What's a Sommelier to Do When They Lose Their Sense of Smell?

Wine professionals struggling with COVID-related smell loss fear losing their jobs and their livelihoods; French sommeliers and winemakers have called for vaccine priority

What's a Sommelier to Do When They Lose Their Sense of Smell?
Sommelier Dan Davis has completely recovered his sense of smell three months after contracting COVID-19, but the experience was traumatic. (Sara Essex Bradley)
Mar 1, 2021

Last March, Philippe Faure-Brac, one of France's best-known sommeliers, shuttered his Paris restaurant, Bistrot du Sommelier, as France entered its first national COVID-19 lockdown. Two weeks later, Faure-Brac, who had just turned 60, was diagnosed with COVID. Following a week of fever, gastric problems and fatigue, a new chapter of the illness opened.

"When I started eating again," he recalled, "I realized I had a problem."

Like most sufferers of relatively mild cases of COVID, Faure-Brac lost his sense of smell, and consequently his ability to perceive flavors. To celebrate his recovery, he had opened a bottle of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

"I wanted to celebrate the end of the fever and the symptoms, but it wasn't a celebration at all," he said. "The wine had no aroma, and in the mouth I could taste only alcohol, tannins and acidity—it was hard and metallic."

Faure-Brac is no casual sipper. Winner of International Sommelier Association's Best Sommelier in the World competition in 1992, he is now president of the French Sommelier Association. He threw himself into tasting wines in the weeks and months that followed—probing his memory and his senses. "I tasted a lot of wine in April and May to find my balance," he says. But the effort was futile as his palate was strangely distorted.

"The smell of wood in wine returned to a point where it was violent," Faure-Brac says. "Wines that had a light amount of wood tasted very, very woody. I was unable to drink wines that I normally enjoy, whether it was grands vins from Burgundy or the Rhône or Italian wines from Piedmont and Tuscany." On his tongue, all wines were dominated by bitterness.

When your nose is your career

Faure-Brac is far from alone in his struggles. For wine aficionados, COVID-related olfactory dysfunction is frustrating. But for wine professionals, who depend on their noses and palates for their livelihood, it's a nightmare come to life.

Dan Davis, who heads the wine program at Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Commander's Palace in New Orleans, spent Thanksgiving in bed with a 102° F fever and horrible congestion from COVID. By Saturday he felt better. That Sunday, his sense of smell was gone.

"It was actually as I felt I was recovering," he told Wine Spectator. "I felt like I was on the mend. And then one day it was like a light switch just flipped, and I had zero sense of smell. Completely gone. I of course panicked immediately, and started testing. I crushed a bunch of fresh garlic in a small bowl, couldn't smell it. I tried ammonia, tried everything I could find around the house that had aggressive smells, and nothing. It was absolute zero."

The uncertainty was horrible. "It was absolute terror. The thought of no longer being able to do so much of my job was just terrifying. And then there's everything else in your life. I love to cook, I love more than just wine, and all of that would be gone."

Falling ill 10 months into a pandemic, Davis at least knew what he was confronting. Last March, when the virus was first rapidly spreading in some U.S. cities, many wine professionals had no idea what was going on. Talitha Whidbee, owner of Vine Wine shop in Brooklyn, was feeling sick and tired when she went out to dinner with two friends and was confused when a bottle of grower Champagne and a gorgeous Chinon were disappointing. "Everything tasted like Play-Doh," she said. "Everything was not delicious and I was totally not impressed by these really wonderful wines, and then I went home and I just felt like I couldn't move. I live in a townhome and I had to go upstairs from the couch to go to the bathroom, and I felt like crying when I got to the top of the stairs, I was so tired."

After she had recovered enough from the major symptoms a month later, she still had olfactory dysfunction and couldn't figure out why. She filled her house with strong-scented diffusers and used strong-scented lotions. "And none of it smelled like anything, and nothing tasted good. It was like no joy in anything I ate. I remember being at the wine store, and it must have been that next week, and we had gotten pizza, and I was like this doesn't taste like anything, it's like cardboard. But I didn't think that it had anything to do with COVID, I just thought everything was bad in the world."

Why is this happening?

Last April, while much of the world was still grappling with the basics of COVID and debating the efficacy of mask wearing, a group of French enologists and educators sprung to action—focusing on the risks to wine.

The 1,300-member French Enologists Union assembled a working group of wine professionals, doctors and medical researchers headed by Pierre-Louis Teissedre, vice president of the union and an enology professor at the University of Bordeaux's Science Institute of Vines and Wine (ISVV). The group was charged with measuring the risk and extent of the problem and examining testing, prevention and possible treatments.

In studying the first wave of COVID, the enologists included other professional associations, including Faure-Brac's French sommeliers, and reached out to other enologist groups worldwide.

The study, with more than 2,600 respondents (70 percent from France), found that wine professionals suffered both COVID and its smell and taste loss at about the same rates as the general population. A majority of COVID sufferers identified in the study developed anosmia (complete smell loss) and 40 percent lost both smell and taste.

The smell part, olfaction, became the first order of concern because it has typically taken longer to fully return. About 30 percent of COVID-positive respondents needed anywhere from 12 days to weeks and months to normalize. About four percent complained of ongoing smell loss after months. For many, like Faure-Brac, such episodes were accompanied by distortions.

"We have persons who cannot identify the correct odor," said Teissedre. "For example, when they were presented with the smell of truffles, they smelled leather. Or they were given a smell of raspberries and they smelled a flower."

Olfaction is an intricate sensory system that connects a network of neuron receptors in the nose to the brain's olfactory bulb. COVID-19 is believed to debilitate that system by infecting nasal support cells that can take months to regenerate. Olfaction is an oft-overlooked function responsible for our detection of aromas and flavors—leaving it to the mouth alone to detect saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, sourness and umami.

Fear of losing a livelihood

For some wine professionals, contracting COVID brings additional fears beyond health concerns. If they lose their ability to smell, will it damage their career? Should they even tell anyone?

One salesperson for a Los Angeles importer told Wine Spectator her sense of smell returned after a month, but she still hasn't told her co-workers. "The reason that I haven't told my employer, and that I won't, is because I am afraid that they will assume that it's affected my career and then maybe they will discriminate because of that."

Mike McAllister, assistant buyer/manager of Veritas Studio Wines in Manhattan, had a similar fear. "Our shop is very locally focused, we have this little shop in Hell's Kitchen. So I had that moment where I'm like, 'Do I even bring it up in front of customers?' Because I don't want them to know I just had COVID and be afraid to come into the shop," he said.

"And I don't want them to think I don't know what I'm talking about, so I put it off for a couple days, but they [the customers] kind of know us all really well, we have a lot of people that lived across the street since we opened. So I slowly started confiding in people, and started drinking with my coworkers. And it slowly became a joke, like 'Oh, can you taste anything in this Riesling?' and I'm like, 'No, but I'll still drink it.'"

"A lot of people have gone through it, so it's like the usual thing: Once I started talking about it, they were all like, 'Oh yeah, me too,' or, 'It took my aunt two months, don't worry.' So it's not a big issue. But all I could do was sell the wines I knew, so if it had lasted a lot longer, it would have been less and less percentage of the shop that I would have known. And I couldn't do any of the buying, so I was just relying on what people told me or general wine knowledge." McAllister was elated on the day he could smell a bunch of basil, and when he told those near him, they let out a collective cheer.

Sommelier Philippe Faure-Brac
Philippe Faure-Brac lost his sense of smell after contracting COVID-19 last year, a frightening complication when you're one of France's most renowned sommeliers. (Courtesy Union de la Sommellerie Française)

In France, trade groups have taken action. As one of the first results of their work, French enologists and other wine professionals involved in the ISVV study formally launched a lobbying campaign this month asking the government to give priority vaccines to the wine trades. Those trades, the rationale goes, are based on the ability to accurately evaluate through smell and taste.

"If you had a virus that affected hearing and tonality, that would certainly affect musicians and composers more than others, and I would understand that those people would want to be protected," explained Teissedre. "The loss of smell can have consequences for the quality of wine production."

Next week, the enologists association plans to publicly release full results of the study along with a sprawling action plan that will include recommendations for testing and treatment and generally raising French public awareness of olfaction starting in public schools. "COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of sensory olfaction and taste in our lives," said Teissedre.

But in other nations, wine professionals are rarely considered essential. For now, the French wine trade seems to be alone with its focus on the problems of smell loss. In the United States, restaurants have struggled to get federal aid to help keep their doors open and support workers. In Italy, which has been hit hard during the pandemic, many enologists and professionals have suffered COVID's smell-debilitating effects, but there has been no official response.

Francesco Iacono, director of Italy's 8,000-member ONAV (Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori di Vino), the main structure for training wine professionals and others in tasting, informally sent out an email about COVID-related smell and tasting problems. Though Iacono says few are willing to disclose what could be viewed as a professional handicap, 20 colleagues he counts as friends have dealt with COVID-related smell loss.

Iacono said among those smell-affected friends, some said they were focusing on other aspects of wine. Iacono cited the style of Geo-Sensory tasting advocated by Burgundy researcher and author Jacky Rigaux, a method that favors things like mouthfeel, minerality, consistency, suppleness and complexity over aromas. "The mouth brings different sensations and emotions," Iacono says. "Talking with these friends has made me think about the way we scan wine. I am interested in this approach and trying to see if we can taste in other ways. Why not?"

Hope?

In Bordeaux, ISVV neuroscientist and smell science instructor Sophie Tempère, a member of the enologists' working group has developed a training protocol based on European studies that showed such training helped olfactory recovery. In October, Tempère surveyed her 200 students and found that about 5 percent had suffered smell loss, with half of that group taking more than a month to recover.

The protocol (available free online in English) is built on two components: imagining "lost" smells and focused sniffing of aroma-concentrated essential oils from four smell groups—fruit, flower, spice and herb—several times a day.

"These exercises are not a guarantee—it's not a miracle—but the more you stimulate smell the more chance you have of recuperating well," said Tempère, who likens the training to an injured athlete who needs to tone muscle after injury.

Back in New Orleans several weeks after he lost his sense of smell, Davis was in the process of ordering scent kits of essential oils for training when he brewed some Earl Grey tea and noticed a note of bergamot—the first sign of recovery. "I had already been doing my own [training] at home. I had a container of cloves and a container of peppercorns and a container of lemon peel, and then a couple of different teas, some rose, bath salts, things like that."

Twice a day he'd nose the containers, concentrating on trying to smell the scents. "From what I read, my instinct is that that type of training does not help you go from zero, it helps you gain if you have some sense of smell." While he believes his smell has completely returned, occasionally a diner will send back a bottle and he'll wonder. "I go to assess it, and I find nothing wrong, and so then I start questioning everything. But it turns out that about half the bottles that get sent back are actually fine. So then I gather seven people and say, 'Everybody taste this, I need to know, is there anything wrong with this bottle?'"

It wasn't until August, five months after his bout with the virus, that Faure-Brac felt he could taste wine accurately again. However, he says, he remains still somewhat more sensitive to wood and resin flavors. But he has learned something—he says the experience has made him a more attentive taster. And it has raised his awareness of the fragility of the senses involved.


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