Of Tide Pools, Wildflowers, and Olfactory Awakenings

Sher and I spent the past holiday weekend at a lovely small home perched on a hilltop just a five-minute stroll from Bolinas Beach. On our first morning walk I felt as if my olfactory senses had been jolted alive by the damp freshness of the sea air.

Along with scents of the ocean my nose was practically barraged by various wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs. One smell, a funky combination of musk and cheese, which I initially mistook for a low-tide effect, turned out to be a drooping, slightly sinister looking bell-shaped yellow flower.

My first thought was, "Wine tasting notes are bullshit." My second was, "Including mine."

While that may be an exaggeration, coupled with the self-critical part of me that once made his living as a writer and editor, it remains true, as I've written before, that it's not only damned difficult to describe anything experienced by the senses but it's also that our vocabulary, and how we choose to employ it, is not only limited but quickly falls to cliché, generalization, and overreaching hyperbole.

Moreover, what tasting notes rarely capture is the emotional response a wine can trigger. For example, as we walked the beach to a series of interconnected tide pools my mind drifted to Chablis, whose vines are nurtured by the fossils of ancient seabeds and descriptors like "crushed oyster shell" and "algae" are frequently employed; and Liguria, where the vines grow on steep terraces overlooking the sea, and I swear that you can smell the salty breeze in a good glass of Pigato or Vermentino.

As a Bay Area native I've always lived by the sea, and the Pacific Ocean is something that still takes my breath away, something I am awed by, Earth Mother and Goddess of mysterious beauty. Perhaps that is why these saline, mineral-driven white wines speak to me with such force. 

Something similar happened the next day on a hike that wove through a damp forested area (an analogy used to describe the cool earthiness of certain red Burgundies) but that also crossed sun-beaten paths covered in brush and wild herbs (which conjured the sense of garrigue used to describe southern French reds).

I love the city, and the Farmers' Market is another great place for wine lovers to hone their senses. But after this July 4 weekend I'm eager spend more time in nature, waiting for that next awakening of the olfactory nerves.