At this late date in my life can my nose improve?
This is an odd question, but it came up forcefully after a recent day of tourism when my husband and I visited wineries with a sommelier, that is, a highly-trained wine steward.
Her name is Céline Viany and she qualified as a sommelier in France 23 years ago, where she bested many competitors and won first prize for distinguishing among wines and naming the vineyards they came from.
At that time, it was rare for a woman to be a sommelier, so I picture a crowd of French wine connoisseurs glaring and applauding her at the same time.
Every working day since, she does something that seems completely impossible to me.
She raises a glass of wine to her nose, breathes deeply and drawing on her memory of hundreds of smells, names the wine and offers comments. Then she goes on to the next glass of wine. For many years she worked in top restaurants in France, England and Canada. Now she gives private tours, bringing people to wineries and teaching them about wine.
I tried hard to imitate her. I sniffed slowly, more than once. I tipped my glass and examined the color. I engaged my taste buds by taking a small sip, swirling it in my mouth and then, most of the time, spitting it out, as professionals do to keep from becoming intoxicated.
I did this while Céline spoke to me of oranges, cherries and almonds — smells she had noted, which she then put into categories like citrus, dark fruit and nut.
Until our day together, I have mocked the vocabulary of wine with its unattainable precision, ridiculous comparisons and high-flown verbiage.
I sharpened my teeth on quotes like this one: “What you notice right away with this wine is the texture, that magical, all-too-rare combination of energy and suaveness. Is it nervy? Is it fleshy? Well, yes and yes; it’s someplace in between.”
But that is unfair to professionals like Céline who, as a student, spent four months at a university of wine where she tasted 80 wines a day, perfecting her ability to make subtle but accurate distinctions.
“This has wonderful citrus,” she says, smiling after a sip of wine. “It’s light. You want to keep tasting it.” Her terms are approachable, not pompous. Watching her distinguish among wines is like watching someone perform a stunning magic trick, but it isn’t magic: it’s real.
I took away from our day together the fact that Céline memorizes smells, a process I never imagined.
She said, “You memorize smells just the way you memorize anything else.” But I can’t fathom being able to do that.
After our day together ended, I found myself thinking about all five senses and imagining an exam that would test my abilities in each one.
In a test of sight, for example, I’d be asked to look at 10 similar objects and identify them. Later I’d be shown 10 more, and I’d have to say which ones were in the original group.
In a second test, I’d be blind-folded and presented with 10 objects to touch, similar in feel but not identical. When presented with them later, I’d have to say which one is which.
The test would continue with hearing, taste and smell.
Of these tests, the one I would fail miserably is the one of smell. Memorize 10 similar odors? Impossible! And yet, after being with a woman who can memorize not 10 but hundreds, I know it is possible.
Some of that ability is a gift, but some is not. It’s a matter of what you attend to, and I don’t pay attention to smell. What I see grabs me. What I hear moves me. What I taste fills me up. I don’t think about touch very often, but I would have little difficulty distinguishing one object from another.
Smell is a different story. I ignore smells. And when my brain is busy — when I can’t pay attention to all my senses at once — smell is the first to go.
Meeting a person who can tell one wine from another on smell and a tiny taste, I have to admit that subtle distinctions are real and if you have the right training or talent (or both), you can make them.
I can’t, but is that due to lack of ability or lack of attention? Could my nose improve?
I take my answer from my ears which, in fact, have improved despite some hearing loss at the high frequencies. I’ve been taking guitar lessons and, after four years, I’ve learned to listen to music more carefully, to hear melody lines I missed before, and to reproduce them more accurately with my own voice.
If my ears can get smarter at age 66, could my nose do it, too?
It’s a matter of shifting my attention, I say to myself, of taking a moment at various points in my day to sniff and think and sniff again. Maybe I’ll never learn to distinguish Pinot Noir from Cabernet Sauvignon, but then again, with effort, maybe I will.
The world becomes more precious as I age because it won’t be mine forever. If I can know it better, in more ways, why not try?
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at email@example.com