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Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?



Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?

  1. Thanks for sharing about Andrew Hedley and Harry Waugh. I have personally noticed that I’m now more influenced by someone’s personal experience with a wine than I am with a single review or score. I’m always amazed when the top professionals have opposing tasting notes on the same wine.

  2. At one time, I could smell TCA from across a room. After going through radical chemotherapy after being diagnosed with stage-4 lymphoma in 2008, I can smell TCA only on rare occasions.

    Interestingly, I’m now more attuned to other areas such as S02 and alcohol heat. I’ve noticed little to no difference in my ability to pick up subtleties in wine overall.

    Fortunately, my inability to smell TCA has become less of a handicap, primarily because cork producers are doing such a good job these days.

    Oh, and I’ve been cancer-free for nearly a half-decade, which is what really matters.

  3. Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Off-Duty” Section
    (December 21-22, 2013, Page D8):

    “What the Nose Knows About Your Glass of Wine;
    Of all the catastrophes to befall a wine professional,
    losing one’s ability to smell might rank highest.
    Lettie Teague looks at what exactly the nose knows
    — and whether a broken one can be fixed.”


    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” Column

    A friend of mine who works in the retail wine business suffered the worst fate imaginable for somebody in his trade: He lost his sense of smell. One day he came down with a bad cold. When it finally lifted, he could no longer distinguish between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc, or even a Chardonnay from a Pinot Noir. The aromas were gone. More than a year later, they’ve yet to return.

    While my friend can now detect a few strong smells — such as perfume, hair-coloring chemicals and fish — he still can’t make out the scent of a wine. It’s an affliction he’s managed to keep a secret from both co-workers and customers. When making a presentation during the tastings and dinners that are part of his job, he avoids talking about aromas or flavors, and focuses instead on the wine’s history and production. So far, no one seems to have noticed. When he introduced some Napa Cabernets at a recent dinner, his recitation drew raves.

    What if the wines had been faulty or corked, I asked. My friend said that he had prepared for that possibility by having someone taste every wine before it was served. But he was growing increasingly desperate. He’d tried acupuncture, herbs and various medications. He’d consulted several doctors, including neurologists. Nothing had worked. It has left him unable to appreciate virtually anything about wine — and quite depressed.

    As a professional wine journalist, I view my friend’s story with equal parts sadness and dread. What if I were to wake up one morning in the same situation? Although we talk of the “flavor” of wine or food, almost everything that we taste is actually what we smell. Aroma is nearly everything in a wine.

    I told my friend I’d try to help. So I did some research and located the Taste and Smell Clinic in Washington, D.C., which specializes in olfactory and gustatory problems. I emailed the contact on the website and soon received a response from the clinic’s director, Dr. Robert Henkin. When I explained my friend’s situation, Dr. Henkin told me it was called hyposmia. He said a reduced ability to smell was a “hidden epidemic” and that over 21 million people have “some aspect of smell loss.”

  4. Michael Kennedy says:

    I recently had ear surgery and now have a wonderful metallic taste in my mouth. My doctor told me that there is a taste nerve that goes through your inner ear and he had to cut it to complete the surgery.

    I recently went to retailers wine tasting of Zin and had a terrible time trying to tell the differences between the wines. At a second tasting station they had a Sauvignon Blanc and it tasted so metallic I did not finish the taste. We went to the next door wine bar for lunch and Merry Edwards SB was on the menu and I had to see if I had really lost my taste. I was relieved when it tasted fresh and crisp and had no metallic over tones. The doctor say the taste may come back but it will take a long time. I remain hopeful.

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