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From Car Crash, To Wine Connoisseurship

From Car Crash, To Wine Connoisseurship

Aaron lost his sense of smell—and fell in love with wine

Aaron Ayscough | Chef's Blade

Where most wine lovers cite a particular taste or sip as having sparked their interest in the subject, mine truly began with an absence of sensation. At age twenty, after returning home from a hospital where I’d been treated for an auto-related concussion, I found I couldn’t taste the Chinese take-out my parents had bought to celebrate my recovery. Where once was Szechuan bean curd, I now tasted – nothing. You could be forgiven for thinking that such a condition would obviate the possibility of a career in wine. There has been nothing predictable about my career path, however, and for better or worse this is probably typical of the industry.

The doctors I spoke to at the time surmised that my accident had damaged some very delicate nerves in my nose. These particular nerves are very hesitant in re-growth, so there was no telling whether I’d be able to smell or taste properly again. But I remained sensitive to acidity and texture, so my food and drink preferences remained fairly stable. Also distracting me from the loss was some concern over whether I’d be able to pay the hospital bill.

So, like any undergrad in need of money, I found a job waiting tables. I had some random café experience under my belt, but was able to wangle a job at a fine dining Italian restaurant by feigning a great friendship with the hostess, who was kind enough to play along and pass her recommendation to the manager. Knowing precisely diddly about wine at the time, I bluffed through the interview by reciting grape names I’d read on bottles in store windows: Dolcetto, Montepulciano, etc.

The words were empty of meaning for me, but they gained a greater significance when I realized that, by learning about wine, I could simultaneously make better tips and put my battered nose-nerves to the test. I began needling the restaurant’s grouchy wine director for longer explanations of grape characteristics and vineyard sites. Then, when the restaurant was dead, I’d stand by the stalled expo reading a spare copy of Joe Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano that someone had left lying around. My studies that summer were aided by the restaurant’s continual under-attendance, a result of its idiotic conception: a seafood-less menu themed around the land-locked central Italian region of Umbria, situated right on the Boston waterfront.

A few other environmental circumstances put me in a good position to learn more about Italian wine. I was living in Boston’s North End, a Little Italy awash in cheap Montepulciano. (Dark grape, inky black, low acid, blackfruited, tends to tarriness…) Meanwhile my roommate at the time, a fellow server at our dead restaurant, began working at a local Italian wine shop, where I soon began mincing around for scraps of expertise. Actual shopping was still a little beyond my means, but I attended tastings and sipped whatever open sample bottles the clerks had lying around.