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Letters from Lodi

An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.

Randy Caparoso
 
February 9, 2021 | Randy Caparoso

The dangers of COVID-19 to serious wine lovers

Lodi winemakers Markus Niggli (left) and Layne Montgomery, tasting wine back in the "good ol' days" before masks were required for social gatherings

In one of the most recent issues of The New York Times Magazine (January 31, 2021), there is a fascinating article entitled "The Forgotten Sense."

The story addresses one of the most alarming symptoms of those afflicted by COVID-19: the sudden loss of smell.

Loss of smell, of course, is as common as, well, the common cold. When your nose gets stuffy or inflamed, you often lose your sense of smell for a few hours or days. This is more or less a momentary nuisance.

What is different about coronavirus, however, is that patients lose their sense of smell, as the article puts it, "with no blockage or swelling, no trouble breathing, no notable sympotons, other than the sudden and mysterious disappearance of their ability to smell." This is almost like waking up one morning and not being able to see or hear. When you suddenly lose your ability to delineate smells, which is directly related to your sense of taste, it's practically like losing a limb.

The wine etiquette of today, and probably for some time in the future

What we now understand about about coronavirus is that many patients who are lucky enough to recover from it can regain their sense of smell fairly quickly after testing negative. Others have taken weeks, or several months, to get it back. A tiny percentage report the crushing inability to smell even after six months. COVID-19 can be nasty.

"Smell," writes the Times, "is a superpower. You can walk through someone's front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing." 

Covid patients who have taken forever to recover their sense of smell and taste, adds the Times, "have struggled with depression, symptoms similar to stress disorder and feelings of relentless isolation and disconnection from the world around them."

Think about it: We consume food and beverages in order to sustain ourselves; and therefore, accordingly, we have been hardwired as thinking animals to take pleasure, almost infinite variations of gratification, in what we eat and drink. Consciously or unconsciously, our lives are guided, and to a large extent fulfilled, by our abilities to smell.

The entire human "tasting" machinery, connecting the olfactory, palate and brain (image courtesy of brainfacts.org)

Also think about it if you happen to be a wine lover. The taste buds found on our palates enable us to taste a wine if it is dry —basically, wines that are absent of any residual sugar — and we can feel the weight of alcohol in the mouth, the sensations of tannin (like the bitterness of tea if a bag is left in a cup for too long) and sourness (from acidity in wine) on the tongue. But that is all you can taste in the mouth: sweet/dry, sour/tart, bitter/astringent or hot alcohol sensations.

The gloriously liquid taste of black cherry, strawberry or raspberry from a well-made Pinot noir or Zinfandel? The intriguing subtleties of mint, green peppers or tobacco in an elegantly crafted Cabernet Sauvignon? The tasted of crunchy apple, exotic pineapple or sumptuous cream in a Chardonnay? All of these qualities, which we collectively group as aromas and flavors, are sensations that you "taste" through your sense of smell, or olfaction. These are the delineations that make our finest, most distinctive wines... fine and distinctive. When you can't smell anything at all, you may as well be drinking rotgut, $1.99 wine from a box or can. There is absolutely no difference between that and a ultra-premium Pinot noir or even a $400 Cabernet Sauvignon when your nose is physically unable to participate in the gustatory experience.

Ergo, when it comes to wine, smell is everything. It's what you look to enjoy, and what you pay for.

Professional wine judge, educator and journalist Deborah Parker Wong assessing Lodi Zinfandels

Aromas, or the smell of wines, are primarily derived from grapes. In an older interpretation of the wine term, "aroma" used to be distinguished from "bouquet" with the understanding that the latter term is associated with smells that evolve in a wine as a result of bottle maturation. In contemporary practice, the concept of bouquet has pretty much fallen out of usage, and aroma is used to describe any smell from grapes, resulting through the fermentation process, and also evolving after time in a bottle. 

Today, with the growth of wine magazines and wine literature in general, the more pressing distinction has become the difference between aromas you can smell and aromas you can actually identify, since sensory profiles do not become distinguishable unless you can put a word to them. Aromas, after all, are perceived by physical receptors in the nose that relay signals with attendant information to the brain via nerve endings. Therefore, an average person may perceive the scent of lemon, black pepper or rose petal — all smells found commonly in wines — but if the brain does not identify them as such, these smells are essentially nonexistent or remain an unconscious response, but are certainly not consciously appreciated. Wine tasting, in other words, is not so much physical as mental.

A few of the dozens of common wine aromas illustrated by the French wine producer Bouchard Ainé & Fils

Complicating this is the fact that human beings do not smell things in the same ways for both physical and experiential reasons. Most wine lovers, for instance, are not sensitive to the smell of black pepper in a wine, whereas there will always be a minority of wine lovers who can greatly appreciate the peppery spice qualities typically found in a Syrah, a Zinfandel or a Grenache

Still another factor is the fact that smells are, in fact, connected to the sensations perceived on the palate (the five basic sensations perceived on the tongue being sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami, i.e., savory) because the human experience of taste is what has been described "syncretic" — that is to say, sensations that have accumulated and merged in your memory bank. You are not so much "tasting" the black pepper or mintiness in a wine, you are remembering it. Your brain is a well oiled machine, built up over years and years of usage, and your palate and olfactory are the receptors that send the data up to the brain for you to mentally digest, and ultimately appreciate.

From The New Yorker Book of Wine Cartoons

So when you smell a fresh lemon, to go a little further, your brain perceives it as palate sensations that are both refreshing and maybe a little bit sour, even though "sour" is a taste perceived on the tongue. The scent of lemon may also trigger memories of sweet/sour lemonade, hot and sweaty summer days and other related emotions originating from a stand your parents may have helped you set up when you were 10 years old. 

Powered by your mental capacity, the nose can even perceive sensations that are "hot" (like pepper), "cold" (menthol), "dry" (wood, like pencil shavings) or "sweet" (vanilla, spearmint or cinnamon). This has been called sensory syncreticism, which is very much aroma related. Aromas, in other words, are our most effective way of delineating and appreciating wines, and therefore are never to be overlooked when you find yourself in front of a glass. What you smell and perceive is exactly what makes a $30 Zinfandel, or a $300 Cabernet Sauvignon, worthy what has been paid for these bottles.

Which is why COVID-19 is so nasty. How dare there be a virus that takes our wine loving pleasures away!

Wine tasting during the pandemic (image courtesy of travelpaso.com)

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