Is it possible to enjoy wine without being able to fully taste it? It’s a practical question, and one that ties together several themes I have been exploring recently. Last year I discovered that variations in taste receptor genetics play a major role in health, beyond the ability to appreciate wine; I praised ordinary and inexpensive wines; and I’ve speculated about wine’s ability to fend off coronaviruses. A few months ago I had the unintended opportunity to put all of these ideas to the test.
The first wave of COVID-19 in the U.S. was surging in our area, and the entire state was placed under precautionary quarantine. My office had been closed indefinitely on short notice to conserve resources for the hospital. A final provisioning stop at the big box retailer before hunkering down supplied my wife and me with some affordable bottles to help weather the economic lull. Turned out to be a wise move. A couple of weeks in, opening special bottles from the cellar would have been as much of a waste as listening to a Beethoven symphony pounded out on a toy piano.
Rediscovering wine without a sense of smell
At the time, loss of the ability to smell (anosmia) had not yet identified as a COVID hallmark, since it can occur with any viral illness. Testing was not available except for those ill enough to be hospitalized, so in my case, confirmation would have to wait. For a wine lover, it was an informative yet unsettling experience. Without the aesthetic pleasures in wine’s flavors, would there be a risk of abusing it for its anesthetic qualities? Could I lose my sensibility in addition to my sense of smell? Without the structure of a workaday schedule, would it be too easy to ignore moderation?
I discovered other ways to enjoy wine, beyond parsing its olfactory hedonics. One is taking pleasure in the ritual, marking a moment to depart from the plentiful stresses of the day. Auditory senses come into focus: the pop of a cork, (or even the snap of a screwcap); clinking of glasses in a toast to recovering health. The comforting familiarity of setting a table and serving the wine, and taking a moment to consider whatever connection to the wine’s origins you may have. Exploring the textural qualities of the wine. Reflecting on its place in both the traditions and basic survival needs of human culture. And yes, just to help with relaxation during an anxious time. Throughout these months we kept to just having wine with dinner, and enjoyed the less expensive wines, even when we started to get our taste back.
I’ll declare the results of the “experiment” a qualified success. I confirmed that wine can be healing and sustaining, and appreciated, even in a temporary state of diminished sensory perception. Further validation may be hard to come by though; volunteers for a clinical trial may be difficult to find. If any of you have had a similar experience, let me know!