Deb Biancotti recently wrote about how much she loved the US movie, Sideways, while I don’t remotely agree with her about the film (love was not the emotion it roused in my breast), I did very much enjoy her thoughts about wine. She’s right: loving wine, appreciating wine, gets a very bad rap. It’s pretentious, it’s snobby, it’s blah blah blah. "That doesn’t really smell like passionfruit or taste of cat’s piss. You’re just making that up. Wanker."
Like Deb, I love wine. I love them, red, white, sticky sweet and dry as bone. I don’t care about the grape variety: pinot gris, malbec, cab sav, merlot (yes, merlot, I have no idea what that guy’s problem is), sav blanc, semillon, riesling, chardonnay, shiraz and so on. And I especially love wine with bubbles. Not just champagne, I’m also in love with heaps of Australian, New Zealand and Italian bubblies. What can I say? They tickle my nose and float across my tongue. What I care about is quality. Every grape variety can produce crap wine and they can all produce absolute glories.
I love the performance around tasting wine: checking out the wine’s colour in the glass, smelling it and trying to figure out what those smells are, what they remind you of, and then best of all, tasting it. Does the taste match the smell? Does it taste the same at the beginning as at the end of a sip, of a glass, of a bottle? (A bottle shared with others, obviously. Drink only in moderation.)
I totally agree with Deb: "It’s earthy and real. I think it’s a way to focus inwards on your body’s sensations and to feed those sensations through your brain and turn them into words. It’s sensual. Kinda—dare I say— sexy."
When we were in Buenos Aires recently we drank a lot of malbec, a red grape variety I’d never drunk before and this weird thing kept happening: the waiter would pour the taste, I’d sip, my mouth would pucker, and the first word that wanted to escape my mouth would be, "b’dna’gah!" or maybe "ack!" The waiter would smile and say, "Too much tannin?"
"Rather a lot, yes," I’d say, squeezing the words out of my shocked lips. The waiter would then assure me that it would taste fine in a few minutes. We just had to wait. So we did. Without fail the next sip would be smooth, almost creamy, yet still a big red, still with some astringency. I’ve never drunk wines before that changed so dramatically so quickly. Very very fabulous.
For my birthday last year, Scott gave me the most excellent present ever (except for all the other really great ones, like the watch I’m wearing, my silver wedding skirt, that tropical fruit basket, everything my sister and parents have given me ever, and all the stuff I’ve forgotten cause my memory is crap): Le Nez du Vin (yeah, yeah, it’s French and all about wine, colour it very prententious indeed, and no, he didn’t pay full retail price. Jeeze what do you think we are?). It’s a set of 54 wee bottles of the key essences found in wine: cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, cut hay, lychee, butter, mushroom and 43 other ones. Each essence is matched with a beautifully written and illustrated card that tells you its chemical components, history, and what wines it’s found in. And each essence smells exactly like what it says it smells like. The green pepper smells like green pepper (well, okay, it smells like green capsicum). Fresh, crisp and faintly like grass. The honey like a light, straw-coloured honey. Come on, you know the kind.
We’ve spent hours and hours learning to identify them all. (For extra kink value we’ve even done it blindfolded. Cor!) All our friends have been into it too (blindfolded and everything! Double cor!). It’s a tonne of fun and much much much harder than you imagine. Most people’s sense of smell doesn’t get the same kind of work out that sight and hearing do. None of the folk who’ve played with our kit has gotten even fifty per cent right first go. I kept finding myself holding the teeny bottle under my nose, going, "I know this! I know this! Tip of the tongue! It’s . . . it’s . . . Oh, oh, oh. Bugger. What is it?"
"That would be lemon."
"Aaargh! I knew that."
We’ve played with it so much we know the 54 smells off by heart. We’ve learned that after about the ninth one your nose packs it in and everything smells like cloves. The smell starts coating your mouth. You taste it. I started flashing back to my time in Jakarta and all those clove cigarettes (bloody kretek). Turns out Proust was on the money: memory and smell are intertwined. So many of the guesses began, "Oh, oh, oh! It smells like that summer at my aunt’s place and the ice cream factory down the streeet and the—vanilla. It’s vanilla!"
Both Scott and me have gotten a lot better at isolating different smells in wine, but not just in wine, in foods, in garbage (hmm, I believe that was once a stew flavoured with thyme), in pretty much everything. And our writing has changed—it’s a lot more pongy that it used to be. Used to be I’d go for pages and pages without hitting any odours. My characters would see, and see, and see, and also hear, touch, and taste, but rarely would they smell so much as their dog’s farts, and when they did they’d smell in familiar, unarresting ways. In similies, like clean hair, rosemary, vomit, whatever. I’d rarely take the smell apart, really describe it. There’s a reason for that. It’s really hard and using the chemical components rarely makes for evocative writing. Most people don’t know many beyond H2O and it doesn’t have much of a smell.
I’m still not very good at it, but the kit, and drinking and appreciating wine, has at least gotten me thinking about how to write smells better. Some day soon it should translate into words on the page.
Sydney, 28 January 2005