Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I have a confession. Until a few weeks ago I had barely enjoyed a glass of wine, and had taken very little joy from most of the food I’d eaten, since around March 2020. I wanted to write down some of the senses and emotions I’ve felt over the last nine months or so, in the hope that it might provide a boost to anyone else who may be experiencing something similar.
Health-wise the year didn't start off brilliantly, I was constantly run-down and experiencing some breathing difficulties, so ended up being given an inhaler and told by the doctor to look after myself! It’s hard to say whether this was the beginning of Covid, but this was well before the first publicised UK cases.
It wasn’t until March when things got really strange. I can remember the exact moment when it all began, sharing a bottle of Sancerre (Domaine Ballard's amazing barrel-aged "Grand Cuvée". Rich, aromatic, creamy, unmistakable in the glass from the first sniff) with my wife. I tasted nothing. Then I moved on to a DIPA from Neon Raptor ("Beer of the year so far" professed the bloggers. Hazy, dank, tropical, 8% of murky deliciousness). I got nothing. I even tried sticking my nose into our youngest boy’s soiled nappy, but nothing came.
Not being able to smell for a few weeks really wasn't a huge problem for me. Things were busy with work and we got on with home-schooling, with a constant dose of pandemic-induced-adrenaline keeping us going. I just slopped another few glugs of Encona Hot Pepper Sauce on my fried rice and pretended that things were ok.
Over the following nine months or so my smell fluctuated between around 0-50%. At first I smelt petrol everywhere, then burning, then a weird synthetic smell that I became obsessed with identifying, then back to petrol. I lost all interest in food, bolting down lunch as quickly as I could, it simply became a chore. I completely lost interest in cooking, previously an activity that helped me to unwind, sometimes unable to even prepare certain foods (especially poultry) as they constantly smelt so rotten.*
I had never considered quite how influential my sense of smell was to my mental state. Since childhood I have always made a conscious effort to smell as many things as possible. Once these scents were gone, including all of the ambient aromas that I had taken for granted, I became desperate to find some old familiar smells. At best nothing came, at worst the old familiar smells were replaced with strange semi-familiar smells which didn’t seem to fit. Not being able smell the natural scents of those closest to me may well have contributed to the disconnection I began to feel with the world around me.
What followed for the vast majority of the year were snatched "real smells", sometimes improving, but more often long spells of these "phantom smells". I still get these - I've been smelling petrol for most of the time I write this. I later discovered that these phantom smells were generally a sign that the olfactory gland is repairing, while you are simultaneously re-learning how to smell.
It’s hard to say if there’s a link, but lethargy, depression and anxiety followed, virtually incapacitating me by the end of the Summer. I adjusted the way I spoke to customers, with a noticeable lack of spark when recommending wines, preferring to “play it safe” on wines that I had known pre-Covid. I was putting on the facade of the friendly local wine merchant while going around all day frowning and grinding my teeth under the face mask.
One of the most depressing of afternoons was when we had lined up a few dozen bottles of different wines to taste in the garden, which we had brought back from a recent buying trip. Many of the wines were samples that I had tasted and really enjoyed in January. The red wines all tasted of metal, acid and tannin. The white wines weren’t much better, still tasting of acid, but without the astringent and overwhelming tannins. It was a similar story when I was judging a flight of fifteen or so German Rieslings for a competition. An activity that would have given me great pleasure in the past now made me feel sick and disinterested.
When my wife sent me link to a BBC article about a woman suffering in the same way as me, I nearly cried. There was also a Facebook group with several thousand members, many suffering from a similar thing to me. Hearing these stories did give me the push to speak to the doctor again. Following my third telephone conversation with the GP I managed to book an appointment with an ENT consultant, who reassured me that my normal smell would almost certainly return, but it would probably take more time.
A couple of weeks later, in mid-December, I had that Eureka moment. It was a bottle of Paringa Estate Pinot Gris from Mornington Peninsular in Australia. It tasted EXACTLY how I remember it tasting in January, with all its tropical fruit, ripe peach and honeysuckle. Then a bottle of Vouvray Sec, followed by a Riesling from the Mosel and some Red Burgundy. All tasting how they should – I instantly felt euphoric. Since then everything has changed, my joy for food, wine (and life) has sprung back. I would say I’m now at around 80%, from around 20% earlier in the year.
With a renewed sense of smell I’ve now started an informal smell-training, which I have a feeling might help things come back better than ever. For the first time in months I'm feeling positive about the future, excited about the challenges of 2021, including the opening of our new bar, Vino Tap.
Special thanks to Kate, John, Heather, Will, Jonny, Richard and Tanya for working so hard this year. Not only that, having them as a soundboard for tastings of both new and existing wines has been so important. I plan for this to set the tone for 2021, where we taste far more wines together, whether it be in the shop or online.
Any other resolutions for 2021? Work a little less, exercise a little more and enjoy every bottle as if it’s the last. If 2020 has thought me anything then it’s that life really is too short to drink bad wine.
*Having read many accounts of Parosmia/Phantosmia I think I got off quite lightly here. In the most extreme cases people are unable to, for example, brush their teeth, as the smell is so wretch-inducing. Or avoid all but a very short list of foods, as everything else makes them physically sick.
Thanks to Emily Graham www.emilygrahamphotography.co.uk for the image, I seem to remember I was interrogating a corked bottle of White Burgundy in this photo.