Wine as a Tool For Appreciating Smell

The human body is incredible.  Everyday, millions of individual processes are needed to simply wake up, get out of bed, and make coffee.  It’s easy, even necessary, to overlook this complexity, but every once in a while, a little appreciation for the capabilities of the body is in order, especially when it comes to one of the more overlooked senses -- smell.

Smell is one of the first senses to evolve in living organisms.  Even single-celled protozoa require the ability to determine whether they are ingesting something that is nutritious or harmful.  This is the impetus for smell.  As a result of its early evolutionary development, smell, even in humans, works differently than the other senses.  For instance, with sight, impulses are sent up the optic nerve, processed in an area of the brain dedicated to visual cues, and subsequently transmitted to other areas of the brain.  But smell is interpreted in a decentralized way, without any initial “processing.”  40,000,000 olfactory receptor neurons are spread out through the brain, concentrated in the parts that process emotions, but also in the centers for sight, taste and touch.  Some researchers have posited that this is why smell not only conjures up vivid emotional responses, but is difficult to express in words.

Smells from the past can evoke extremely powerful emotional responses that are hard to describe, but unmistakable to experience.  Walking through the door of a house full with the smell of turkey and pie, or some other beloved scent, can result in a flood of emotion.  Suddenly small events, or feelings from years before, will return in an almost palpable way.  It can give chills, bring tears, or a smile; the experience is profound.

As transportive as these memories feel, their occurrences are just as erratic.  It is difficult to predict what scents will set off this kind of reaction in the brain and what emotion or memory will be attached.  To actually interact with, rather than passively encounter, the phenomenal capacity of scent, more nuance and attention is required. 

Fortunately, a defining characteristic of wine is nuanced aroma.  This makes it an excellent tool to explore smell and its connection to emotion.  Unlike the rare happenstance of a transportive smell, wine offers the opportunity to cultivate and revisit a library of senses.  By connecting the aroma of wine with emotional state, wine can serve as a snapshot, not as vivid, but consciously attainable. 

So, this Thanksgiving, when surrounded by friends and family, the wine on the table can be more than a beverage.    With conscious attention and reflection, its aroma can become a small reminder -- an emotional post-it -- of love and gratitude to be revisited in the future.