Growing up outside of Cleveland as the daughter of Polish immigrants, "wine writer" wasn't on my radar screen as a career choice. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the first female Supreme Court chief justice. When I was older, I wanted to be a sociology professor and research bathroom-wall graffiti.
Luckily my life turned out the way it did—and not just because it means I spend less time in public bathrooms. Looking back now, there were early signs that working for Wine Spectator would be a good job for me. I remember sitting in the junior high–school cafeteria and describing to my friends, in great detail, an amazing meal I had eaten. I was met with deadpan stares. "It was a burger," they reminded me flatly.
I would check out cookbooks from the local library to expand my family's meals beyond the Eastern European fare my mother deftly cooked. My favorite recipe became a Mediterranean meatball that used both oregano (the stuff I only knew from pizza joints) and mint (a favorite tea). I couldn't believe these flavors could co-exist in such harmony.
In my twenties, I worked in restaurants, and I'm certain I was a nuisance with all of my questions. One day a chef shared a new sauce he was working on. "Is there cumin in there?" I asked. He told me no, but it contained curry powder. "But cumin is in curry," I reminded him, exasperated.
I've always wanted to smell and taste everything I could get my hands on, logging each experience in my mental bank. At home, we often have blind taste tests. Fuji apples versus Honeycrisp, Tapatío hot sauce versus Cholula. I like to walk through my neighborhood and try to guess what folks are having for dinner. When a dish is served to me, I instinctively pull my hair back, put my face close to my plate and inhale deeply. Once I was at a lunch with colleagues and we saw the restaurant had a dessert with boysenberries. We asked for just a dish of boysenberries so we could remember what they taste like.
I'm that person in a store who must pick up and sniff every candle, every soap, every tea sample—even if I'm sure I won't like it. I also have a ridiculously large collection of essential oils I blend in my diffuser. Lemongrass, lavender, cedar and eucalyptus one day, bergamot, spruce and sage the next.
These exercises aren't parlor games. They are ways to sharpen my skill at picking out notes in wines and to give me confidence about the difference among lemongrass, lemon verbena, lemon thyme and Meyer lemon.
If you're trying to build up your own aroma vocabulary, spend more time in spice shops, farmers markets or the aromatherapy aisle. After all, the best way to figure out the difference between peppermint and spearmint is to smell them side by side. Be curious. It's definitely the first step.