On-the-Nose Advice

By Janet Eastman

Wine appreciator Tina Ellis of Ashland can barely breathe, let alone evaluate the Pinot Noir before her. That's because a fellow taster flooded himself in aftershave before arriving at this winemaker's dinner, and his musky smell now hangs in the air like a sailor's old mattress. Didn't he know that tasting is all about the nose?

We've all experienced scent shock. Tobacco, cologne and fragrant creams are the worst culprits. But even the mildest whiff of almost anything can affect how we react to wine. People who truly want to unravel all of a wine's flavors avoid gum and even lipstick long before they sip.

But who hasn't absentmindedly tossed back peanuts, popped a breath mint or dabbed on lotion minutes before entering a wine tasting environment? Those olfactory oops not only can ruin your experience, but also everyone else's.

In the Tasting Room

The burden of keeping a tasting room and its crew free of distracting smells weighs on winery owners. They do what they can. They locate their building far away from stinky factories and cattle ranches. They outfit their tasting rooms like specifically engineered cleanrooms, void of dust collectors, fresh flowers, scented candles, room sprays, odor eliminators, incense or even dryer sheets that leave dishtowels with a faux aura of "fresh spring." They ask their wine pourers to bathe with scentless soap and show up for their shifts sans camphoraceous tea tree oil.

What they can't control is you. You can breeze in and upset the atmospherics in seconds. And the scent taint can linger.

"When someone comes in with gum, I have them discard it and eat some crackers," said a usually gracious Scott Ratcliff of Volcano Vineyards in Bend. "But then that minty gum smell stays in the tasting room until I empty the garbage. Gross."

Gum is a lot easier to dispose of than bolder bouquets. Laura Lotspeich of Trium grows lavender, distills the oil and sells bottles of it in her Talent tasting room. She seals the bottles to prevent a scent leak. But despite her cautionary actions, she still could not see this one coming: "A family purchased a bottle of the oil, drenched their little girl in it and managed to drive all of us out of the tasting room," Lotspeich remembered. It took an hour for open doors and windows to clear the air. "There have been a few other people who have visited with overpowering patchouli oil," she added.

Posting a "No Scent Bombs Please" reminder sign is worthless. By the time someone sees it, says Martha Wagner of Elk Cove Vineyards in Gaston, it's too late. Besides, adds Ratcliff, there's so much snobbery associated with wine that shaming someone won't engender a second visit. He's found that the beginning wine enthusiast or someone who's only there for the party aspect usually commits these olfactory offenses. 

But wine tasting is supposed to be fun, so why all this serious talk about ambient odor? Is it really that important? Some experts say yes. You'll pick up smells consciously and, studies show, unconsciously. Both alter your experience.

Marketing research studies reveal that wine retailers can trick your taste buds. People can be nudged to like or dislike a wine by modifying the "smellscape" of an environment. If a room is spritzed with a spicy aroma, most of us will favorably notice the spicy aroma in a Merlot and want to have more. But when we take that wine home, it just doesn't taste the same.

Odor Do's and Don'ts

So, scents matter. Tasting rooms have done their part. Now it's our turn. To keep the atmosphere neutral for all, here's some advice that's on the nose:

• Before a cork is popped, conduct a scent check on yourself. You may not smell the cocoa-butter sunscreen you lathered on your face and arms any longer, but it can hit others like a fuming tsunami.

• If you must odorize, consider this: Salud Scent Studio (www.saludscentstudio.com) has a line of fragrances specially blended to complement Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah.

• Honor requests. Some winery websites and wine event invitations ask that you forego rolling in with redolence. The polite plea may read something like this: "We request that you be considerate of others at this event and refrain from wearing scents that conflict with the enjoyment of the bouquet of the wine. Thank you for your respect." Lotspeich has found that no one complains about the reminder and "several have thanked us for making sure they are not bothered by overpowering scents, not just for the wine aspect, but allergies as well."

• Pick up clues. Mike Willison of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill Vineyards in Newberg has noticed that, "Those that do come in with [fragrances] on full blast are more likely to be shunned by their fellow tasters [who make] requests to open the windows and doors even in the misty days of January."

• Don't force someone to ask you to leave. Willison jokingly suggests: "We could, I suppose, seek to banish the odiferous to some corner of the earth or fine them as the legislature in Honolulu is proposing for its public transportation system stink-limit violators."

Instead of a fine, Claire Magee of Belle Vallée Cellars in Corvallis handles it with a bribe: Her husband, Mike, was once so tormented by a perfume-laden woman at a tasting event that it was making him ill. "He finally offered her wine if she promised she'd go away to drink it!" recalls Claire Magee. "Awkward? Yes. But evidently she wasn't too offended. She took the wine!"

Janet Eastman writes for national publications and covers Southern Oregon wine for www.examiner.com. Her work can be seen at www.janeteastman.com.

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