Do Sommeliers Sometimes Fake Smells?

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

Image of Professor Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan
By Professor Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan

Are some “soms” playing an elaborate game of “nose telephone,” in which they don’t actually smell a flavor in wine but say they do? Professor Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Master of Wine discusses her view on the issue below.

This article originally premiered on NPR.

In reading this article, it indicates some sommeliers may be playing a game of “nose telephone,” not actually smelling a flavor in wine but instead saying what others have said about this wine.   At times, this may be quite true and, in truth, I myself found myself scoffing at some people’s reactions around wine.

However, after many years studying wine, I believe smell and taste descriptors have more to do with the learning of the language of wine – or rather putting words to describe what we perceive.  And when all else fails, “fake it until you make it” or rather, use the words others are using until you perceive it yourself or have other words to describe it.  For example, I’m reminded of the classic description of sauvignon blanc “cat pee on a gooseberry bush”.  Well, I’ve never trailed a cat near a gooseberry bush, but I have had to try to imagine what it is he or she is referencing and translate it to what I taste and make a correlation.  That’s the process of learning a language.

Learning the smells, flavors and textures in wine is not as easy to describe as other human perceptions such as sight and sound.  There are words for sights and sounds.

Let’s use colors as an example. We have an agreed upon vernacular around colors and it starts out very, very early.  We get our Crayola box of crayons at four years old with ROYGBV or red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet (oh and black and white, of course).   Then we get better understanding between colors such as green-blue and blue-green crayons in the larger box of crayons. Then we finally graduate to the largest box with not just blue and green, but many variations in between- forest green, sea green, sky blue, teal, aquamarine, navy blue, etc.  These words have associations with what we see and society has agreed over centuries on what to call each color.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

Similarly, listening and trying to play back music has a language with its own vernacular.  We learn by hearing, but also reading music bars with agreed upon names of notes such as E,G,B,D,F.  I played the violin as a child and I learned to play by ear and then learned the notes.   I could play twinkle, twinkle little star way before I knew what to call the notes or read sheet music.  For some reason, as a society, we are more understanding with this as it is a process of learning the language of music.

Lastly, take the example of when someone is learning a language, not of his or her mother’s tongue.  As a society, we tend to be much more patient when approached with phrases he or she has “heard” and is regurgitating.  Perhaps it’s the wrong word or phrase or verb conjugation, but we are patient because he or she is learning and there are agreed rules around what is and what is not correct or appropriate for specific situations.

With our noses and palates, why are we so harsh with each other?  Although trailing words for sight and sound, the language around the sense of smell and taste are not all agreed on.  I believe we are in the midst of trying to create and agree on them today and wine allows us to have that conversation.  The agreement on words just may take a few more centuries.

For more with Professor Simonetti-Bryan, check out “The Everyday Guide to Wine” Wondrium!