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Scents and Sensibilities of Napa Valley

napa-viewEvery place has a distinctive scent for me, an olfactory marker which after years of absence triggers instant memories of geography and time. It may be the heady cologne of a destination’s environs or the redolence of an oft-eaten local meal. For instance, the briny smell of seaweed transports me to the marsh strewn shores of Mont Saint Michel, France where I stand with my toes squished under the wet sand and imagine crossing the expanse of tidal meadow to knock at the redoubtable monastery. The aroma of hot dust as it puffs up from the road always sends me to the acacia filled plains of South Africa: the hair on the back of my neck rises and the hum of cicadas smothers the background as a wild giraffe stares me down. Fried plantains orbit me into the steamy jungles of Saint Lucia, and I am entangled afresh in her Caribbean profusion, lost among the midday market throng….

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Arriving home after a tiring day, I open a bottle of wine and sniff its plump cork stopper. The smoky vanillin fragrance recalls sinuous climbing roads in Napa Valley, California with its fresh hills basking under a crisp sky. This is a place most associated with neat ripening rows of grapes, yet Napa for me is the grand oaks standing guard among the vineyards and lending grace to the meandering avenues clambering down from the Mayacamas Mountains. The particular bouquet of these deciduous woods clings everywhere throughout the valley: a smoldering syrupy flavor weaving among the vines and into the dark cellars where the fruits of harvest are stored in aged barrels. napa-barrelsI am a hound entranced by Napa’s odor, following the trail from woodland to farmstead to cask. Remnants of the acorn bearing groves which once thrived in this landscape still dot the area. Their gnarled trunks frame the distant mauve hills, their twisted branches create intricate patterns upon the teal sky, and their lobed leaves carpet the gray sidewalks in rusty glory. Overarching canopies hearken to centuries before this region became a prolific wine producer, when native tall grasses waved in the Mediterranean-like breeze and temperate forests harbored black bears. The wild, nutty aroma of these oaks blends with that of spicy fir, awakening more than reminisces of wood-paneled tasting rooms and damp cellars —it conjures up notions of contentment, well-being, and home. Strange that a distinct set of molecules becomes a pathway to the past, whirls me into another world, delivers raw emotion with a breath! In her book, “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman states, “when we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory.” In Napa, liquid memory is rampant: the berry charged headiness of cabernets, the citrus-infused sparkle of chardonnays, the ambrosia of roasted vegetables, the mellow powder of roadside wildflowers…. These fragrances are absorbed by five million receptor cells which transmit impulses to my brain’s limbic system, constructing an olfactory image of the valley as solid as any photograph or painting.

The scents of Napa, elaborate as they are, trigger recollections of other times. Swirling the fermented grape juice at a homey vintner’s, I harken back to the joy of a summer evening’s garden party. The perfume of jasmine and lemon trees mingled in the air and I felt mature and elegant gripping the stem of my fragile goblet while sipping my first viognier. In the wine maker’s garden, the voice of a hermit thrush sings a song I once heard and a string of cypress trees along the estate’s periphery sway to a Tuscan zephyr.

“There is an aura to this sun-drenched scene redolent of digital photography filters, an atmosphere that speaks to the past, yet the effect is created by links between the odours that surround me and my memory centers.”

The volatiles making up this landscape convey me to emotional terrains incompatible with the vinous rolling knolls whilst ferrying me backwards to a Napa I think I remember knowing in days gone by.


Wine is expressly about aroma which flavors its taste in our mouths. While we all taste four basic characters: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter, our sense of smell is unique to our individual perceptions. Napa Valley wine tastings are a wonderful way to launch into the nuances of wine fragrances from piney resin to minty eucalyptus.

Is there a destination whose fragrance you remember? Do certain perfumes remind you of a place?

Smell You Later

24 replies »

  1. I too adore the nose. My sense of smell is probably the most precious thing I own.
    I have to pass on a terrific book I read last year in hopes that it might appeal to you as well.
    Season to Taste (How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way) by Molly Birnbaum. Perhaps you can find a copy. I rarely read books twice, but for me, this is worthy of a ‘once a year’ review.

    • Putting it on my list of books to hunt out and devour! Smell and taste are so closely linked I am intrigued to discover how Birnbaum overcame her tragic loss and fell in love with cooking again.

  2. Your pictures are beautiful and your post makes me want to head to Napa as soon as possible. For me, a beachy scent is irresistible. Maison Martin Margiela has a collection of scents called Replica (reproductions of familiar scents)…the Beach Walk scent is perfect…but of course, nothing beats the real thing.

    • Absolutely nothing beats the real scent of the beach (as long as you like the aroma of salt water and seaweed), but I am intrigued by this collection you mention as well as the fact that MM decided to call it “Replica.” Are these perfumes for the home or the individual?

      • They seem to be for the individual…but, I guess they could be used for the home as well. Some of the other scents are Jazz Club, Flower Garden, and Lazy Sunday Morning.

  3. Oh, you lucky duck! 🙂 Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have your olfactory memory? Could we do a swap? Now- what can I offer today- a hint of north east brine (softly underlain with the waste disposal plant)… perhaps another time 🙂 🙂

    • Brine and waste disposal?! I thank you Jo, but kindly refuse your offer. I am hoping this is not a daily combination of scents you experience? I will however happily lend you my mix of berries, smoky oak, and citrus anytime you like (if only smell-o-vision were invented).

  4. It’s been nearly a decade, and I can still distinctly smell the streets of Morocco. The leather was so pungent we had to put mint into our nostrils just to breathe! Oh and the smell of fresh cut grass at my parents house… I’m pretty sure they have the most fragrant grass blades in the world 🙂

    • Mmmm…mint and leather sounds a heady and unique combination for remembering Morocco! Fresh cut grass always reminds me of my aunt’s garden and, intriguingly, it seems to be a popular fragrance for women! I wonder how many other people associate this aroma with home? Thank you for sharing some of your scent memories with us!

    • 😀 Can you imagine her traipsing from vineyard to vineyard, probably giving all the owners love advice in exchange for taste-tests? Hilarious! I was thinking Marianne would also enjoy visiting Napa….

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