I recently wrote about how environmental variables can impact the way a wine expresses its character. That concept may seem esoteric to many, but it is based on the principles of physics and chemistry. Perhaps more easily observed (and understood) is the way aromas in the tasting environment (or originating from the taster themselves) can confound wine evaluation.
I’m very stringent about the environment in which I evaluate wines for review. I make sure that the room where I taste is regularly aired out. I do not taste when Irene is cooking or has cooked recently. Air fresheners and potpourri are not allowed in the house.
Even the casual tasting experience at a winery can be spoiled by the person who comes in drenched in perfume or cologne or enveloped in billows of cigarette smoke. The best one can do is move down the counter and away from the olfactory offender. Sometimes, it’s just impossible to escape distracting or intrusive aromas.
In one Monterey tasting room, the tasting room manager (in an effort to capture additional dollars through the sale of gifts and tchotchkes) had made the tasting room unbearable with heavily-scented items. At a couple of Santa Barbara County tasting rooms, the decor included large amounts of wood elements treated and stained with very strong-smelling chemicals. These bad design choices made it impossible to know what was in the glass.
While visiting another well-known Central Coast winery, I hadn’t yet started tasting when I overheard other visitors commenting how all the wines had a “lemongrass character”. It all made sense when I looked at the shelf where the tasting glasses were placed: Bowl-down on the wood counter. Right next to a can of Lemon Pledge.
But intrusive aromas are not unique to indoor tasting environments. At an outdoor festival, I was struck how prominent the aroma of vanilla was in the wines being poured. Was there a surge in the use of new American oak among these wines? As I thought about that, I realized that a large portion of the coniferous trees in the area were Jeffrey Pines, whose bark smells strongly of vanilla. Who would have thought that Boy Scout training would come in handy in my wine gig?
Back at home, during the recent Station Fire, I suspended all tasting because the smell of smoke permeated the air (and the house) for days. All fires carry aromatic elements of their fuels. Most people can even tell the difference between the smell of a campfire, a fireplace, a grass fire, a coal file, or a barbecue grill being started with lighter fluid.
It’s surprising how outdoor aromas can creep into the house and my tasting environment. The skunk cornered by the neighbor’s dog may lead me to erroneously suspect mercaptan flaws in a wine. The fertilizer in the garden might make me think the wine before may have Brettanomyces taint. Bark chips put out by the gardener could suggest strong oak influence in a wine. The aroma of the roses, night-blooming jasmine or the oranges growing in the garden might insinuate themselves into my assessment of a wine as much as the smell of my neighbor’s barbecue might.
This circuitous litany of aromatic confounds is not comprehensive. It may seem as though a day well-suited for wine tasting is a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. In actuality, the days when environmental factors make it impossible to assess wine are quite infrequent. Nevertheless, while some of these factors are controllable to an extent, it’s important to be aware of the possibility.
That is why I just do not taste when I cannot control an environmental factor. Consistency and reliability of findings rests, in large part, in consistency of method. I feel I owe my readers my best effort when assessing wines.
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