A Conversation with Dr. Hoby Wedler, Blind Chemist, About Wine Tasting, Sensory Literacy, and the Glorious Smell of Wet Pavement

A nice metaphor brought to us from the world of wine is that happy grapes don’t make for good wines. Grapes need to work hard under stressful conditions in order to produce their deliciousness. Hoby Wedler, an organic chemist turned entrepreneur selected as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Food & Drink, who also happens to be blind since birth, offers as an example the happy Cabernet grapes grown in the Central Valley of California. They are watered, get plenty of sun and don’t have to work very hard to grow puffy and full of sugar. ” happy berries don’t taste good because they don’t have all the nutrients in them where the plant is saying, ‘Oh my god, I have to go help myself!'” They sell for about $200 a ton.

On the other hand, you have Cabernet grapes grown on the top of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Range located between Sonoma and Napa Valleys.

It’s above the fog belt, so it does get hot during the day, but it gets mighty cold at night, and any water that goes up there immediately falls back down the mountain. This makes for a really stressed vine. It has to dig its roots so deep in the soil just to try to find water. And it says, “Oh my gosh I need to produce fruit that can live on for a long time and go to seed where I know that I’m going to be able to grow more grapevines, because I don’t feel like I’m giving my children enough nutrients.” So it produces grapes that are pea sized, just tiny tiny tiny things full of all these nutrients, and antioxidants, amazing things. And we pay $9000 to $9500 a ton for them.

Still, these expensive little nutrient packed berries do not taste very good. As with all wine grapes, they need to be broken down by fermentation to have their true beauty manifest. Hoby likens their flavors and aromas to gems hidden in the boxes of a hoarder’s garage. It takes some digging, some effort, to expose the cool stuff stored away.

Even the highest quality wine grapes, taste really boring when they’re harvested. Just a really intense blooming of sugar on your palate, overwhelmingly sweet, and then if you bite down on the seeds, they’re just really astringent–high tannins. So we can take these though, and crush them, and ferment them, with the skins and seeds present, so you extract the tannins, and what you realize is that hiding beneath that boring palette, were all these molecules, just encased in sugar. By breaking down the sugar and fermenting it into alcohol, we’re releasing them and we’re able to figure out exactly what these compounds are, and turn something very humble into something brilliantly complex.

For most of us who are not in the wine industry, it takes some work to understand what we are smelling and tasting in order to appreciate the complexity. Being blind might offer you an edge here, and if you weren’t born with that advantage, you might want to be blindfolded in order to focus your attention on those oft-neglected senses. In the past, Hoby has offered Tasting in the Dark at the Francis Ford Coppola winery to help you along. And, in his new business venture Senspoint, he often uses the blindfold in his tastings of not only wine, but also olive oil, beer, and other products where your eyes might get in the way of the experience. Giving people the vocabulary to talk about taste and smell is a shared goal of Senspoint and Aromatica Poetica!

Sensory literacy

In his TED Talk, Hoby begins with an experience that typifies his motivation for putting sensory literacy at the forefront of what he does. He describes an excursion to a field in Sonoma county on a foggy spring morning with sighted friends. They all marvel at the striking visuals and even try to describe the things they see to their blind companion, completely unaware of the sensations Hoby is enjoying: birds chirping, cows mooing, the viscosity of the air, smells of bay, eucalyptus, redwood trees, manure, alfalfa, and fresh-cut grass.

The average human with all five senses intact, typically takes in the vast majority of information through their sight. An article at The Medical Futurist breaks it down:

Researchers estimate that 80-85 percent of our perception, learning, cognition, and activities are mediated through vision. Compared to that, our hearing only processes 11 percent of information, while smell 3.5 percent, touch 1.5 percent and taste 1 percent.

These numbers seem to be backed up by the distance factor:

Imagine you are in an open field, the sun shines on you, with the bees humming softly in the air. How far can you see and hear? When it comes to vision, it’s around 50 miles, talking about hearing, it’s only 1-2 miles at best! What about the smell of the flowers? Without the wind blowing, only 10-20 meters. How about touching or tasting? Well, it depends on your arm’s length, but obviously not further than that. And the same goes for your tongue and tasting.

This ability of sight to tell us a great deal of information at a great distance can be very useful of course, but it tends to make sighted people a little bit sensorially lazy, by ignoring the closer senses. As Hoby puts it, “How often are we in a place when we smell something and we say, I know that smell but I can’t quite identify it.”

We are always smelling, but we rarely have words to express what we’re smelling. For many people it comes down to “That smells delicious!” or “What’s that terrible smell!” being able to go beyond these initial impressions, to describe and put words to those senses, is a huge challenge, and exactly what Hoby likes to work with people on.

It seems to me that just moving the percentages a little bit could offer humans a mind-altering paradigm shift. It turns out that our brains are plastic enough that we could actually experience this shift with just a little effort.

Aroma in and out

In his book See What I’m Saying Lawrence Rosenblum gives many fun examples of how sensory compensation occurs not only in sensory-impaired people but in everyone, which supports the growing conception of neural plasticity.

It turns out that we all have brain regions and cells that can change their function depending on our experiences. Furthermore, the growing evidence for our ability to use multiple senses for what until very recently were considered single-sense functions (perceiving speech from seeing faces; perceiving a person’s attractiveness from smells) supports the emerging notion that the brain is designed around multisensory input. In some ways, the brain doesn’t much care which sense organ provides information. This fact is even true of the supposed “visual” and “auditory” brain centers that, we now know, incorporate multisensory input.

Our brains are always unconsciously taking in information from all our senses and, with a little practice, we can shift our unconscious perceptions into conscious ones.

With smell and taste the connection is perhaps more obvious, but even so, most people do not realize just how much of what we think of as taste is smell. “The integration of smell with taste is so complete,” writes Rosenblum, “that, by some estimates, nearly 80 percent of a food’s flavor is determined by its retronasal odor.”

The taste buds are quite primitive compared to our olfactory system. We only taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (meatiness). So considering your favorite marinara, if you had no sense of smell, you would get the acid and sweetness from the tomatoes, but you’d get none of the basil, the garlic, the onion, practically none of the “flavors” of the Italian palette.

When we breathe in through our nose–what we typically think of as smelling–that’s only half of smell. The other half comes to us when we breathe out. If you’ve ever wondered why wine connoisseurs make funny noises–aspirating the wine in their mouth–the reason is that we often get different odors when we smell retronasally. “Orthonasal is of course breathing air in from our surroundings,” Hoby told me. “And then that little valve switches direction, you exhale, and that’s retronasal, where you can taste what’s going on in your mouth cavity, which is just as important. Funnily enough, I find myself, with the exact same thing, smelling different aromas, whether I’m retro smelling or ortho smelling.”

Adding water to gin and pavement

Much of what we smell are known in the chemistry world as volatile organic compounds. When Hoby mentioned that putting those compounds into something that will dissolve them allows them to blossom, I right away thought booze, as we’ve often discussed here. He affirmed. “if you can put those things into something that will dissolve them well like spirited alcohol, and taste them, and not much of it, the smell just blooms around your palette, and you can pick up so much more of what you smell.”

This led me to think of my much-adored gin and the magical way in which just a drop or two of water in a glass of neat gin–The Botanist or Hendrick’s for example– allows the aromatic botanicals to explode. If you want to geek out with Hoby on the chemistry behind that phenomenon, I encourage you to listen to our full conversation below, but here’s a hint: alcohol has the magical ability to mix with oily things (volatile molecules such as essential oils) and watery things, which is precisely why we talk so much about booze around here!

Before I leave you to enjoy our conversation in full, I want to draw your attention to the smell of wet pavement, which is not unrelated to the watering gin trick.

Knowing from his TED Talk that he had an affinity for smelling wet pavement, I asked Hoby what it was that we were smelling when we smelled that glorious wet pavement smell.

I would describe it as a combination of sort of a flinty, slightly burned rock aroma, and then there’s also–and this one’s going to sound so weird–to me there’s this amazing plasticky quality of it, this fresh plastic aroma, which in small doses can be so incredibly refreshing. And when mixed with a sort of burned stone, it’s a very unique and to me a very cool aroma. The other thing that I smell with wet pavement, is that there’s a lot of micro vegetation. Even if it’s in a bone dry desert, it smells lush. You’re giving water to these microflora, which then just start to flourish, and emit their aroma. To me that’s a magical aroma.

When I pressed him on the cool plastic smell that I couldn’t quite imagine along with the rest, Hoby said, “The plastic I’m talking about is very specific: thicker plastic bags, which you find in the produce department of your grocery store on a roll have that aroma. Next time you’re in the store, please smell them. They have an aroma that’s somewhere between cooked lamb and like really fresh wet earth….”

So I did as instructed. The next time we were in the produce department of our local King Super, I asked my partner Alabaster to grab me a plastic bag as he was picking out our arugula, and, only a little shyly, I put the bag to my nose and sniffed. To me, the plastic smelled a little bit like cooked cabbage, but it’s been a while since I’ve had lamb, so I’ll defer to the expert. For now, I have that smell in my mind’s nose, and it’s a new one, ready to be catalogued and compared to so many others, and my smell literacy went up a notch.