The ambience of candles can create an attractive setting, which was what we first saw upon entering our hotel in Washington, D.C., at 5:30 p.m. when the lobby wine service began.
But after pouring two glasses of chardonnay, we both noted that the wine smelled like artificial peaches. The wine was terrible, partially because the candles were peach-scented.
Such situations occur often enough to aggravate dedicated wine lovers.
Some are merely accidents of location. One of the worst, and unfortunately the most common, is when ambient scents play havoc with even the best noses.
It can come as someone’s aftershave or perfume in a café, the smell of new carpeting or fresh paint, burnt food smells coming out of the kitchen, or many other odoriferous intrusions.
Decades ago, I wrote an article about the horrors of many of Paris’ wine bars, where diesel fumes from the roadway, among other smells, interfered with the dubious enjoyment of the excessively overpriced wines.
Four decades of writing about wine has kept me alert to problems that could destroy an otherwise great experience.
One that comes to mind occurred about 1980, when a friend brought a bottle of 1966 Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc to a great La Jolla restaurant that had switched its table illumination from wax candles to small oil lamps.
Unfortunately, the oil being used had such a strong petroleum aroma that the smell in the room was like that of a refinery. The Haut-Brion smelled terrible.
Fortunately the owner of the restaurant was a wine lover, and when we pointed out the problem, he showed us into a small private room in which there were no oil lamps. The wine improved dramatically.
Tableside entrée preparations can also be the cause of problems for wine lovers. Steak Diane with shallots and flaming brandy can create a great aisle show in any café, but the aroma of such a dish plays havoc with any wine except things like sherry and Port. A delicate Sancerre within nose-shot of such a dish hasn’t got a prayer of being enjoyed fully.
A week ago, we found that a bottle of pinot noir we were having at a Guerneville café smelled simply awful. It was metallic and musty.
I knew the wine well and suspected it wasn’t the problem. By coincidence, we had some crystal wine glasses in our car. I retrieved two of them and poured more of the wine into them.
The wine was fine. We told the waitress that either the glasses being used in the restaurant had been washed or dried improperly, or had been stored in a musty cabinet. In any case, I said, I couldn’t imagine drinking any wine in such a vessel.
Extraneous scents at wine competitions can prompt some organizers to make certain the venue is free of any smells that can alter the way a wine is perceived. A Washington state competition organizer routinely has unscented soaps for the judges and servers.
Still, not all situations can be anticipated. At a Michigan wine competition some years ago, a local newspaper dispatched a photographer to get shots of the judges. As she entered the room her perfume created anguish on the face of the coordinator, who ordered her to leave immediately.