The Days of Wine and Noses

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



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 withcrazy 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

new career as a wine educator and restaurant Wine Director, I

realized that I can now proudly sniff to my Happy Wino heart’s

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 which

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 other’s

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.





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