By Terry Sweeney
I don’t know what rituals you and your family had around the dinner table, but in my family as soon as the meal was served and my mother sat down to join my father, my older brother and myself, everybody just dug in.
No holding hands, no grace, no thanking God. Not the Sweeneys! As my mother loved to point out, God hadn’t slaved over the stove for hours, she had. And if we had to thank anyone, she felt it should be her. So I developed a slightly unusual ritual of my own that drove my family crazy. Before starting in on my food I would loudly say, “Thank you, God,” hoping to shame the heathens around me, and then I would dramatically bend over my plate (my thick dorky eyeglasses steaming up) and reverently sniff each and every item on it. The fresh pungent garlic my Italian mother had rubbed on the London Broil mixed with the savory meaty beef juices. Next to it, I inhaled the glorious aroma of salt and melting butter on a fluffy baked potato whose charred earthy skin whisked me outdoors where the sweet smell of fresh picked peas from my mother’s garden danced around my head. I was floating on an aromatic cloud in Foodie Heaven!
But the sound of my dear, sweet mother’s voice brought me back to earth. “FOR CHRISSAKE, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!! THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOUR FOOD!!,” she would screech.
“Maybe ‘four eyes’ needs stronger glasses,” my jerky older brother was only too happy to volunteer.
“Shut up stupid!” my father would yell at my brother, which would prompt my mother to scream, “Don’t you dare call him stupid! Even if he is!” Which would then cause my brother to shout, “This is all your fault!” then slug me, which caused me to throw my milk in his face and then the usual nightly all-out screaming, slapping, melee would erupt. (The truth is, I had started it all with my crazy food smelling fetish, I giggled secretly to myself).
I tried to explain to these bozos that the nose was where the most important tasting began and ended. For instance, when you had a cold, you couldn’t taste anything. Blank stares were their response. They just didn’t get it. More proof, as far as I was concerned, that I was adopted and that my real parents (aristocrats fleeing some awful coup) had haphazardly left me on this depressing cookie cutter Long Island doorstep, where they would hopefully return (perhaps tomorrow??) to reclaim me.
As the years went by, and I got around my peers, I thought it best to hide my food smelling fetish — that is until now. In my career as a wine educator, I realized that I can now proudly sniff until my Happy Wino heart is content. Swirling glass after glass of wines from around the world, I am happily challenged to identify and describe the many nuances of The Grape so that my Happy Wino friends might know what to expect if they order them.
What a delightful cornucopia of smells now fills my sense memory. With white wine — peaches, ripe melons, green apples, limes, mangos, grapefruit, and these are just a handful of the fruit essences that tickle my nose. With the reds — black cherries, strawberries, pomegranates, raisins and plums all compete for my olfactory attention. At this point, there are so many fruits dancing in my head, I sometimes feel like Carmen Miranda. (Note to younger readers: you will just have to Google her and scare up one of her campy, fruity publicity shots.)
Of course, there is an entire gamut of non-fruity smells that I’m sure you have read about or maybe even smelled first hand in your very own wineglass: things like saddle, leather, mushroom, burnt toast, tobacco, licorice, even bacon. The best analogy I heard concerning this process of swirling and sniffing of wine and the inhaling of its aromas was from wine expert Philip Seldon, who likened it to hearing a full orchestra in concert. One listens to a symphony in its entirety, yet one can pick out an oboe here, or a cello there, and the various harmonies and melodies that float throughout it. All of it together makes the music all the sweeter. So too with wine. The color, the aromas, the taste and the texture all play their part in the wine tasting experience.
Sure the tongue can taste sweetness and salt, sourness and bitterness, and most certainly can determine the texture of your wine. (Smooth or rough, heavy or light bodied). But as any professional wino will tell you, most wine flavors are actually aromas that are vaporized in the mouth and perceived through the rear nasal passage. Or “retronasal passage” if you prefer true wine geek speak. That’s why the real pros make that annoying slurping sound as they bring the air over the wine in their mouth to deliver the wine’s aroma to their retronasal passage to better “taste” the wine. (I personally do it to show off and make others feel less sophisticated).
Since hearing about it, I have tried to work the term “retronasal passage” into my daily conversation whenever I can. When someone asks, “How are you?,” I have now taken to replying, “My retronasal passages are worn to the bone!” So far no one seems the least bit impressed by my new highly esoteric terminology. Once more, “Pearls before Swine’” — the story of my life.
P.S.: Follow your nose to this year’s Spring for the Cure event: A Spanish wine tasting at The Tooting Egret to benefit the American Cancer Society on Thursday, April 19 from 5-7 p.m. The very knowledgable Matt Pieper will be on hand to offer nine extraordinary wines along with some mouth watering tapas. The cost? Just $25 bucks (tax deductible). Worth every penny!