Guest Bloggers

The Often Over-looked Magic of the Nose

Guest Blogger Hoby Wedler writes about: The Often Over-looked Magic of the Nose: Exploring Smells Around You

I was born blind. Growing up as a blind child forced me to pay closer attention to my nose than perhaps most people learn as children. I use my nose as a method of observing my surroundings, for navigation, to note whether or not food has spoiled, and most importantly to smell, taste and describe food and wine.

It is important to note that not all blind people pay as close attention to their noses as I do. Many of my blind friends walk right past unique aromas that I easily pick up on. Thus, my love for thinking about aroma certainly does not stem specifically from my blindness.

While I love describing aromas of many things, I notice whether they are pleasant, unique, off-putting, etc. I will use this opportunity to describe aromas of a few relatively common areas that I find exciting. I am a part-time wine educator and so I pay close attention to smells. I have found that the best way to get people excited about wine is to describe its aroma and flavor using common things or places they are familiar with. Here are a few of my aroma descriptions to give you a “taste” of how I enjoy describing aroma.

Bars have a bizarre smell because they smell clean to me but also like people. I’d describe the aroma of a bar as a mixture of the type of cleaner they use (usually bleach to keep sanitation), citrus fruit, alcohol fumes, leather (not sure why this one is so present), usually old wood, people, sometimes cigarette smoke, and paper money. I know this is a bit esoteric and strange but it’s the best description of bar smell I could come up with. There are some bars in downtown Petaluma that I think of as having fairly iconic smells. Andresen’s on Western and Volpi’s on Washington come to mind right off.

Other places that have very distinct aromas are banks, movie theatres, coffee shops (of course), parks with lawn and water features, swimming pools (and I’m not talking about right up next to the pool; I am able to identify the pool just by driving by the center where it’s housed), print shops, dry cleaning establishments, to name a few specific places.

If we just focus on our vision, I think we lose all of what we’re discussing to our visual distractions. I’ve spent a long time pinning down the smells of different things I encounter in my day to day life and I find it to be thought-provoking and intriguing.

Being able to describe aroma is like learning a new language. People need to develop an aromatic vocabulary. Smell is another language. For example, if you look at a picture of a dog, you might think of a furry thing that runs around and goes “Woof.” If you look at a picture of a ripe fig, you might think of the fruit and what you know about it. If I hand you a glass with crushed fig in it, however, it may be much harder to come up with the word “fig.” With practice and attentiveness to the nose and aromas, anyone can develop a strong aromatic vocabulary.

Note from Marlene: I had quite an enjoyable email exchange with Hoby stemming from my inquiring if he could describe the “bar smell.” Pinning down that particular smell fascinates me. Hoby came up with leather (yes, leather-topped barstools and booths), wood (of course: stools, chairs, bar top) and money (aha! I hadn’t thought of that). Perspiration. . . (oh, yes,) and cigarette butts in tin can ashtrays, stale beer. I hadn’t thought of using a variety of material to describe “bar smell.” Now, I know . . . use my nose to play detective and capture precise smells. Thanks, Hoby!

I have known Hoby since he was born. As I researched material for this post, I learned more about Hoby that I didn’t know. I am amazed by this remarkable young man and his family. If you have time, click on the links to learn more about opportunities for the visually impaired, what growing up blind was like for Hoby and his family and his zest for life. Hoby credits Learning Ally for being a life-changer.

Hoby WedlerHenry “Hoby” Wedler is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Davis, founder and director of the nonprofit Accessible Science, and host of truly blind wine and beer tasting experiences. Hoby was raised in Petaluma, California where early on he fell in love with beautiful Sonoma County.  When he’s not busy working towards his Ph.D. in organic chemistry or leading his blind or visually impaired chemistry camp students in conducting lab experiments through touch and smell, he turns his attention to wine and beer – where he’s passionate about wine and beer flavor, accurate flavor descriptors, and how wine and beer flavor and aroma relate to chemistry.

In May of 2012, Hoby was one of only fourteen individuals honored at the White House as part of President Obama’s Champions of Change program, for leading the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for people with disabilities.  The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama’s Winning the Future initiative that recognizes outstanding individuals for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities.

Hoby was inspired by programs offered by the National Federation of the Blind in high school, and with encouragement from professors, colleagues and others, he gained the confidence to challenge and refute the mistaken belief that STEM fields are too visual and, therefore, impractical for blind people.

Hoby founded and teaches at an annual chemistry camp for blind and low-vision high school students. Chemistry Camp demonstrates to the students, by example and through practice, that their lack of eyesight should not hold them back from pursuing their dreams.

Hoby hosts Tasting in the Dark, a completely blind wine tasting experience at Francis Ford Coppola and other Napa-Sonoma wineries. The surprising and enlightening wine tasting, where guests are blindfolded, explores how flavors and aromas in wine are accentuated when experienced in complete darkness. Hoby believes that when a sighted person is in complete darkness, he or she feels more vulnerable and his or her senses become more heightened because vision is not a distraction, bringing out more flavors in a wine or beer.

In 2013, Hoby partnered with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company to host beer tasting in the dark, “Sightless Sipping.” This event, similar to blind wine tasting, allows guests to enjoy beer at an entirely new level. According to the Sacramento Bee Newspaper:

Hoby Wedler is a rising star

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One comment

  1. mcullen Post author

    Smell is such an interesting topic and not just for writers. Smells and smell-related words evoke powerful memories. I think most of us know this. But I wondered why we are affected and transported to another time and memory when we smell certain smells. So, of course, I researched.

    One thing that many agree on: The sense of smell is our most primitive sense, the one most closely related to emotions. So, writers take note, if you want to relate strong emotions. . . go to smell!

    The Power of Smell
    Why is the sense of smell so emotionally rousing? The following is paraphrased from Nature’s Aphrodisiacs (Crossing Press, 1998):

    Of the five senses, only the sense of smell bypasses the cerebral cortex—the conscious “thinking” part of our brain. Smell receptors in the nose are directly wired to the limbic center, the part of the brain that controls our sex drive, emotions, and sensual memories. Thus a smell can arouse us, trigger an emotion, or evoke a memory, and our conscious mind cannot control our response.

    For example, we may get a whiff of sandalwood, a scent always worn by someone we dislike. Instantly—against our will—we are reminded of him/her. And the memory brings with it strong emotions associated with that person. Suddenly we feel angry, annoyed, or depressed without knowing why. We take an immediate, unexplainable dislike to the person who innocently wears the offending fragrance. That odor is forever connected with negative emotions in our limbic brain.

    Words to Evoke Smell Memories
    Can words evoke smell memories.? Absolutely. And can those smell memories instantly evoke powerful emotions in our primal brains – our limbic centers? Absolutely.

    As writers, we can make use of “smell words” to add emotional impact to our writing. There are many other words for smell, among them essence, sweetness, musk, breath, whiff, and taint.

    Many adjectives are useful in describing odors. For example: acrid, pungent, earthy, sour, musty, rancid.

    The following is a partial list of words that describe smell, by Nancy Ragno, Word Savvy,
    acrid, ambrosial, balmy, bitter, bittersweet, briny, citrusy, clean, cloying, cool, crisp, dank, earthy, fishy, floral, flowery, fresh, fruity, fusty, gamy, honeysuckle, intoxicating, lemony, lilac, metallic, mildewed, peppery, piney, potpourri, pungent, rank, refreshing, ripe, rotting, savory, sea air, skunky, smoky, sour, spicy, yeasty.

    How about you. . . what words do you like that describe smell?

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