Sunday, February 03, 2008

Much Ado About Aroma

This has been a working weekend, waltzing across Texas in a minivan filled with all manner of Italians, taking us to wine dinners and meetings, building upon years of relationships. Something that cannot be done sitting in front of a computer on the 23rd floor of an apartment in midtown Manhattan or in an isolated cottage in Marin County. So while other people, with more time and expertise, slave over how to solve the crisis of wine distribution in America, I return to the road with my winemaker, importer and regional representative, to pursue our labor of love, that of building long term relationships with our clients.

While traveling south towards Houston I read from a book by Luca Turin, called The Secret of Scent. Mr. Turin inspires me, especially after scanning virtually anonymous blogger comments, angrily blasting on about how unfair life is. A walk in the park or a produce section might help.

How can one stay riled when walking into the flower section of a supermarket and smell a dozen roses? Or at least, what does it matter?

If you are in the least bit attracted to aroma, Turin’s book is important. Great scents are timeless, and the ability to capture those scents in your mind takes practice. Like learning the play the piano or speak another language, coming into an understanding of what smell means requires opening up that part of your mentality which sequesters all the primordial receptors for this ancient part of us.

You say you cannot travel in time back to Athens or Tulum? Nonsense. Walk around the amphitheatre at Segesta and pick on the little plants that grow low to the ground. Will you not smell what the Ancients smelled? Stroll by the Colosseum, in Rome or Verona. Scratch your fingernail along the stone or the tufa and bring it up to where you can take in the smell of something very familiar to scores of generations of Romans or Veronese. Where on the internet can you buy that, eBay? Good luck.

You can do this with any wine. It is advisable with a wine that has some character, preferably not one that has been produced in an industrial setting. I’d start with an Italian wine. Seeing as we have been traveling with Stefano Illuminati from Abruzzo and I am real familiar with his wines, let’s use them for the example.

I have in front of me a wine. Or do I? Well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t. But I don’t need to. The memory of the last few days is tattooed on my primitive mind.

This is bilocation and time travel all wrapped up in one’s nose, which hopefully is hooked up to the mother board in the brain.

I close my eyes and am walking up the path in Controguerra to the winery. Along the roadside there is beginning to grow little green plants that will produce a yellow flower in about a month or so. When they do there will be this brown butter and lemongrass perfume that will emerge. As I walk onto the grounds of the winery, to the left is a fir tree, next to the spring. The tree drops these needles that remind me of cinnamon and nutmeg and dust. They mix with the slate-like minerality of the water, which is cool and hard and attracts all manner of flying insects in the warmer months. Along the path toward the older building there is a row of vines, now dormant, but at the edge there are artichokes, with a slightly musty, almost truffled scent, when you run your hands along the stalks. Next to it there is the skeleton of a fig tree. On the ground there are shriveled up fig leaves from the last year’s growth. Pick one of two of them up and run them in your hands until they crumble and disintegrate.
At this point you will start to feel hungry as the scent and the visceral interaction will stimulate something that you inherited from life forms millions of years before.

We’re almost finished. Walk further on past the rows of vines until you come to the pens for the rabbits and the chickens. There, their dregs meld with the earth. This might seem repulsive, but there is always a little of this in many great wines. It is the taste of the earth that has been augmented by natural cycles. Here is where you are entering the perfumist’s Valhalla.

As we enter the back of the winery, there are barrels, recently washed and drying in the sun. They offer a scent of cedar and that slightly acrid yet sweet smell of the forest as it has been refashioned by the hand of man.

What do you say? What does this have to do with the wine? When will you get inside and talk about the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva? Pop that bottle and get to work, Alfonso.

I have a confession to make – we never left the inside of the glass of that Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva. That was what it smelled of, to me.

And that is what makes this broken wine business so wonderful and lovely.


  1. You need to write a novel!

    (And, to paraphrase Kurtz: do you love the smell of bocce balls in a minivan in the morning?)

  2. you mean Kilgore...


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