Have you ever loved a wine in a winery  and then bought it, only to find that at home, some time later, it tasted totally different? Often this experience is memorable because the wine tastes much worse than what you remembered, and you wonder why on earth you spent good money on it. If you have, join the club. Most do.

In a recent trip to the northern Sonoma region, biking and wine tasting, I thought about this phenomenon. While there are several variables that contribute to this problem, in my opinion one is the biggest.

First the lesser ones. The ambiance of a winery, its architecture and decor can be a selling point. There are so many in our nearby wine country that are so unique; the Coppola Winery that I featured last week for example. One might become enchanted simply with impressions that delight, and buy the wine essentially as a souvenir. Then there are the friendly, chatty folks behind the bar pouring samples. They are trained sales-people after all, and might convince you to buy. The social circumstances in which the wine is tasted may be a factor as well. If it is a special vacation or occasion, with a certain group of people or significant other, the wine may simply mark the occasion.

Leaving all these aside, and focusing on the biology of wine tasting, in my opinion the main reason wines taste different wineries is because of unique ambient smells which prevail in them. After all smell is 90% of any tasting experience whether it be wine or food, and prevailing nearby smells intrude into that of the wine tasted.

The most common is that of wood, or barrels. Numerous wines already have varying degrees of oak flavors and aromas  imparted into them. The ambient smell of wood, if strong enough, changes their experience in a way that neurtalizes these. When brough home, the wines taste oakier than at the winery. In The Dry Creek appellation of Sonoma, near Healdsburg I found one such winery, Raymond Burr, once owned by the famous TV star. It had a small tasting room full of memorabilia related to his career and this was detracting enough. But it also had an overwhelming aroma of oak, which totally overpowered the noses of the poured wines.

Another winery named Zichichi featured a recently built, spacious, tastefully decorated tasting room with an expansive bar. As soon as I walked in it I was struck by the smell of lacquer or varnish, as if the bar had been built yesterday. Despite the owner’s assurance that the place was six years old, I simply could not appreciate what he poured, for all I smelled was varnish. When he subsequently invited us to his barrel room for an all important sampling of his new incubating vintage I thought, “oh great, here we go with more oak smells!”. To my surprise the place actually smelled like Home Depot, with a prevalent nose of rubber, as in tires. I looked around and soon spotted the offender. It was a large motorized forklift parked a few yards from us in front of the barrels.

In these tastings I took to a new practice that clarified the experience. I simply walked out into fresh air and took a few breaths to clear my nose, and then tasted the wine. On occasion I encountered ambient smells out there as well, such as flowers or grass. If so I stepped away to a more neutral zone. It is a bit cumbersome to go in and out of a tasting for each sample poured, and it certainly invites queries from puzzled onlookers, especially winery staff, but the experience becomes more “authentic”, more akin to what might happen at home with the same wine.

After nearly two decades of wine tasting, I feel a bit cursed by my nose which has become so sensitive to ambient smells, as though I am a dog or a cat. This is the by-product of training this sense has received. Intrusive smells can be anywhere waiting to threaten a tasting. Take for example my recent blog complaining about French onion soup in restaurants. The easiest way to deal with them is to maintain a heightened awareness of them  and walk away.