Monday, September 17, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Sommelier Jaime Smith

Tasting wine is a multisensory experience, but for sommelier Jaime Smith the equation of "smell + taste = flavor" is colored by synesthesia. People who have synesthesia experience one sense with the added layer of another sense. Smith's synesthesia includes the perception of smell with color.

"Natural smells for me are seen as a soft color whereas chemical smells are more of a jagged or sharp or very bright color; similar to either easy lighting or stadium lights. I smell everything all the time. I can concentrate and nose in on a single smell in a room; I can differentiate people by their soap or chemical stamp, and then their color pattern. (Great trick in the dark by the way.) The more smells that they mask themselves in, the brighter they are. If they don’t use anything, soap, hairspray, etcetera then their natural smell is an even cleaner and distinct smell/color and I sometimes think that this is how blind people identify us."

Smith's knowledge and passion for wine has earned him respect in the wine world. He exudes a charming, honest vigor that is strong on opinion and tempered with humility (he earned the title of "Best Sommelier in America" two years in a row, but never mentioned it until the end of this interview). His resume includes several prestigious gigs, including five years as Head Sommelier/Wine Buyer at Aureole Restaurant at Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino (when it received the Wine Spectator's exclusive Grand Award).

"Wine is liquid art and I have been a docent my entire life. At Aureole I had collected the world’s greatest library of wine to catalog the world’s liquid offerings...I have been all over this beautiful bubble to see wine regions, meet the people and eat their food, and I've been lucky. How do you build a sensory vocabulary? Simple. TASTE!!! And do it with others, this isn’t something you do alone; you need to be a novitiate under a mentor. You always need a guide and after that, you share the road; you are never on the path by yourself."

After reviewing Smith's responses (especially question 12) one wonders if there is a wine Sherpa lurking under the hood.

1. What does your sense of smell mean to you?
It is my lifeline to the external world, my most visceral and animalistic sense.

2. What are some of your strongest scent memories?
Blooming magnolias by my bedroom window, age 4.
Grandmother's Guerlain perfume.
Fried chicken.

3. What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking and/or your environment)?
Any floral smell.
Warm skin.

4. Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
Body odor.

5. Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
Burnt things in a pan.
Pastries, cookies and pies.
Tomato sauce.

6. What smells do you most dislike?
I don’t like the smell of cleaning agents, super high peaky alcohols or sickening sweet fake smells. I don't have an ability to deal with bullshit scents pushed on women from cheap smell factories like The Body Shop, though I do love Lush!


7. What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
I can’t think of any.

8. What mundane smells inspire you?
Fresh breezes.
The sun.
Clean skin.

9. What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
Chanel no 5. My mother always wore it.
Jasmine trees that grew near my childhood house.
Cut grass. Reminds me of being a kid.

10. What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
Mostly cheap perfumes and houses filled with the smells of cooking.
Cold seaweed water (Lake Ontario).

11. What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?
Anything from the natural world.
I grew up on a farm and the four seasons all have their own charm.  

12. What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
Patchouli for the Caribbean.
Ambergris for North Africa.
Wine for everywhere.


13. Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
The Count of Monte Cristo is ridiculous; I have visited all of the places and the book trips me up.


Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia is a terrific book on synesthesia written by Dr. Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman. According to Cytowic and Eagleman, “synesthesia” means “joined sensation, such that a voice or music, for example, is not only heard but also seen, tasted, or felt as a physical touch.”

Ron Winnegrad of International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) will present "Synesthesia in Perfumery" on November 10th, 2012 at 1pm, at the Museum of Arts and Design. 

Poet Arthur Rimabaud described his synesthesia in the poem "Voyelles". Many famous artists, writers and musicians had synesthesia. You can see the list here.

Jaime Smith recommends the following books for those who want to learn more about wine; The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson,  Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties Including Their Origin and Flavours, by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz new book which will be released in October 2012, and Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson.

The wooden nose featured in question seven is actually an eyeglass rest made of sheesham wood (Indian rosewood). 

Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp is a must-read for anyone interested in ambergris and how it became a storied substance (its use in perfumery is legendary). You can read an excerpt from the book here.
You can download The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas for free on Project Gutenberg.

All rights reserved on photos marked with title and Michelle Krell Kydd.

The image of a multicolored bust by Igor Zimmerman. Rights retained by author.

The image of seaweed is from the University of Karachi. Rights retained by author.

Photos without attribution are licensed via Creative Commons.