Death was the scariest possible outcome of Covid, but up there for me was anosmia. A wine writer who couldn’t smell or taste? Who would ever trust me? It was my first day with the virus and the paper cardamom pod sat in my palm laughing at me. I sniffed it. No green scent dosed with lime, musty but sweet. Nothing.
Feverishly, I ran to my fire escape and pinched a few leaves from my mint plant, crumpled them to release their potent oils and with an edge of panic pushed the drop into my nostrils. All I could get was a light alpine puff.
Immanuel Kant called the sense of smell the “most thankless” and the “most dispensable” of the senses. But according to the Zohar, the Jewish mystical interpretation of the Bible, meaning is on a higher level than wisdom and understanding. It’s intimacy and instinct (just ask any dog). The power of that feeling resonated as I rummaged through my spice racks, trying to detect the slightest flicker of bouquet. My life in aromatics has passed before me.
For those of us who make a living from fragrances – perfumers, wine, food and alcohol lovers of all persuasions – Covid anosmia hits the target of terror and our livelihoods.
Smell has always been the focus of my life. From the moment I could walk, I entered each room nose first. At that young age, I imitated my white-bearded grandfather by saying, “I smell the tank.” He too had a hypersensitive beak. Eccentrically, he sequestered miniature bottles of perfumes in his underwear drawer. He took them out and we sniffed them together. He spoke little English, I spoke no Yiddish – aroma became our common language. The first smell that made an impression on me was a violet found on the lawn of the family’s ancestral shitty split level in Baldwin, Long Island. There, near the rhododendron, was the tiniest of petals with the tiniest of bewitching scents.
Then there was food. Nothing crosses my lips without bringing it to my nose. My parents ridiculed me, “Do you have to smell everything before you eat it?” They might laugh, but I was the only family member who didn’t go to the bathroom that night after refusing to eat what to me was very dead trout at a Southern restaurant. My grandfather had unwittingly given me world-class nose training, essential to my future in wine.
For those of us who make a living from fragrances – perfumers, wine, food and alcohol lovers of all persuasions – Covid anosmia hits the target of terror and our livelihoods. That’s why I had managed to preempt the disease for two years. With an independent life, it was easy. The grand walk around tastings – large tables laden with wines to taste, was replaced by my evaluating wines in my kitchen, spitting into the sink and taking notes. Travel? Prior to March 2020 I was on a flight every five weeks to see visiting winemakers and their vineyards, this was not happening. So, like the rest of the world, I was being punished.
The events I used to lead in front of a live audience now took place on Instagram or Zoom and there was plenty of time to spend on my natural wine newsletter and my own writing, memoir, a new Roman. In a way, this time was reminiscent of an artificially imposed writer’s retirement. When the masks fell off and in-person events returned, I mostly dismissed them as too risky and my social skills were rusty. But the tasting paid my rent. Strengthened after my second reminder, I accepted a promising invitation, headed for Austria, and slipped into risk denial.
Even before landing at JFK I had a sore throat, my skin was on fire. The week spent coughing up wine in non-socially distanced crowds, connecting with people I hadn’t seen in two years, feeling life, laughing, breathing in suspicious droplets like I hadn’t not done for so long, let me in. After dragging my bags up the five floors to my apartment, the double pink lines on the home test confirmed what I knew.
My fever hit 102 degrees, but I had to try the wine. The usually luscious 2020 Beaujolais Thibault Ducroux assaulted my mouth like I had emptied a can of Diamond Crystal onto my tongue. I knew the nose had to follow what it had done the moment I woke up. My one superpower had faded. Why didn’t I insure my nose for those millions of dollars like a famous critic did?
Yet in the quiet moments sandwiched between my “what if” terror, I was mesmerized. Was this episode of nasal paralysis how many have navigated life? The lead author of a 2013 study on the subject, Hiroaki Matsunami, told me, “A tiny mutation in an amino acid on a nasal receptor gene can affect our experience of being painful, pleasurable, or neutral.” I knew we all perceived smells differently, but I hadn’t realized how dramatic this all was. No wonder when I wrinkled my nose at a nut or rancid oil, people looked at me like I was psychotic. When I was leading wine tastings, I was always asked, “What do you smell? Invariably I stuttered, pushing the participant to find their own words and revelations. Reading this article in conjunction with my now silenced ability made me realize that they really wanted to know. And I should tell them.
It took losing my ability to smell to realize that thanks to genetics what a good machine was sitting in the middle of my face.
I know I don’t have the most precise instrument in the business, but it took losing my ability to smell to realize that thanks to genetics, how well placed a machine was in the middle of my face. I swore I would greet my audience with more compassion.
Intellectually intrigued, of course, but I wasn’t ready to turn around without a fight and before my fever subsided, I shoved my deviated septum into just about everything, wanting my dead nostrils to wake up and smell like coffee. . I walked around my apartment, Groundhog Day style, until I realized I needed a nuclear strategy: perfume.
Like my grandfather, I too accumulated small bottles. Over the years, I specifically collected violets wherever I found them, whatever form they took: American and French vintage violet candy, violet perfume from Spain, any perfume containing purple, even though they were synthetic. Years ago, I marked a small vial of La Violette by Annick Goutal on eBay. I only need a teensie because I would never wear it, I would only sniff it, once in a while, to be transported to a potent violet I smelled in a Barolo backyard one afternoon magical, or a memory or just an uplift. But this time it was medicinal.
I dripped the perfume directly onto my wrists. The Zohar suggests that perfume is the bridge that connects the spiritual and physical world and every time I deal with these little bottles I of course feel like I am talking to my grandfather. Over the next few days, whenever I awoke from a feverish nap or a long night’s sleep, I chased my arms to find it. At first, I marveled at how subtle, almost pleasant, it was.
Around one dawn, I could smell its complex, layered sweetness with a familiar undertone of rot as it mixed with my oils. The more I felt it, the more I could feel. I finally had to get the smell out of me, it had become so obnoxious. My brush with the anosmia was thankfully over within a week, and I haven’t stopped poking my snout ever since, happily lapping up whatever was blown away. Whether or not it was my grandfather guiding me to our shared history through the subjective and philosophical power of perfume, or whether the virus simply freed my nose from captivity, it didn’t really matter.
To fall in love, drink this: memoirs of a wine writer by Alice Feiring is available from Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.