Saturday, January 18, 2014

Can You Scratch and Sniff Your Way to Better Wine Choices?

Author Richard Betts, Master of Wine, thinks you can. The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert explains the flavor and structural elements of wine to help consumers find wines they will like, with scratch and sniff spots to illustrate the wine aromas.  The book is short – about 22 pages – with thick cardboard pages and colorful pictures.  It’s quick to read, but you can go back again and again to get more familiar with the smells.  The book includes a fold-out infographic tucked into the back cover (scroll down for a picture), which helps you match the wine aromas you like (which you just figured out from sniffing the book), with actual grapes and regions.

I believe that even a tiny amount of wine education will dramatically benefit a consumer’s buying and drinking experience.  Wine professionals realize that the most challenging thing for the average consumer is to consistently choose bottles they will like.  That’s one reason people tend to buy the same wines over and over again.  Looking at a bottle and accurately predicting what it will taste like requires quite a bit of wine knowledge.  The next best thing is to be able to describe what kind of wine you like to a knowledgeable sales person who can point you to some good options.

But how do you describe what you like?  Wine (like many things) is all about the vocabulary.  You know the tastes and textures you like, but how do you describe something so subjective?  You get familiar with common wine adjectives and how they're used.  Then you and the person in the store will be speaking the same language.

This book takes the reader through all the usual categories of wine flavors – red fruits, black fruits, citrus fruits, stone fruits, tropical fruits, spices, herbs, flavors from oak, wine faults, etc.  The innovation here is the use of scratch and sniff to aid in the descriptions.  After all, how many of us can readily call these smells to mind?  (Calling to mind specific smells is a big part of studying and appreciating wine, and why we all need to practice and improve our scent memory!)

Using scratch and sniff to explain wine aromas is a great idea, but I questioned whether the smelly spots could actually mimic wine aromas well enough.  It turns out many of them do, and a few don’t.

The scratch and sniff areas for these smells were surprisingly true to life:

  • Grape
  • Red fruit
  • Black fruit
  • Stone fruit (mainly peach)
  • Pear
  • Dill (a very sweet version)
  • Flowers
  • Grass

These smells were less successful:

  • Mineral
  • Leather
  • Bacon
  • Butter
  • Vanilla

I’m curious about how long the smells will last.  I remember the scratch and sniff books from my childhood losing their scent after a couple of years.

Though this book is short, the information is great, and Richard Betts has done a good job of simplifying a subject that many people find complex and intimidating.  I could see this being a fun coffee table book and conversation piece.  It’s something that could be very useful for a novice, but still fun for an expert.  If I ran a wine bar, I’d buy a few of these and leave them scattered around on the tables.

I started wondering, why don’t wine producers put scratch and sniff stickers directly on the labels?  It turns out that a few have.   Domaine Bourillon DorlĂ©ans from the Loire Valley in France put a scratch and sniff label on its Vouvray.  And Mirabeau en Provence worked on a scratch and sniff label at one time also:

I suspect most winemakers would find the scratch and sniff representations of their wine to not smell nearly as good as the wine itself, and maybe not want people to prejudge the wine based on a smelly sticker…

P.S.  Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s One-Minute Wine Master is another book that aims to make wine more accessible by helping consumers describe their wine preferences and select wines they will like.  Her book uses a quiz about food and drink preferences to recommend wines.  It also has brief descriptions of lots of different grapes and types of wine, so it contains a lot more information and can work as a handy reference.  Both books are good, but Betts’ scratch-and-sniff approach is for someone who wants a very simple introduction to the subject.  The One-Minute Wine Master is for someone who wants to delve into the subject more deeply.  If Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan's book is the "one-minute" version, Scratch & Sniff is 30 seconds.

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