strange olfactory phenomena: adventures in contrast detection

The other day I went to the Ruby Wines annual wine tasting at the Harvard club.  It is a great event and one of my favorites for the big annuals that our distributors put on.  I was only able to taste about 30 wines before I had to leave for work.

Two of the wines I tasted had the strange, potent, distinct, and lovely aroma of bitter field flowers.  For a more specific object comparison I’d say Yarrow flowers.

This was strange to me because I’ve a tasted a lot of wine in my day and never come across this expression with this much intensity.  One wine was a dry white Anjou Chenin Blanc that I was unfamiliar with while the other was the latest vintage of Cos’ Cersuolo from Sicily which I’ve had numerous times.  I asked the always awesome Brad Groper of Domaine Select who was pouring the wine if there was anything unusual about the vintage and he said no and that they’ve been keeping a good average.

Here’s the kicker. I’ve been using my wormwood aromatized hand sanitizer that I developed as an aroma teaching tool.  In the last month I’ve had repeated exposure to the aroma over the course of my shifts at work.  The aroma I experienced disproportionately in the two wines was not Wormwood, but very close two it.  Wormwood and Yarrow both could be said as having a connection to the same gustatory division (bitterness) and if you created an imaginary spatial scale they would lay very close to each other.  Could repeated exposure to the experimental hand sanitizer have changed contrast detection for me in wines?

Way back when, I wrote a post that tried to outline the difference between my banana and your banana and how we experience and construct reality.  I was partially inspired by Leonard Koren’s fantastic book Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean: Ten Definitions.  My theory was that acquired tastes and differences in metabolized dissonance may lead us to believe that each of us constructs reality when eating very differently.  I thought we all could compare intensities of stimuli similarly enough, but simply we just could not agree on enjoying them (valence).  Maybe my bizarre experience here shows how repeated exposure to a stimulus can significantly effect contrast detection.  If you need a primer on tricks that exploit changes in contrast detection check out Omar Pasha’s Black Art Theatre.  I hypothesized a while ago that a change in contrast detection similar to what was experienced in black art theater is a large part of how reactive wine pairings work where contrast detection changes and after images react with current stimuli.  It was just a blog post and I didn’t get to fully explore the ideas because I don’t deal with pairings at work anymore, but an astounding amount of people checked out the post.  No one seems to have adopted the theory yet… (…to be too far ahead of your time like Van Gogh!)

Well to use all these ideas in a beautiful context, when I get recruited to work at a lux, progressive, budget-less, overachieving dining establishment, I’m going to mail people bottles of experimental hand sanitizer with their reservations.  When they expose themselves the aroma (who doesn’t use hand sanitizer?) we can proceed to do a tasting of wines from our catalog that enjoy marked changes in contrast detection.  This will demonstrate the highly subjective nature of our construction of “reality”.  The great Nabakov referred to reality as the one work that should always be in quotes!

Astute readers will be comparing this strange olfactory phenomenon to Francois Chartier’s Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art & Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor.  He seems to have a new edition of the book which makes the content seem less about food & wine interaction and more about flavor theory in general.  Chartier posited the idea that reactive wine pairings were the product of matching aroma molecules in the food & wine.  I was not too keen on his idea.  But in this strange case we are probably also matching molecules from the conditioned stimulus with the wine.  The big difference is the amount of time and repetition.  Could pairings as Chartier envisioned become effected by this same type of contrast detection change or could they be more likely governed by others such as in my Nutritional Preference Theory?  We need more minds on this puzzle!


A text that explains the nitty-gritty of changes in olfactory contrast detect is Gordon M. Shepard’s Neurogastronomy which is astoundingly cool and I wrote a little bit about it here.

For those collecting olfactory illusions, another that I’ve come across lately was experienced when drilling colored pieces of plastic.  Molecules in the plastic are very similar to sucrose and somehow elicit a sensation of olfactory-sweetness (an illusion in its own right), but when combined with the color, drilling the cherry-red plastic can make you think you are smelling cherries.  The black plastic can be like licorice.  This leads me to believe that many object comparisons we make when tasting wine come from experiencing very general gestalts that trigger very specific memories.  A ghost arises from the memories and covers the very general gestalt that is hard to un-summon. Color and olfactory-sweetness end up being enough to summon a very vivid phantom aroma of cherry. Perception ends up being the fusion of our real sensory experience with our past recollections.  And the distribution of the two influences varies greatly and to some degree can be wielded.


I have been pondering the world of experts who might have unique thresholds of perception for aromas they are trained in.  A realm where unique contrast detection abilities might develop is food spoilage.  Kitchen workers who handle large amounts of food might train themselves on spoilage aromas and be able to detect them when a non-cook cannot.  This is a very valuable skill for obvious reasons and it seems as though it would be useful to know more about it.  Maybe kitchens should intentionally spoil small amounts of food and then train their line cooks on the aromas? That way they can spot them at lower thresholds in the future.

Two Summery Dishes And Some Wine

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I sat down Sunday night to try some wines with a couple new dishes chef put on the menu for restaurant week. The food is Amalfi inspired and I had thought one of their wines would easily come out on top. Unfortunately its never that simple…

The first dish was a simple chicken milanese accompanied by a chilled arborio rice salad with pees, corn, prosciutto cotto, and caper aioli stuffed into an organic native tomato. The dish has a fun hot-cold contrast and at first glimpse a dry coastal wine would seem appropriate.

For the wines I had open most of the usual suspects plus a couple of new ones:

Max Ford Richter’s “Zepplin” reisling was up first. The wine has a really elegant level of residual sugar probably under what would be a called a Spatlese. The pairing was a simple richness on richness comparison. the reaction is hard to describe but worked well with no ill effects.

Bridlewood’s viognier, which is rather full bodied and low acid, produced a pretty neutral reaction but for some reason I think I noticed the wines high alcohol a little more.

Martin Codax’s albarino tasted thin when all its fruit was stripped away for some reason by the dish. The reaction which was definitely negative did seem to reveal the wines minerality.

Matrot’s Bourgogne chardonnay reacted strangely, and the wine’s oak influence was brought out in a kind of inelegant creepy way. Oak in white wine isn’t summery to me.

White Haven’s New Zealand sauvignon blanc was kind of nice and complementary. The dish brought out the grapefruit in the wine, but I don’t understand why this wine may have worked but not the dry albarino.

Terra di Paolo’s falanghina was dominated by the aioli and like the albarino, may have been too delicate.

So for the dish, the slightly sweet reisling was a complete pleasure and the dry New Zealand sauvignon blanc may have fared better than the other dry wines because of its over the top expressive intensity.

The next dish up was salmon wrapped in grape leaves and grilled then served over what is essentially a chilled Nicoise salad (heirloom tomatoes, hericot verts, olives, onions) with a separated perfectly cooked hard boiled egg. I shared this with some of the other guys so I didn’t get to taste it with all of the wines I had open. What was cool to see is how a lot of the guys don’t enjoy the Zepplin reisling but found it sensational and counter intuitively the best pairing for the dish. I should also note that the dish never read well to me on paper but was really sensational, summery and completely perfect for the hot august evening.

The “Zepplin” reisling when combined with the sweetness and particular acid level of the heirloom tomatoes brought out all the apricot flavors of the wine, but then you noticed the steeliness of the tomatoes on the finish. the results were quite cool. The salmon and especially the smokiness of the grilled grape leaves provided even more sensational contrast to the wine. The fruit just grew in intensity and luckily the sweetness was always manageable.

Matrot’s Bourgogne chardonnay was too heavy and definitely not bright enough in character for the electric flavors of the dish. I was worried about the subtle oak of the wine encountering the egg but it didn’t seem to be a problem.

White Haven’s sauvignon blanc definitely brought some electric intensity, but just provided a strange contrast that didn’t really maximize the potential of the dish.

I didn’t get around to trying the falanghina but others thought it may have been too dry and delicate. Whats seems strange to me though, is how falanghina usually ends up as the only wine that can stand up to big flavors like parsley and pepper flake in a red sauce.

So all in all, we found some stunning matches for the food, but strangely in the same wine. Is there any coincidence involved in the reisling coming out on top or does it reflect a chef’s distinct summer time ethic of how lighter dishes should be balanced?

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A Cheese and Vermouth Pairing

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I stopped into wholefoods and bought a couple affordable cheeses and a baguette to make an easy lunch. I then sat down with the cheeses and a couple vermouths I had open and tried to see what happened. With vermouth even successful pairings can be beyond the words I know, but I’ll try.

The first cheese was a small cut of Marcillat Alsatian Munster. The cheese is very creamy, sort of nutty, and rather stinky. My cheese sensory evaluation skills are very amateur so hopefully I’m conveying a good description.

The first vermouth I tried it with the was a very ancient Cinzano Reserva dry vermouth (chilled) which is based on chardonnay, probably at least 15 years old and has some serious old wine character. Food really seems to wake it up. The dry vermouth melts right into the cheese and the weights of each match well. The cheese seems to bring out some of the banana flavors in the wine.

Chilled Stock brand sweet vermouth pairs pleasurably with the Munster and again one doesn’t really over power the other. What happens is rather difficult to evaluate but the vermouth seems to reflect back into focus some of the stinkiness of the cheese.

The second cheese was Petite Reblochon de Savoie. It is much firmer than the Munster but still soft. Overall a similar cheese but sort of milder. The Reblochon may have been a little over ripe as there was a faint ammonia character. I was told that is a hazard of buying small cuts at wholefoods.

Though the cheeses seem similar, the Cinzano reaction is different than with the Munster. The cheese seems to make the wine seem more alcoholic and strip away the fruit. The reaction is very subtle but overall it probably doesn’t pair well. Perhaps the vermouth is too dry.

The reaction from the Stock sweet vermouth is very delicate and the cheese seems to make the fruit of the vermouth taste like dark brooding berries.

Because the Reblochon was a bigger cut, I had some cheese left over and decided to taste it with Gallo’s dry vermouth which I’ve never had before. Gallo’s dry is actually kind of horrible. The fruit character of the wine is over the top. Kind of akin to how the fruit character sticks out on fresh Martini Rossi but much more so. The muscat character becomes as inelegant as a concord grape wine. The botanical weight also seems to be much lighter than imported dry vermouths and the whole product seems not very adult. The vermouth may be too dry for the cheese because it makes the fruit of the wine taste even thinner and draws out the ammonia character of the potentially overripe cheese. But I do give Gallo points for a pretty label.

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Maccheroncelli Primivera with Falanghina

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At the end of the night I sat down with a new dish from the Menu. I actually made the dish myself with the very close supervision of the sous chef because I barely cook beyond scrambled eggs… I know way too much about food but have been debilitatingly spoiled by chefs for years. The dish has a very dense rigatoni like pasta from Gragnano in southern Italy. The sauce is a porcini crema with a little lemon juice for acidity. Spring vegetables like peas, morels, and pickled fiddle heads are added to the dish. Over all it is green tasting, mushroomy in that porcini kind of way. The pickled fiddle heads lend more acidity to the lemon juice’s subliminal acidity.

In my opinion as delicious as the dish is, this is simple stuff and can’t really justify itself headlining a supposedly alto cucina restaurant’s menu without a pairing worked out to elevate it. My simple strategy was to grab every open bottle of white wine available plus the lightest red (because I feel red barely goes with food), try and call my shots like in shooting pool and see what happens. (I was not very good at calling my shots so I gave up)

With whitehaven’s new zealand sauvignon blanc the flavors of dill were obnoxiously revealed in the wine which i guess paired but was far from fun and elegant


bridlewood’s viognier was too low acid for the dish and tasted thinner


a strange rather full bodied pinot grigio brought into focus intense nut flavors so I guess it might have paired because there was an interesting reaction but it was again not really elegant or worth a second sip. I think this is the style of wine that most books would recommend with this wine in theory but that is why we need new books…


terra di paolo’s falanghina is this very dry white wine with pear like fruit, and very subtle herbaceous notes like pinenut and rosemary… it is so amalfi probably like the dish… but when you drink the wine following a bite of the dish the stunning unembellished flavor of the porcini is reflected back into focus in your mouth contrasted with the beautiful pear flavor in the wine and you have the most ideal pairing… exploring the pickled fiddlehead element of the dish also proved no negatives… though there wasn’t enough of them to explore it with every wine…


the red was barely worth mentioning. edmeades mendacino zinfandel is in my portfolio of advanced food wines but even in its lightness and rare for a zinfandel acidity it was too full bodied for the dish…

Unfortunately restaurants hate investing in pairing R&D but when you can really link food and wine with a successful pairing it is very profitable. People guzzle things that work. They are either trying to figure out how and why the magic happens or enjoying it all simply subliminally. When trying to make money it sucks to see a guy put down his glass of red wine while he enjoys his fish and then doesn’t return to it until he is done.

Would it be weird if restaurants developed perfect wine pairings for every dish with the sole goal of the making money and the art was cast aside solely to move more wine? Amusement and pleasure are only byproducts. Shouldn’t the market system really drive the art and science of food and wine interaction yet it appears to have barely gotten anywhere?