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Friday
Jan012010

What I Learned About Wine By Blowing My Nose

Today's as a good a day as any to get this thing going. To my credit, however, I'm not doing so because I made a vow; although I guess by not making one, I in a sense did, and at the same time have already broken that "resolution." That's a hard thing to wrap one's mind around on the day after the Night of the Bubbles.

In any event, here we go. Last September, when I was in the middle of a seemingly endless bout with head-clogging nasal muck, it became apparent to me that I could clear much more of that stuff out of my nose by blowing into a tissue (or onto the path adjacent to the Hudson River where I run) with my head in its regular position rather than angled downward.

Most of us probably tilt down before we clear because we think it allows us to push harder. That may be true. Or maybe it's not; doesn't really matter. At some point it occurred to me that this radical change in my nose-blowing MO must have other equally useful applications in my life.

Because I've been in the wine business for about ten years, perhaps I should have known that if you can get more out of your nose with your head up, it stands to reason that you can get more IN your nose with your head up. I tried sniffing in my usual head-down manner and then compared it to my head-up hypothesis. Eureka! It was very clear to me that keeping your head down makes sense in some contexts -- combat, sneaking in late, etc. -- but not when you're trying to get a sense of what that glass of wine has to offer.

It must be that when your head is down, you are somehow constricting your nasal passages or some other part of your respiratory plumbing. When your head is up, you aren't. I'm no ENT, I don't know any ENTs (though my sister dated one once) and I have never been willing to contact one to confirm or disprove my theory, but this makes sense to me.

It's not my fault that this didn't occur to me until I had already swirled, sniffed and sometimes drunk literally thousands upon thousands of wines. I blame the so-called experts. Aside from the fact that our society seems very content foisting blame upon others -- so I'm at least not much different than the rest of you -- it's really not my fault that it's only because of a season-long nasal drip-fest that I'm NOW a good taster.

Like many of you wine drinkers, whether you're of the out-of-control-need-to-know-everything-and-then-some variety, or just someone who likes a tipple on a regular basis, I took advice from the established pantheon of wine writer experts, most of whom were British, when I started my transition from sucking down cans of Old Milwaukee and bottles of Ballantine (when I could find it) while wearing a baseball hat backward to giving the wine thing a try. (I still wear hats -- my five-year-old son got me back into the swing of that affectation -- but just as my beer taste has evolved upward -- Belgians are my tippy top now -- I have turned my hats around and improved my appearance.)

Those heavy how-to tomes instructed us to do many things prior to allowing even a drop of that nectar of the gods to touch our thirsty tongues. One of them was to get our noses into that glass and take a deepish sniff. Not too fast, we were warned, or we'd miss what went flying past our receptors straight into our lungs. But really get your nose in there. And to do that, it just seemed natural to bend at the neck.

It certainly works to do it thusly, but it doesn't work as well as it might. It's like many "rules" we are taught in all sorts of areas of life. The more they are regurgitated by teacher to student and from upperclassman to freshman, the more ingrained they become in our collective unconscious. (As an aside, two upperclassmen wine buddies I relied on a great deal for free, well-kept, well-chosen wine "taught" me to mispronounce scores of French place names, and this despite the fact that unlike both of them, I had actually taken years of French in high school and college.)

It never ceases to amaze me how little confidence people have in their own noses. It may be true, as research has strongly suggested, that some people are simply better at pegging smells to things. These "super tasters" are able to take what is little more than amorphous winey smells and equate them to discernable aromas. This doesn't mean that they're "right," just that they have an opinion about what's in their mouths, which is something, at the very least, we all should have given how intimate it is to have anything in one's mouth.

Those of us in the business like to sound very egalitarian. We repeat over and over that there are no wrong opinions, that if I say raspberry, and you say cherry, we're both "right." And it's true. But at the same time, we experts also revel in our ability to capture the "real" essence of what a wine smells and tastes like. And the truth is that it's impossible to do so. There are so many variables involved in tasting anything (even putting aside bottle variation, something that no one in the business likes to talk about much because it undercuts our authority, or worse, makes us totally irrelevant) that other than getting some sense of a wine's weight, texture and mouth-feel, there's not much to be gained rendering, much less relying on, tasting notes.

This doesn't make my initial point about keeping your head up when you sniff equally pointless. Rather, it makes it THE point. By smelling in a more physiologically sensible way, whatever you end up conjuring in that glass is actually more honest. We may never smell the same thing in that first whiff of a racy Vouvray, and we don't need to.

Ditch the tasting notes. Put your head up. Clear out your nasal passages. And really smell that wine. You're the only person who knows what it offers you.

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