Letter from My COVID Cave

With loss of smell, great wine loses all its joy

Letter from My COVID Cave
(Getty Images/Chris Van Dolleweerd)
Dec 28, 2020

Alone in my quarantine cave, I am sipping a glass of what should be very good Barolo.

It tastes like almost nothing.

You see, earlier this month, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. Even in mercifully mild and feverless cases like mine, one of the novel coronavirus’ signatures is a temporary loss of the olfactory senses. My tongue can still feel things like sweetness and acidity, but all the rest—all the complexity and joy of eating and drinking—is gone.

It is just one in a series of loops life has thrown my way since Dec. 15.

Prior to that date, I was in Italy preparing to travel to meet my wife and son in France for the holidays. The first shock came on awakening, when I learned that a younger brother—exactly half my age—had died in New York. Over the last year, we’d grown distant. Now he was gone.

That same day, as I was wrestling with the idea of travelling across the Atlantic during a pandemic, I went for a COVID-19 swab test. The next morning, I got the result and wham! Positive.

What a deceptive word. I stared at it in disbelief as if I had misunderstood the Italian positivo.

My already upside-down world froze as I contemplated the unknown. I had been feeling a bit run-down but shrugged it off. It’s December—who feels 100 percent? Now the best-case scenario would be solitary confinement at home for nearly two weeks.

Something else shifted in my consciousness. Up until the diagnosis, my main concern was avoiding the virus. Now I worried: Who else could I have infected?

Twice the previous weekend, I’d drunk outdoor aperitivo with friends. That Saturday, I’d even visited a winery for a tasting and lunch with another pair of friends. We were distanced and careful, but who knows?

I quickly let everyone know my diagnosis and urged them to get tested. In the following days, the results came in: our friends were all negative.

Just as quickly, something else happened. Offers of help poured in from friends asking, “What do you need?” The deliveries from my network started to arrive outside my door: a blood-oxygen meter, homemade chicken broth, fresh ricotta ravioli, vitamins.

The refrain I heard over and over again was this: “Tell me anything you need—anything!”

Personally, I do not like social media. But I did post my condition and was struck by the outpouring of good wishes and empathy—not just from current wine colleagues, but from people I worked with 30 years ago or more as a reporter in Texas, and from Camutos I didn’t even know from our ancestral home on the western side of Sicily’s Mount Etna.

Our family Christmas plan had been that our son, who lives in the U.K., was going to fly down to meet my wife and I in the southern France village in which he grew up. My wife was already there. Last Sunday, France cancelled flights from the U.K. over fears of a newly virulent strain of COVID in Britain. That meant that our small family would be scattered across three countries.

Meanwhile, I spent the weekend doing things I didn’t imagine for the holidays: helping write an obituary and grappling with the disorienting effects of COVID.

When I awoke on the 19th, my sense of smell was gone, as the virus had infected my olfactory support cells. The world was an odorless void and would likely remain so for weeks.

I compulsively sniffed everything from a container of strong oregano to the stinky dried-fish doggy treats at the back of the fridge to my favorite cologne. They were identical in their aromatic nothingness.

When I ate, I could taste the sweetness of fruit on my tongue and feel the sharp acidic bite of citrus. I could detect salt and, most surprisingly, the magical umami flavor of a piece of Parmigiano cheese.

I then understood what I’d known but never sensed—just how important smell is to taste. Without it, eating is pretty dull.

I pulled out a bottle of new, ultra-green Sicilian olive from this season, and I slurped a spoonful. Instead of an explosion of flavors, the only thing I could detect was a phenolic burn at the back of my throat.

I am writing this on Dec. 22—the winter solstice—the shortest, darkest day of the year. After attending a virtual funeral, I open this bottle of Barolo and pour a glass. I inhale what should be its complex nose of dark fruit and spice, but there is nothing.

When I sip, I can tell it is red wine from what I feel in my mouth—the lively acid, the heat of the alcohol and the tannins that attach to my gums. But it is sadly incomplete, like watching a music video without the music. Or receiving a “virtual hug” in lieu of the real thing.

In a year that has already been a rollercoaster ride for Italy, we have to make it through yet another steep plunge before we reach the end. Last spring, the country was the hit hardest by COVID-19 and imposed the first lockdowns in Europe. After a summer respite, Italy became a center of the second wave, enforcing color-coded regional lockdowns and mandatory mask wearing (though smokers seem to get a free pass). I remember that, some days in June, the entire Veneto region where I live had about three cases a day for 5 million people. By mid-December, that grew to more than 3,000 a day. Eventually, I became one of them.

This holiday week and New Year's, all Italians are required to stay close to home with only limited travel. “People are going mad even without a positive test,” one friend laments via text message. “The pharmacies are selling tons of tranquilizers.”

Hopefully, I will be stuck just a few more days in my COVID cave. From here, the days will get longer. We are told there is light at the end of this tunnel. Even here in the dark, there still seems to be a lot worth toasting.

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