| Learning to smell again can be a long process, but it is possible.
With anosmia a common sympton of Covid, a French method can reinvigorate your sense of smell.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Sunday, 28-Feb-2021
Even before Covid damaged our planet, many people struggled with an impaired sense of smell and taste.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), approximately three percent of Americans had anosmia prior to the pandemic’s outbreak. As a result of Covid infections, according to a NIDCD spokesperson, “approximately 77 percent of COVID-positive individuals have partial or complete smell loss”.
When a handful of students at the Institute of Vine & Wine Sciences (ISVV) at the University of Bordeaux were stricken with Covid, Laurence Gény-Denis, the school’s vice director for education was inspired to put a new spin on an old technique.
After a visit to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist the students given portable diffusers that emitted aromas of various essential oils and were asked to smell them several times a day while visualizing the smells. Once they master those they move onto new aromas. He has thus far seen positive results.
“We really wanted to offer a transferable tool to professionals and the general public,” he said. The kits can be made from locally purchased essential oils or natural products like coffee, fruit and spices. He is hardly alone in thinking this new take on identifying smells could also help regular wine lovers ramp up their olfactory game.
A solid approach
While the bulk of winemakers said it would be hard to pass judgment on the best way to regain a sense of smell, not ever having ever lost theirs, several thought Gény-Denis’ approach was on the right track. It is similar in concept to the nez du vin scent kits that winemaking students – and wine lovers – have used to train their palates for years.
Heather Mikelonis, the operations manager at Baker Wine & Grape Analysis laboratory in Paso Robles, basically did what Gény-Denis is suggesting to regain her sense of smell after contracting Covid and it is helping her to smell again. Her program was recommended by her ENT and involves four essential oils – rose, eucalyptus, lemon and clove – that are smelled for 10 seconds twice a day for three months. As a result, she says that she has recovered her sense of smell somewhat but not fully. She adds that some of the smells, such as eucalyptus, don’t quite smell exactly like she remembered they did.
What is more, she notes “the biggest difference I’ve found is a decrease in smells that were ‘off’ – i.e. for the last several months anytime I am around steam and hot water, things smell really weird. Sometimes it smells like soy sauce, other times more like coconut – it’s bizarre.”
Smelling infused oils is a great training tool, agrees shares Kerry Shiels, the winemaker at Côte Bonneville in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. She adds that, unlike the nez du vin kits, “that are self directed, the concept of changing the smells based on students’ progress is really intriguing…. I think this could be a useful tool for people who really want to educate their palates; students of winemaking, sommeliers, chefs, as well as very dedicated consumers.” What is more, she thinks that Gény-Denis’ “sniffin’ sticks” would be a great interactive tool or game. “I could see all sorts of events structured around teaching people how to think about aromas.”
This type of training is very helpful for recognizing aromas, confirms Elizabeth Tomasino, an associate professor and sensory analyst at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “It is important for winemakers and sommeliers so they can understand what they can and cannot smell.” She adds that it also has applications for consumers who would enjoy learning more about how to describe wine.
© Irvine & Roberts/Jason Kaplan Small
| Winemakers Doug Irvine (L) and Jason Lett are both believers in training people how to smell.
Professional winemakers have been studying aromas for all of their professional careers and sometimes longer. Jason Lett, winemaker and owner of the McMinneville, Oregon-based Eyrie Vineyards, trained on scents from childhood with his father the renowned winemaker David Lett. “When we were kids my dad used to buy a roll of lifesavers and hide a lifesaver in each hand and if we could guess the flavor, we got to eat the lifesaver. If we couldn’t, he got to eat the life saver!”
Corey Beck, the Napa-based CEO and winemaking chief at Francis Ford Coppola Winery said that Gény-Denis’ aroma-sniffing process is similar to how he learned to detect TCA. He says that “it provides baselines for people and they will inherently be more aware of different aromas in the environment [as a result]”. He adds that his winery has long used similar tasting kits for its sales staff “and it always helped them pick up those characteristics in the corresponding wines”. He goes on to note that for many years Coppola also featured tastings in the dark, which was another way to get consumers to “focus on smell and nothing else”.
Doug Irvine, a co-owner of the Ashland-based Irvine & Roberts winery, says that he has read about such treatments to regain smell and believes they are beneficial. This type of treatment would be a “great tool for people in the wine industry that have had their sense of taste and smell impacted by Covid, especially a winemaker. It truly is a constant worry for wineries, having a person on a wine production team lose their sense of smell would be equivalent to Picasso losing his sight!”
A scientific perspective
Several winemakers and laboratory analysts thought that Gény-Denis’ approach was solid; both for regaining a lost sense of smell and helping to fine tune consumers’ sense of smell to help them better enjoy wine.
When Sherrie Holzer – now a wine chemist sensory specialist at the Paso Robles-based Baker Wine & Grape Analysis – was getting her enology degree at Fresno State she was part of a sensory research panel. “My job was to train average people that liked wine to become sensory experts,” she explained.
This was done by spiking wine with aromas of things like green apple and black pepper and lessening the scent’s intensity as they become better tasters. She also self-trained to be a profession wine judge by learning to recognize different sugar and acid levels in wine tasted blind. As result she said that if she “ever lost my sense of taste or smell, I would fall back on these practices to retrain”.
Amy Freeman, a Paso Robles-based Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)-certified chemist, affirms that everyone “can use periodic refreshers of aroma standards. It is something we have to continually practice and the more we smell standardized aroma compounds the tighter our collective descriptive language becomes.”
In addition, the use of essential oils to train palates is not limited to the wine trade. Wine lovers, she noted, generally adore programs of this kind that help them feel more comfortable describing wine. “Consumers love programs like these, they have typically been offered as wine club events.”
Not everyone was a fan of Gény-Denis’ approach to ramping up one’s sense of taste and smell. Catherine Fallis, a San Francisco-based master sommelier and the founder of the Planet Grape consulting firm says “it is not the sense of smell that needs work … It is a matter of training yourself to focus on and then mentally process what you are smelling anytime throughout the day.”
She was also opposed to using essential oils as those scents in question are expensive and artificial. “Smell a real banana, not fake banana essence. Also the droplets get up your nose and impair sense of smell.”
Doug Frost, a Kansas City-based consultant who is both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine – and the owner Echolands Winery in Walla Walla – is not a fan of “aroma kits, le nez du vin and such, because our ability to recognize aromas does not occur in a vacuum. We smell a constellation of aromas not solitary aromas and sensory analysis is the ability to find individual elements within that cluster of aromas.”
However he does believe that trying to visualize aromas may well help people recover from anosmia. “If there is a general principle, it is that you have to try to involve as much of your body and your mind, your past and your imagination, as you can.”
Emily Wines, the San Francisco-based Master Sommelier, also thinks the visualization part is key to identifying aromas. “There is a powerful connection between sense of smell and visualization, and I can see how retraining the brain would help jumpstart the process. Strong, recognizable scents seem to be key. One sommelier who lost their sense of smell first knew it was coming back when they could smell fresh ginger. Those aromas that seem to give a physical response, where you almost feel it in your head, would naturally come first.”