| Covid can affect how we taste and smell wines.
Covid has had a huge impact on how we buy wine, but also on how we enjoy it.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Thursday, 25-Feb-2021
If you should lose your sense of smell or taste to Covid-19, don’t panic: you can work your way back to smelling normally again.
This was one positive message from a seminar held Tuesday at the WineFuture 2021 online symposium. The symposium brought together a rhinologist (nose doctor), an epidemiologist and a vintner/emergency room doctor to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on the wine industry.
Elvis García, a doctor of public health at Harvard who studies epidemics, said that lowering case numbers and mortality numbers for Covid-19 are very promising, but that societies should still be slow to reopen, and that includes indoor tasting visits to wineries.
“I believe we have already reached the peak maximum number of cases and deaths,” García said. “Last month was the peak to me. I don’t think we’ll get back to the peak where we were a month ago. But we still need to understand that we are not [safe] yet. We’ll see how the middle-income countries get access to vaccines. The virus is a worldwide problem. We won’t get out of this if not everybody has access to vaccines. Otherwise we’ll see mutations of the virus that will affect us even if we have been vaccinated.”
Panel moderator Laura Catena, managing director of Catena Wines in Argentina and an emergency room doctor in San Francisco, said that she has felt pressure from the wine industry to condone indoor wine tasting.
“When I look at it from my doctor-science side, it’s very hard for me to tell wineries they should allow people to have wine tasting inside,” Catena said. “It’s very difficult to convince people, it’s not over yet. Some countries are being vaccinated faster than others but it’s a very tiny community of people that have been vaccinated. The wine industry needs to embrace what scientists are telling us.”
Simon Gane, a rhinologist at the Royal National Throat Ear Hospital in London, said that every wine lover’s scariest Covid-19 symptom – anosmia, the loss of sense of smell – is usually actually good news.
“The easiest to treat is sudden-onset anosmia,” Gane said. “They lose their sense of smell in a matter of hours, or they wake up with it. Sometimes that’s all they get. Sometimes they move onto the other things we know now. Weirdly, if you lose your sense of smell it’s actually a good sign. You’re unlikely to get severe Covid. We think it’s just swelling in the nose. Suddenly it’s more switched off, and you can’t smell. For most people it’s temporary and it lasts only a few days or weeks.”
Smelling of roses
However, Gane said about 5-10 percent of people who experience Covid-related olfactory dysfunctions continue to suffer from it for an undetermined amount of time. It’s not always anosmia: some people suffer parosmia, in which some things or even everything smells disgusting.
“The majority of my male patients who come to me, their main problem is they can’t enjoy wine anymore,” Gane said. “Most of the pleasure of wine is the sensory experience. Even if you’ve lost your sense of smell, it can regenerate. I hope this will drive a better appreciation of enjoying what you have at the moment.”
Gane said that if you do lose your sense of smell, don’t wait to act.
“There’s some information from other senses we have, like hearing loss, we know that when we give steroids early, the earlier you give them, the better recovery is,” Gane said. “We don’t have evidence yet about Covid-19 but it’s vital to get help early, and to talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about. Even if you’ve lost your sense of smell, it can regenerate.”
Gane suggested that people can retrain themselves to smell using wine-tasting aroma kits like the French nez du vin kits used by winemaking students. He said that classical smell retraining kits used by people who lose their sense of smell in an accident use four scents – rose, clove, eucalyptus and lemon – that people practice with twice a day. But nez du vin kits should work just as well.
Another scary aspect of Covid-19 is that for some people, it affects not just the sense of smell, but the sense of taste. Much of taste actually is smell – retronasal processing of aromas from food in the mouth. But Gane said the Covid-19 virus in some cases also seems to knock out taste receptors.
“There are stories of people drinking a bottle of vodka like it was water,” Gane said. “There are stories of people eating ghost pepper chilis and not even blinking.”
Yikes! (Although imagine the TikTok videos.)
“It does seems like the taste comes back,” said Gane. He said the cause of temporary anosmia from Covid-19 might just be inflammation in the olfactory canal, and it’s possible that something like that happens to the taste buds as well.
García said that he and other epidemiologists are not at all surprised by this pandemic; he said epidemics have been happening every few years but before this one they had been limited by fast government action.
“Governments are only focused on this false dichotomy between economy and health,” García said. “Confinements are the worst solution. But sometimes there’s nothing else you can do. Confinement is a sign that things were not done right. Look at the countries that did things right, like Australia and New Zealand. They don’t have confinements because they did things right.”
Catena called upon her fellow vintners to be part of the solution.
“The call to the wine community is to really listen to science,” Catena said.