The 16 rows of banquet tables set up inside Merlot Hall at the Napa Valley Expo on Thursday formed a classroom of sorts. But along with the note paper and pens were three glasses of red wine at each seat — the subject of a lesson on the role of aroma and smell in the enjoyment of wine, and the challenges of expressing and sharing that sense.
An audience of winemakers, writers and other enthusiasts took their seats, then swirled each glass in turn and took silent, practiced sniffs from each. They were repeating the ritual common to wine enthusiasts — one they were about to be told was more crucial than even they realized.
Leading this olfactory journey were a longtime winemaker, a Napa wine seller, and a third guest who compared the power of wine aromas to the effect of the finest, most subtle perfumes.
Alyssa Harad had been invited to the Wine + Grape Expo, but not for her expertise with the vine. Instead, the author from Austin, Texas, was sharing insights from her memoir “Coming to My Senses,” which detailed her immersion into the world of fine perfumes in prose that book reviewers have described as unusually vivid and penetrating for the most elusive of senses.
Harad’s speech was one of 11 seminars, presentations and tastings at the Wine + Grape Expo, an annual winemakers’ gathering organized by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. But in a schedule otherwise devoted to disease-resistant vines, climate, alcohol content and statistical analysis, the discussion of aromas often took a more poetic turn.
Sharing the stage with wine merchant Dan Dawson of Back Room Wines and Dawnine Dyer, winemaker for Dyer Vineyard in Calistoga, Harad called the sense of smell — in wines as well as perfumes — at once the most slippery to grasp and the most important.
“We use scent in so many sophisticated ways to navigate the world — most of which we’re unaware of,” said Harad. “If you don’t have practice recognizing aromas, you will grab hold of whatever pattern happens to be available.”
More than the other four human senses, she argued, scent lacks adjectives unique to itself and borrows descriptions from its sensory cousins, binding olfactory memories firmly to one’s memories and life experiences.
“There’s no equivalent in (the vocabulary of) smell to “soft” or “hard” or “rough” or “light,” she said. “Instead, we have a private vocabulary of memory; you compare a smell to everything you’ve smelled before.”
Making wine descriptions more visceral also can help winemakers break out of the box in which they unintentionally hem themselves, Dyer added. By becoming so attuned to their products’ minutest flaws and quirks, she said, they can lose sight of undertones that instead grab the attention of outsiders sampling a wine for the first time.
“As a winemaker, you don’t really smell beyond what you know of the wine,” she said. “You need someone beyond the wine to pick it apart.”
When winemakers and sellers can benefit from greater depth of description, they also can express their wines’ characters to buyers concisely and quickly, according to Dawson — especially to non-experts not inclined to linger long over their wines.
“I sometimes think of myself as Hawkeye from ‘M*A*S*H’ — as in, you can’t do a long, perfect operation” when summarizing each wine’s traits, said Dawson, who was the original sommelier at the French Laundry in Yountville before opening Back Room Wines in 2002. “You’ve got to do it in 10 minutes and move on; that’s the typical customer.”
At last, the time came for them to sample the three varieties their audiences had tried more than an hour earlier. Dyer, Dawson and Harad each lifted the first glass in front of them — a 2010 CADE Howell Mountain cabernet sauvignon.
Mocha, minerals, chocolate, vanilla beans and oak, Dyer pronounced of the cabernet’s overtones. “Woody with red fruit and vanilla, especially the vanilla,” Harad declared. And Dawson described sensing hints of cola and blackberries, followed by “just a bit of red fruit mid-palate and sweet, sexy oak.”
The three could differ amiably about what elements stood out from the same wine, but Dyer, afterward, agreed that aroma’s role should be better understood, by wine’s drinkers as well as its makers.
“To me, it’s about how we’ve come to the language that we use, and what impact it should have on how we communicate about wines, and what we should say to help consumers understand wines,” she said. “It’s very important that consumers know how they get to smell something, what makes a smell important to them.”