flavors to come.  Would these be lost forever to me?  Have they been?

There are two pieces of good news:  First, with a couple of potent doses of pharmaceutical therapies (none of which were any fun), a small portion of my sense of smell has returned.  I'd say I'm at perhaps 20-25% of my previous capacity now.  When I apply cologne to my face, I can at least now tell that it is cologne and not water -  but I can't tell which of my colognes it is!  But, sadly, things like the scent of fresh lavender or of gardenia in blossom are still completely vanished and are perhaps lost forever.  And while, by scent alone, I can today tell you with reasonable probability which of two blinded wines is the sauvignon blanc and which is the cabernet sauvignon (I've tested this),  gone are my days of being able to sniff a shiraz and tell you from which Australian vineyard it came and what oak treatments it may have enjoyed.

So, I offer a lesson to you from this first piece of news:  Please don't take your sense of smell for granted... Scent of a woman...  Scent of a wine...  Life certainly can remain rich without a sense of smell.   But the depths and colors and shadings that this sense brings to your days cannot be overstated.  My own loss of smell has affirmed this fact.  I implore you to appreciate this valuable sense in every respect.  From personal experience, I can assure you that life is not quite the same when a Sea Smoke Pinot Noir carries the same promise in its nose as a Two Buck Chuck!

OK, on to my second piece of good news:  It was interesting for me to discover over weeks and months that I had not lost nearly as much of my sense of taste as I had my sense of smell.  And this is despite the acknowledged wisdom that much of our discrimination in taste is due to smell.  Indeed, by experimentation I found that some aromas that were not simply not available to me through my nose could enter through my palate!  Now, I cannot speak to you about the biology of this - just to my own experience.

So, wines that were relatively inert to me when I swirled them in the glass took on fragrance, depth and character as I sipped them!  Tannins, acids, fruits, smoke, oak were all quite clear to me once the wine passed my lips.  Impressions were formed.  I could assess quality.  I could assess character. I could begin to discriminate wines!  Like a child learning a new skill, I learned to experience wines in a new way. This new experience is based on impressions and sensations delivered through my palate, without pre-judging the wines through any impressions on my nose.  Slowly, slowly, slowly, some of my prior abilities to characterize and judge wines have come back into focus using my palate, with a range of taste and aromatic sensations which that single sense can still bring to the assessment.

And, interestingly, my abilities to form visual and experiential impressions of wine (e.g., what kind of experiences in the world the wine reminds me of)  have remained more strongly intact than my abilities to describe specific characteristics - e.g., the nature of the fruit aromatics in a wine.

So, gingerly, I have resumed preparing limited wine reviews.  Though I can deliver impressions more confidently than I can describe aromatic elements, I am growing increasing comfortable in judging characteristics associated with the palate, like tannins, finish, mouthfeel, acidity and complexity.

When it comes to describing aromatics in my reviews, I can only think of Lennon and McCartney's lyrics, "I'll get by with a little help from my friends."  So, whenever you see a section in my reviews titled:

"On the nose (as agreed by colleagues):"

...you can better understand the kind of help a noseless wine reviewer needs to make it through a day!

Thank you for listening to my confessions - and please lend a nose if someday I must ask you for a sniff!

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