Wine and the Wonder of Smell

I came across this list of the Definitive List of Black-Owned Wineries Around the Globe this morning and thought it worth sharing. Far from being only a list of South African wineries with a smattering of others, which I expected, there are also a lot in the United States and in France as well as other places. I’ve gone through the list and didn’t find anything I’d tried. Obviously I need to rectify that. If there is something you have tasted and liked, let me know.

Speaking of wine, some of my friends asked me to share my view of writing from smell and how to write about it when you actually haven’t smelled something where the story is set. 

Smell happens in the brain. It’s not necessarily what you can physically smell, but how your brain notices and catalogs it. So the first thing to do is to start noticing the smells around you. I learned this at age 13 from my best friend’s father who taught me to eat slowly and feel all the sensations of the food. Later, as a nascent vegetarian trying to reproduce what I’d tasted in restaurants, I paid close attention to how things smelled and tasted. I’ve taken tea courses to learn the manifold and difficult smells and tastes of various teas. Steve and I also took a set of wine appreciation courses to learn how to select and analyze wines. (Which we did competitively with friends.) All of this is brain work. It develops the sense memory and that sense memory translates.

As you learn to identify the odder smells, the barnyard smell in a good wine or pu-erh tea, the smell of ‘minerality’ which actually divides down to flint, stone, metal, and so forth, you will also become more sensitive to the same scents in other contexts. Take barnyard. What is the smell actually? Is it the warmth of dung leavened with straw? Is it the leathery smell of a horse?

Find that in the wine you are sipping or in the tea you are drinking. Or find it in chocolate. Single plantation chocolates also have distinctive aromas. Then notice it when you’re outside walking around. Make your brain work to tag the aromas and connect them to tea or wine or chocolate or whatever.

Who a character is and what they do for a living influences what they notice. For example, a pastry chef will have a keen sense of the smell of pastry and baked goods because it is one of the tools they use in their profession. They’ve honed their brain to notice when a cake has reached perfection. One friend is a pie baker who wishes she could turn it off so that she could avoid the tempting aroma of fresh bread or cookies. But it doesn’t work that way.

This might make you think that the best way to find out how a place smells is to ask a local.


Locals almost never notice the normal scents around them, just like you don’t notice your deodorant or perfume after a while or how your house smells.

Ask a visitor to the place how it smelled. Or check for YouTube travel videos. Or look up the common plants in the area since plant aromatics are a large component of how the place smells. Check into the natural seasons of the plants, which also gives you a way to indicate time and place with smell. Some flowers bloom at night and their aroma tells the story of where and when they are. Some bloom during the early morning. Check.

Plants won’t give you everything. For example when we go to the Bosque along the Rio Grande there is a slight smell of horses. I’m not sure why, but clearly someone must ride, though I’ve never seen them. And in some of Memphis’ parks, you can smell deer musk. Memphis dog parks smell strongly of wet dog and poop. Wet dog is also a wine aroma, a wine fault actually. 

See how these things cross-pollinate?

You can get quite detailed in this once you know there is an entire world of scent and you give your brain permission to notice it. For example, the smell of warm concrete smells different in different places. The smell of warm concrete in Memphis has an almost alive fragrance, like bug carapaces, an earthiness.  The smell of warm concrete in Albuquerque smells a lot more mineral. And the smell of warm concrete in certain cities smells bad, like cigarettes and sulfur and ammonia. Part of that is the mineral content of the concrete, how it is made. Part is what has embedded itself in the concrete. And part is the level of heat in the place which bakes out some odors and causes others to become stronger.

As you write for your characters, remember that people only notice what their personality tells them to notice. For example, a smell that people train themselves not to notice is the smell of sexuality. I’ve been in clubs heavy with that smell and mentioned it to someone nearby who said, “I don’t smell anything” or “It just smells bad in here.” But the truth was that there were a myriad of scents all combining. A bit of brain work will tag them for you.

Give it a try! Start with something fun, perhaps the list of wines above, or take a course in chocolate or tea or wine. Train your brain to truly notice things, reward it when it does with a sip or a bite of something delicious, and find where it leads you. 

I hope things are smelling good where you are. Be well, friends!

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