One of the keys to tasting be it for pleasure or profession is olfactory memory. The good news is that we’re born with all the necessary hardware for it. We develop our smell memory, largely at the unconscious level, over a lifetime. Professional tasting carries olfactory memory much further in that it not only requires a highly developed memory but also the ability to detect trace amounts of aromatics or flaws. With that, here are strategies for improving your smell memory and—more importantly—sensitivity to aromatics. All the strategies use submodalities as a tool. If you’re unfamiliar with the term there’s a quick definition below.  

The Basic Set

There are 25-30 aromas common to practically all wines; from various fruits to spices to flowers to earth and mineral notes. I call this the Basic Set and wrote a post about it last year. The complete exercises using the Basic Set can be found at slideshare.net.  To download the two PDF’s, use the following links: 

Modules I & II:


Modules III & IV:


It’s important for any wine professional to have all of the components in the Basic Set completely down, meaning one can bring any of them up on command. One does this in two ways:  

First, working with one’s own life memories in the form of images and movies for aromas from the set—and beyond. 

Second, using submodalities to improve sensitivity and detection for any of these aromatics.

Translation: building sensitivity to all the components in the basic set and beyond by working with the structure of said images/movies—or the submodalities. To quickly define submodalities: the word is derived from “moda,” the Greek term for the senses. Our five senses internally make up our thoughts for which over 90% of the human race is visual-dominant. In other words, most of us think in images and movies. Further, the images, sounds and feelings that make up our thoughts have structural qualities. For visual alone there are over 60 qualities or submodalities including size, proximity, brightness, dimensionality and more. With that in mind explore the following:

Driver Submodalities

Start by discovering your “driver” or dominant submodalities. Sounds complicated but it’s easy to do. Take your memory of lemon in the form of however you represent the smell and taste of lemon. It could be an image of a lemon from a memory or a full-on movie of your biting into a lemon slice with all the details down to the texture and temperature of the fruit. Once you have the image or movie in mind try some simple experiments. 
First, play with the size of the image or movie; make it ludicrously enormous—at least 20 feet by 20 feet. Does that increase the intensity of “lemon?” Odds are it does. Now reset it back to where it was originally. 
Make the size of the image/movie really small, say one inch square. Note the increase or decrease in intensity. Then reset the image again.

Bring the image/movie as close in as possible. Is there an increase in intensity or a decrease? Make a note and then reset it. Next move the image/movie across the room. Decrease or increase? Reset it.

Finally, turn up the brightness of the image/movie until it’s shocking. Increase or decrease in intensity? Note it. Now make the image/movie so dim you can barely see it. Increase or decrease? Again, note it and reset the image.  

Once you’ve played around with distance, size and brightness submodalities, you’ll discover one or all of these three will change your experience of the original image/memory. These are your “driver” submodalities because, as you have quickly discovered, changing any one of them dramatically changes your experience of the content of the memory.  

Building Sensitivity to Aromatics Through Submodalities

Now for the fun part.  

Take the image of your memory of “lemon” and move it closer in and then farther away, increasing and decreasing the intensity of your memory. Do the same with the size of the image if that works better (or the brightness if that yet works better). Find the one that works the best. It’s like turning the volume on your iPhone up or down.

Play with moving the image so far away or so small that you lose any sense of lemon. Pay close attention to just how small or dim or far away the image has to be for the memory to completely go away. Then move it back in just closer than that until the sense of “lemon” is restored.  

Move the image back and forth until you can detect trace amounts of your recall of “lemon.”  

Practice moving the image and building your sensitivity to “lemon” until you can detect it on the next block; in the next state. Push the envelope! 

Do the same with other aromatics—fruits, flowers, spices, earth/mineral elements and oak influence.

Do the same with basic wine flaws like TCA, Brett and VA. You’ll be glad you did.  

Practice! You’ll save yourself a lot of time and angst by practicing olfactory memory–without having a glass of wine in hand.

Fixing “Blind Spots” – How to Install a Smell Memory

If you can’t smell white pepper recognizing Grüner Veltliner will always be a problem. If you can’t smell pyrazines—the aromatic compounds that smell like bell pepper, jalapeño and green savory herbs–then telling the difference between a 1er Cru Chablis and Sancerre will always be a nightmare. Likewise, if you miss the TDN/petrol notes in a glass of Riesling, you’ll always confuse it with something else.

An olfactory memory can be “installed” with enough repetition and by knowing key submodalities of another aromatic you can already easily smell.

What to do? First, take a smell memory that’s easiest for you; lemon, vanilla, green apple or whatever. Choose one and hold the memory of lemon—as in your image of lemon-in mind. Make it outrageously strong. Don’t mess around here as it’s easiest to learn anything by using extreme examples. Fix the memory image of “lemon” in your mind’s eye and then note the structure as accurately as you possibly can. In fact, write it down in list form. Note the size of the image, the proximity (how close it is to you), the brightness, whether it’s color vs. black and white, a still image or movie, whether the image has a border or not, and whether the image is two-dimensional or 3D. Again, write it all down because you need to be accurate and you’ll also able using the list in moments. 

Now take the aroma you’re struggling with be it white pepper, bell pepper, eucalyptus (Vicks VapoRub is an ace for that one), or whatever. Have some of whatever it is on hand.  

First, take whatever it is you want to install in your hands. Smell it, close your eyes, and then make an image of it (as in Vick’s VapoRub bottle). Make the image big, bright, and close to you in your internal Imax Theater.  

Now for the fun. Open your eyes and look at the aromatic again and smell it. This time close your eyes and take the image of whatever you’re smelling and make it the same STRUCTURE as the image of whatever aromatic it is you can easily recall.  Remember, it’s NOT content we’re after here—it’s the structure. Make sure your image of the new aromatic is the same size, proximity, and brightness as the “easy” aromatic—and the rest. 

Oddly enough, the content is almost secondary as far as your brain/nervous system is concerned in terms of functionality. 

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Practice smelling the new aromatic and creating the “easy” submodalities/image dozens of times.  

Do this in more than session. Do it as many times as it takes. 

Be sure to make the structure of the image is exactly the same as the easy memory. 

You’re brain, by the way, will love this. It’s like easy cerebral calisthenics. 

Think of it as drag and drop on your desktop. If you can do it with aromatics, you can do it with anything. Lots of possibilities here so have fun with it.