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Is there Something New about Perfume and Wine?

Editor’s Note: This post continues our theme of connecting wine – Spanish, Portuguese, or otherwise – with a wide variety of sensory experiences, be it classic music or perfume. As said by Olfactory Artist, Maki Ueta,

Olfactory preferences are originally locally oriented. They correspond to the evaporating character of aromatic substances. Each culture has its own special smell representation. Nowadays a lot of natural daily-life smells are disappearing because of the drastic changes in lifestyle. The chemically reconstructed smells made by the mass industry are invading us everywhere, and erasing and replacing the natural smells. On a street in Japan you smell Chanel #5 just like you do in Europe. I consider this phenomenon as the nasal globalization.”

We couldn’t agree more, which is why we’ve asked our friend, Burt Frink, to  offer us his take on the correlation between wine and perfume – if any such correlation exists.

One of the first ideas the novice wine drinker is introduced to is the opinion that perfume and all of its cousins, eau de toilette, cologne, deodorant and such, are stated enemies of the appreciation of wine. This is unquestioned and one and all move forward to avoid any and all aromas that may conflict with the illusive olfactory properties of wine.

The wine toddler goes on from there to be dunned with the notion of fragrance time after time usually with someone thumping on Anne C. Noble’s wine wheel which is treated like the one true version of the bible. Is it any wonder that as you walk from table to table at a wine tasting you can overhear snippets of conversation that make you feel that you have heard that one before? These are often echoes rather than insights regarding the descriptions of the wines being poured. (Flickr photo by PaulJacksonArt.com)

Describing sensual experience is a thorny task. Let me give you a test. Describe the difference between an orgasm and a sneeze. You can tell it to yourself; no need to write. Sensation often eludes description. That is the wonder of sensual experience. This mélange of impressions are more than terminology. The glories of wine surpass the mountains of words that have been written regarding its appreciation. Nonetheless we try. Words are our tool of sharing. I am recommending some unusual writing that may expand the way you talk about wine. Or maybe it will not. But I suggest it has the potential to influence the way you experience wine. It is an opportunity for you to become better at expressing yourself by getting away from the wine press and into a world of others who are charged with the task of being sensory describers.

Olfactory science scholar Luca Turin and perfume collector Tania Sanchez have published a delightful book that is a joy of a read for the wine lover. Perfumes The Guide is the real deal; a true bedside book. Just a few pages before dozing off are a suitable ending to the day. Don’t try that with Parker’s tomes. Nowhere will you be more likely to recognize his legal roots than trying to read him while you are prone rather than upright. Turin and Sanchez name names and talk packaging. They compare and point out imitators. And they stomp on the trash. Ms Sanchez’s trajectory of the path many take on their way to perfume far surpasses those first bottle stories I have heard. You know those stories: it was a bottle of Chateau Blahblahblah that showed me how great wine could be. Brief, to the point and expecting you should instantly recognize that the speaker has shared something of substance with lucky you. Ms Sanchez’s six stages of perfume include Mother’s Bathroom, Ambition and Naiveté, Flowers and Candy, First Love, Decadence and Enlightenment. Now that’s description; beats a bottle of Chateau Blahblahblah story any day.

Language has two high profile functions: to express and to impress. The wine world is filled with a lingua franca that people use to impress others. Expression, that personal thing that makes each of us unique, can get easily squashed. Consider this scene; four burly wine geeks at a tasting or a social gathering form a circle each with a glass of a white that I am sure you will recognize. Near the edge of this séance hangs a fifth to the party. One baritone speaks up: Grapefruit he declaims. All eyes turn to the alpha in the group to see if there is any dissent. Note: the alpha is not always the first to speak. Then all but one join a unified chorus of Grapefruit agreement and then play a game of can you top this in adding minutiae. The newest taster in the group listens and unpretentiously, not knowing she is only supposed to concur and add one word descriptors says: it reminds me of the gooseberries at my Grandmothers place up north. They were so tart and impossible to eat from the bush but they made great pies. They would only last about two and half weeks each summer. When the last pie was finished we would have to wait until next year. But the sense memory lasted through the entire time. The geeks grimace. She’ll learn. Nobody wants to be the object of the wine geek grimace. Toughen up girl. Trim those words. Read your Parker. Two pages a night before you go to sleep. (Flickr photo by Mr.Tu)

Turin and Sanchez will offer you an alternative universe. Yes, this read will help you learn a lot about perfume and that can be helpful. Long a footnote or subcategory to cosmetics in the fashion category fragrance was given little attention outside of its private universe. That world was wonderfully opened up to the non-professional by Chandler Burr in his two books The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent: A year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York. In the latter book he follows the creation of two newly created fragrances targeted for their respective markets and fashioned in the corporate culture of the two quite different countries and their contrasting business philosophies. Un Jardin sur le Nil takes us into the boardrooms, laboratories and external resources of the French house that is synonymous with luxury, Hermes. Meanwhile back in Manhattan a celebrity product is created around the personality of Sex and the City’s film and television superstar Sarah Jessica Parker. It is revealed that before her signature scent was created she personally used a combination of three different scents daily as a personal fragrance in her grooming regime. Can you imagine that? Three fragrances! Talk about blending. SJP wears GSM.

This is a business book and a superb one at that. If you have read enough books about the business of wine you will feel right at home here. It portrays the same outsized egos this time without the outsourcing of grapes. Amazon in their notes for the book describes the international perfume industry as insular, glamorous, strange, paranoid, idiosyncratic, irrational and lucrative.

Sound familiar? Sounds like wine to me.

Burr made a real contribution with his writing. So much so that he has been canonized and elevated to the throne of Perfume Critic of the New York Times no less. He can make this complex topic clear which is no mean feat for a man who is not a fragrance professional. With an MA in International Economics and Japan Studies Burr has written on epidemiology and public health. In the course of his journalistic writing in his second book he profiled a French-Italian scientist who originated the theory of the functioning sense of smell. That was none other than…..you guessed it…..Luca Turin: the same Luca Turin who joined efforts with Sanchez. Well, the fact is white smoke rose from the chimney at the New York Times and a new pope was on his fragrant throne. And a good writer this one is too. The breadth of his intelligence and the gift of his craft make him a joy to read and we are lucky to have him. I recommend that you can read him either sitting or reclining.

So I suggest for the improvement of your tasting skills you step out the wine world for a stroll in another serious environment of sensory evaluation. You won’t be slumming. Along with wine perfume is a luxury product that is considered an artful achievement by many worldwide. You will be led to identify your personal experience and apply a descriptive language to that event with a glossary of terms that give you different insights into the language of evaluation. I know this is a challenge to the wine writers franchise but for me too often I am hearing more mantra than expression. And don’t fret. You know the difference between an orgasm and a sneeze even if you don’t have the words to express it.

Burt Frink

Buy the Perfumes: The A-Z Guide

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