The Voice of Raisin: A whiff down memory lane

The Trail Times is introducing a new column. Benjamin Howard recently moved to Trail and, with a background as a sommelier, will be writing about his passion – wine – and exploring all its aspects from pairings to productions and everything in between. Salute!

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Years ago, at a formal wine tasting, I was served a splash of Zind-Humbrecht Gewürztraminer (a mouthful, in more ways than one) by a stuck-up Sommelier in sawed-off high heels. He sauntered slowly around the table, arms crossed behind his back, expounding upon what we should expect to smell: rose petals, lychee, grapefruit, orange peel, ginger… I plunged my nose into the glass and, as if by some kind of magic, I was instantly transported to my grandmother’s closet, in the old house, where I used to hide as a child.

I felt a comforting warmth, as my long-lost memory rose inside of me like bread dough. The snobby Sommelier asked what I smelled. I replied “My Nan,” to the chuckles and jeers of my peers. “That’s not an answer,” said the snooty Somm, but he wasn’t going to de-romanticize this moment, as it occurred to me that Nan’s perfume must have smelled of spicy ripe citrus and roses.

Our sense of smell is connected directly to our brain’s limbic system, which also supports emotion, creativity and long-term memory. These functions are all housed together, facilitating the inseparability of emotion and odour. The memory/olfactory connection plays a major role in our ability to relate wine aromas to violets, figs, cigar smoke, old baseball gloves and Uncle Bob’s barn.

A friend recently spoke of his maiden voyage down memory lane — it was a Vasse Felix Shiraz, with its aromas of jammy bumbleberry, cracked pepper and toasted oak. It brought him back 30 years at first sniff, to the breakfast table with his grandfather’s perpetually burnt toast and as much homemade raspberry jam as the blackened 4×4 wheat square would allow.

Another friend took a ride on a Chapoutier Hermitage, made with Syrah in the Northern Rhône Valley, smelling of the darkest stewed berries known to man, fresh herbs, leather, smoke and wet dirt, which brought him back 45 years to the hot dog barbecue after a baseball game they should have won. Same grape, different destination.

The appreciation of wine is as easy to oversimplify as it is easy to overcomplicate. The worlds of viticulture and viniculture are vast, complex and constantly evolving, but the enjoyment of the resulting product is as deeply personal as it is instantly gratifying. Wine appeals to our senses as much as it appeals to our sensibilities. At the bottom of the glass, though, lies the most important question of all, “Yum or Yuck?”

I approach a bottle of wine the same way that I approach any piece of art, be it musical, cinematic, linguistic, tactile or gastronomic. I want to understand the artist’s method and motivation, to inhabit the place and time that inspired it, and to come to my own conclusions of its quality and/or quaff-ability. They’re not all going to be gems, but then a lot of terrible films have fantastic cinematography and production design, and a good many great musicians have a few crappy Top 40 hits. There’s almost certainly something interesting, if not evocative, to be found with every new wine experience. Every cork tells a story, and I love to read!

A bottle of wine is a time machine without a dashboard. The machine, as imagined by H.G Wells and his device, or “Doc” Brown and his DeLaurean, has the ability to transport us to a different moment in history… destination unknown. Our machine takes us on an unpredictable journey into the depths of our own consciousness, and unearths long-buried memories soaked in emotion. And to boot, our machine fits in the palm of your hand, costs $12 on a Tuesday, comes in all sorts of different colours and flavours, and is best operated with friends and family. All you need is a corkscrew.

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Benjamin Howard is a BC-born Sommelier who recently moved to Trail to continue sharing his enthusiasm for the magic of the grapevine.

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