The Salt
11:18 am
Fri October 18, 2013

Scratch 'N' Sniff Your Way To Wine Expertise ... Or At Least More Fun

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 7:58 pm

Knock wine off its pedestal. That's the goal of wine expert Richard Betts. And he has come up with a brilliant way to do it: a scratch n' sniff guide to the aromas and flavors of the wine world.

With beautiful illustrations from Wendy MacNaughton, the 10-page board book looks like it belongs with your kid's toys instead of next to The Joy of Cooking.

But don't let the playfulness fool you. There's some serious wine science in Bett's new book, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.

From the peach and pineapple notes in a chardonnay to the burnt rubber and mushroom odors that plague some cheaper wines, Betts covers the wine sensory gamut with humor and a refreshing simplicity.

"Until recently, wine has been more hoity-toity, not accessible to people," Betts, one of just 200 Master Wine Sommeliers, tells The Salt. "We're making it more inclusive. Wine is a grocery, not a luxury."

He came up with the idea of a scratch 'n' sniff guide late one night over a glass of wine, of course. "We were talking and realized that the wine world didn't need another tome with glossy photos, maps and descriptions of wines you will never drink."

So he opted instead for something fun and perhaps even more useful. He steers clear of wine jargon that's meaningless to most of us, and strips down tasting concepts to their essential, so they're easier to remember.

Take, for instance, the infamous "wine aroma wheel." Developed by a researcher at the University of California, Davis, the original infographic lists about a hundred wine aromas, including not-so-common odors like tar, mousy and kerosene.

But Betts pares it down to just four categories: fruit, wood, Earth and other. He hits the nail on the head. Those few terms will get you far in the wine-tasting world.

So what about the scratch 'n' sniff elements? Unfortunately, the technology hasn't changed much in the past few decades and still isn't so great at recreating fruit smells.

When I sniffed the peach illustration, the artificial aroma immediately transported me back to my childhood bedroom in the early '80s, reading Richard Scarry's Lowly Worm. Clearly, the bouquet of Mr. Rabbit's fruit isn't exactly what you'll find in a 2011 sauvignon blanc.

But Betts says his goal isn't to replicate wine nuances exactly. "It's not about saying that this smell is the most faithful recreation of peach in a glass of wine," he says. "But the book gets you thinking about what you like and don't like — and talking about them in terms of vocabulary [readers] already have, not in 'wine speak.' "

"When we were hunter-gatherers, we depended on our smell so much for survival," Bett adds. "We need to tap back into that."

Some of the science in the book is also a little outdated. For instance, the tongue really isn't divided up into five sections for various tastes. And most flavor chemists would say that American oak has more vanilla odor than French oak does.

Still though, Betts has succeeded where others in the wine business have failed. He's taken a complex, overworked topic, and presented it in a innovative, inviting way. Mastering the ideas in the book won't turn you into a sommelier, but it will make drinking wine at dinner more fun.

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