I’m getting a little geosmin in the nose
How useful and informative would it be for a wine consumer to learn from a critic that a wine has the aroma of geosmin? Not very, you’re likely thinking. You’d have to look it up, and even then, you’d suffer from a serious case of MEGO when learning that the proper chemical name for geosmin is (4S,4aS,8aR)-4,8a-Dimethyl-1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-octahydronaphthalen-4a-ol, that “Geosmin is produced by several classes of microbes, including cyanobacteria,” and that “In 2006, the biosynthesis of geosmin by a bifunctional Streptomyces coelicolor enzyme was unravelled by Jiang et al.”
On the other hand, such information could very well be of enormous interest and value to a winemaker. If it is true that “Geosmin…is an organic compound with a distinct earthy flavor and aroma, and is responsible for the earthy taste of beets and a contributor to the strong scent (petrichor) that occurs in the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather…” then it might be important for that winemaker to control for geosmin–to discourage or encourage it, depending on how much of that “earthy taste of beets” she wants in, say, her Pinot Noir.
In other words, there are at least two different methods to describe the aromas, flavors and textures of wine: one suitable for an amateur audience, and another for a scientific one. The two are light years apart. In my job, it isn’t in the least necessary for me to understand the ins and outs of geosmin, as long as I can properly describe a Pinot Noir as smelling like fresh beetroot (a favorite word of Michael Broadbent for Burgundy, and one I occasionally turn to, usually for certain Russian River Pinots). I do like the metaphor of “the scent of the air when rain falls after a dry spell of weather”; it’s almost poetic in its connotativeness. But I doubt I’ll ever actually use it.
These thoughts arose in my head when, by chance last week, I happened to read this article, in the latest issue of Andy Blue’s The Tasting Panel, about an olfactory expert, Alexandre Schmitt. He holds workshops with winemakers, in order to heighten their awareness and understanding of aromas. Among his clients mentioned in the article are Caymus, Harlan, Ovid and Cliff Lede. I was up at Ovid last Friday, where I spoke with their winemaker, Austin Peterson, about his studies with Schmitt, which have been going on now for three years. Later, at lunch, the topic arose again, this time involving another wine writer. The discussion grew a little heated when the other writer said that it’s important for wine writers to have a thorough understanding of very technical topics, including wine olfactics, in order to do our job well.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. As I explained to the other writer, the winemaker and the wine writer have entirely different jobs. The winemaker must have a grasp of grape and wine chemistry (and many other technical fields) in order to do his job properly. (Austin, incidentally, is a very great winemaker.) Just as a NASA engineer has to be thoroughly grounded in everything from math, physics, chemistry and earth sciences to writing, public speaking, management and leadership, so the winemaker must be master of viticulture, enology, sanitation, oak barrels, machinery and equipment, pest management, employee relations, local ordinances and on and on.
The wine writer doesn’t need to know about any of that, or just minimally. Sure, a certain base knowledge of, say, rootstocks and clones is useful. Just how much, however, is an open question. Pinot Noir winemakers obsess on clones. Does 115 tend to ripen earlier or later than 114? Which is more tannic, 777 or 667? These are vital to the winemaker’s eventual success or lack thereof.
How important is it for a wine writer to know such things? Look at it this way. Let’s say I taste a Pinot that’s very tannic. That’s certainly important information to convey to my readers. But–assuming I even knew that there was a lot of clone 777 in there–how important is it for me to tell readers that the tannins come from 777? First of all, I can’t prove it, although clone 777 is generally associated with strong tannins. Let’s say the winemaker herself told me the tannins are from 777. Do I repeat that to the readers? Is it necessary or even interesting for them to know that? I don’t think so, any more than it’s necessary for the buyer of an automobile to know where the steering wheel was manufactured (political and economic considerations aside). A car buyer wants to know how the steering wheel feels in his hands, how the car reacts to turning it, what options in its material construction he has, if he can control the sound system without removing his hands from it.
A wine consumer similarly wants to know the basics: What does the wine smell like? What does it taste like? How’s the finish? Should he age it? What foods should he drink it with? Is it a particularly good value? Of course, depending on how much space the writer has to express himself, he can fit more or less information in there. If I have 250 words to devote to describing a single wine, I might well say something about the toast level of the barrels, or the soil composition of the vineyard, or even where the winemaker worked before. If I have only 40 words, my options are limited: I have to get the basic information across, and moreover in a way that’s well written. I might even be able to get a little poetry in there, a la “rainfall after a dry spell.” But no matter what my word count is, I can’t see the point of using a word like geosmin.