The story goes something like this. It was the first summer after Carla and I started dating, which was many moons ago. How many? That year the number one movie was the original summer blockbuster—Star Wars. Now it’s called Star Wars: A New Hope. This after the musical chairs routine of adding prequels, sequels, and more. That aside, Carla’s birthday was in June and I wanted to give her something special. After all, I’d somehow managed to convince her I was a well-mannered, semi-sentient male human. Not an easy task at the time. Trust me on that one. However, I knew less than nothing about appropriate gifts for a new girlfriend. So I did the obvious. I turned to my mom and two sisters for advice. My older sister Tina suggested perfume and made several recommendations, one of them Channel No. 5. Somehow, I managed to scrape together enough shekels and bought a small bottle.
Thankfully, Carla was delighted with the gift and wore the Channel that very night when we went out for her birthday dinner. I thought it smelled wonderful then. I still do. No surprise as Channel No. 5 is one of the first great modern perfumes. It’s also the first great perfume produced entirely from synthetic materials. Otherwise, like Star Wars, there’s a sequel to the Channel story. Many years later—as in decades—we were living in the City. By then we had kids and were in full-on parental mode. One afternoon Carla was going through all her perfumes. At one point she held up the old bottle of Channel I’d given her long ago. “Remember this? It’s the bottle of Channel you gave me for my birthday the year we started dating. I wore it the first time when we went out for my birthday dinner. Remember we ate at such-and-such restaurant, and I was wearing such-and such dress and you were wearing such-and-such outfit. I looked at her, mouth slightly agape, and said, “you had me at restaurant.”
Carla’s memory for smells is amazing. It’s definitely as good—or better—than my memory is for wine. Otherwise—and I could be wrong about this, I think women generally tend to make olfactory more important than men. With my half of the tribe, it’s not so much about remembering what things smell like, it’s more trying not to smell so we don’t offend everyone in the vicinity. As for the power of smell, neuroscientists tell us that olfactory memories can be the most powerful and profound because scent bypasses the thalamus and goes straight into the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus. That’s why the smell of something can instantly trigger a detailed memory or intense emotion. Such is true for me. Like most, I have a list of favorite smells. Here, in no particular order, are a few of them.
Lavender: one of my favorites and I owe it to Carla. From the earliest days, she’d diffuse lavender essential oil at home. Even back then it was hard for me to pinpoint what made the smell of lavender so unique. To this day, lavender smells like a combination of floral, herbal, savory, and earthy. I’ve also been fortunate to stand in lavender fields in Provence and the Barossa. It’s a remarkable experience.
Coffee: one of my childhood smell memories is of my Dad opening a five-pound green can of MJB coffee. We lived life on a shoestring back then so quantity trumped quality when it came to coffee, as with practically everything else. Still the smell of opening new can of ground coffee was amazing. But I also remember the disconnect about coffee in the form its bitter taste. And I wondered how anyone in their right mind could drink such bile. My Mom took her coffee with milk and sugar. Years later she would switch to tea. Martin, my Dad, took his coffee black and strong. To this day the smell of freshly roasted coffee—better yet espresso—remains a favorite.
Pepper: early on the only black pepper I knew came in the small waffled shaker on the dining table next to the salt. I remember the parents putting pepper on their dinner. To me, it looked like little bits of grit and detritus. And it tasted of even less. Mind you the pepper was ground to begin with and had been in the shaker for who knows how long. I wouldn’t encounter freshly ground pepper until grad school when Carla and I ate in fine dining restaurants for the first time. Then the smell of fresh pepper was a revelation. It still is and the smell of pepper is equal parts floral, fruity, spicy, and earthy. In fact, when I think of pepper, I see a tall slender curved arc shape with a color gradation that changes from the palest yellow at the top to deep brown at the bottom. Needless to say, at home a pepper grinder sits next to the stove top and is often called into action.
Garlic: last night I made chicken picata for dinner. Once the chicken had been pounded flat into scallopini and quickly sautéed, I removed it from the pan to rest. Then I added a splash more olive oil to the pan and a minced shallot and two minced cloves of garlic. In seconds, the heady mix of oil/garlic/shallot filled the air. And while the outside world may have been going to hell in a handbasket, everything was aright in the Peña-Gaiser kitchen.
Heirloom rose: the smell of an heirloom rose is my very favorite. As I wrote in Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine, to me, the smell of an heirloom rose is perfection. It’s the zillions-to-one against all odds when somehow some way countless molecules assemble themselves into a sublimely beautiful form that smells even more sublimelier. But the aromatics of an heirloom rose aren’t simply “floral” as with other kinds of flowers. As with pepper, they have a visual arc or a curve almost like a musical chord with brighter, higher aromatics, fruitier middle notes, and earthy low tones. Internally for me, there’s also a color gradation to the curve going from lighter hues at the top gradually down to deeper hues at the bottom. The color range changes depending on the actual rose.
Bacon: for many, bacon is the one aroma (and flavor) that brings them all together and in the darkness binds them. And nothing proves the theory that fat makes things taste better than bacon. To that point, practically any wine pairs well with it, from bubbly to medium-sweet dessert wines. That’s was I call versatility.
Wine: you thought I’d never get to it. My favorite wine smell memory—and I have countless wine memories—has to be Christmas dinner in 1982. At the time, I was in grad school. That night Carla and I were having dinner at the house of my trumpet professor, Armando Ghitalla. Mundy, as we liked to call him, and his wife Pauline generously invited us to share Christmas dinner with them along with H. Robert Reynolds, director of bands at the school, and his wife.
Weeks before, good friend Bob Reyen had given us a bottle of 1976 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet as a holiday gift. It became our contribution to dinner. Once the soup course was cleared, Mundy and Pauline were in the kitchen carving the roast beast. I took the opportunity to open and serve the bottle of Silver Oak. After pouring the wine, I sat down and picked up my glass. Reynolds, who had just been extolling the virtues of the bottles of ’61 Bordeaux in his collection, smelled the Cabernet in his glass and then immediately uttered a quiet but emphatic, “wow!” Carla said that the room smelled like flowers.
I quickly put my nose in the glass only to be assaulted by a tsunami of blackberry jam and spice box. I had never experienced anything remotely like it before with any wine. It was the very first time wine didn’t smell just like wine. It smelled like something—something I recognized. The bright lights shined and the angels sang—the whole enchilada. I finally got it. I finally knew what everyone was talking about. In short, I had my first wine epiphany. From then on whenever I put my nose in a glass, wine smelled like things instead of just wine. In that moment, everything changed and wine would never be the same. I would never be the same.