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This week’s question comes from Joe Jeral in Takoma Park who asks:
As a psychiatrist, I learned in medical school that the sense of smell is different than all the other senses. While vision and touch and hearing all relay information to the cerebral cortex for an ‘intellectual-level’ processing, smell information is transmitted directly to the lower, more ‘animalistic,’ and more emotional parts of the brain, without the intellectual processing. Keeping in mind the images of wine experts smelling wine passionately, I’d love to know how they would respond to this fact.
First of all, I’d like to thank Dr. Joe for sending in a question that has no question. After reading the query to a pair of sommeliers, I felt like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on SNL: Remember when you were with the Beatles? And you were supposed to be dead and there’s all these clues that like you’d play some song backwards and it’d say, like, ‘Paul is dead’ and everyone thought you were dead or something. That was a hoax, right?
Paul: Yeah, I wasn’t really dead.
Just messing with you, Joe. Actually, I love the question, such as it is. I love it because it implies that the snobby oenophile’s language for the nose of a wine—-“used saddle leather,” perhaps, or “barnyard” or even “cat piss”—-emanates from the nonrational side of their brain. Or, to put it less politely, it implies that these folks are tapping into their shit-eating monkey brains. Now, I didn’t express all that when I put the so-called question to the sommeliers. I just read it straight up. Here’s what Derek Brown from Komi had to say:
“Wow, yeah, I think that’s definitely true,” he says. “When we’re talking about the sense of smell, we usually start with something very simple, like, I’ll say, ‘This smells like rosewater’ or ‘This smells like peach’ or whatever it is. And then it’ll frequently go off into a story or into something a little more complex. For instance, Gewurtztraminer, which is one of the most fragrant of all the varietals, tends to have this very floral smell to it, and that comes off almost like old lady’s perfume. So it’ll go into stories that are a little more elaborate. So in that sense, I believe it’s true.”
Sebastian Zutant, sommelier at the new wine-centric Proof restaurant in Penn Quarter, agrees with Brown that smells tend to be more subjective than objective, more emotional than rational. But in the eating business, where potentially anything you stick in your mouth can set off an emotional trip wire, I wondered aloud to Zutant if irrational responses were all that bad when describing the nose of a wine. I mean, maybe we shouldn’t dismiss or degrade these emotional reactions, even when they’re coming from some of the world’s worst pinky-waving snobs. (And just for the record: I am not, in any way, calling Brown or Zutant such things.)
“When you pretty [wines] up with words and descriptions, sure, it certainly sounds nicer, but I don’t think that [the descriptions should be] degraded or downsized by simply just having a more animal reaction to a wine,” Zutant says. I think it’s sort of natural to do so, and not only that, I certainly don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
So what’s the strangest, most emotional thing, you’ve heard come out of your mouth when describing a wine?
“Yesterday, actually somebody told me that one of the wines I love smelled and tasted like baby vomit,” Zutant says.
Did you agree?
“I didn’t want to,” he says. “I call wines ‘funky.’ I call them ‘dirty.’ I have no problem with using words that are sort of taboo. But ‘baby vomit’ is a little much. And I love the wine. It’s a grüner veltliner that comes from a much warmer year….It was an interesting description.”
That animal reaction, in other words, is one Zutant would like to hog tie and roast over a spit.
To submit a question to Ask Tim, just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.