Oyster oil painting


Oyster, oil on canvas, 12″x12″, 2021

My family became sick with COVD-19 in November 2020. My wife Gina exhibited symptoms first, and we began isolating with our three-year old son in our fourth-floor walk-up in Chicago. Though it can vary dramatically for each person, the disease follows an understood progression. There are a number of expected symptoms once you become sick, including the loss of smell and taste.

I decided that if I was going to lose my sense of smell I wanted to enjoy a few bottles of wine with some good food while I was still able. During this pandemic I have not really been tempted to raid my collection. Over the previous year I had mostly gravitated toward simple, cheerful, easy-drinking wines rather than pulling out anything rare, robust, or grand.

I had a small number of those bottles I had intended to hold until we were able to start eating meals with friends once again, and I decided on a bottle of 2016 Domaine de la Cote Bloom’s Field Pinot Noir out of Santa Rita Hills California and the 2008 Saint-Chamant Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Substantial wines and ones I knew I’d enjoy.

The pinot was extravagantly perfumed with spice, flowers, berries, earth. The palate was packed with sweet ripe red fruit, maraschino cherry, apricot, orange peel, and a finish that veered into slightly bitter savory herbal notes. It was dense, concentrated with a silky, creamy texture. Almost thick, but not heavy. Distinctive.

The Champagne displayed floral, chalky aromas. A ripe and fruity body. Lemons, apples, peaches, almost tropical ripeness, almonds, bread dough. A clean line of acid through the finish. Lovely and held up well over the few days of drinking.

After a few days of isolation, I was enjoying a frozen pizza with a glass of a pleasant, simple Bordeaux Superieur made from Merlot. I had previously had this wine on a number of occasions but that night I noticed it tasted somewhat off in a peculiar way: it was muted and slightly metallic. I had severe sinus congestion at this point in the illness and I chalked it up to that.

The following morning while sipping my coffee at breakfast I realized I had entirely lost taste and smell. The coffee was as dull and flavorless as a cup of hot water. There was nothing at all to it. I went to our spice cabinet for confirmation. I opened up jars of black pepper, cinnamon, sage, paprika. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.

I still had some basic taste sensations of sweet, salt, acid, but they were totally removed from flavor and aroma. Gina had lost her smell and taste a few days prior, and we began trying to prepare meals from our stock of canned and frozen foods that would give us any sensation at all. One delightful lunch consisted of a pizza made with anchovies, pineapple, olives, and hot sauce – sweet, salty, savory, spicy.

Our more severe physical symptoms slowly abated while smell and taste remained fugitive. Every morning began with the same rituals of opening spice jars and inhaling deeply, trying to smell the coffee beans as I ground them. For a few days, nothing at all. Finally, I got the barest whiff of some aromatic spices, cinnamon and ground sage. It was only out of my right nostril and the ability faded quickly, but it was some hope.

Throughout this pandemic I knew that if I ever got sick I would likely lose my sense of smell. I dreaded this. Not only was I worried about how it would potentially impact my career, but enjoying meals at home with our family was one of the only things that the pandemic had not taken from us. Cooking and tasting wine were important to me both personally and professionally. They are anchors in my life and the prospect of losing them indefinitely, perhaps forever, was depressing. To get a glimmer of these senses back buoyed my mood during a dark and difficult month.

Smell returned slowly and fitfully. It was muted and inconsistent, most sensitive in the morning and fading as the day progressed. For many days I could only smell out of the right side of my nose, and only then if I got right on top of what I was trying to smell. Some fragrant spices slowly became increasingly vivid, while others stayed inaccessible. As weeks progressed it was like the volume of the aromas was slowly, slowly being turned back up.

I was unable to pick up on the smells that permeated the spaces of our apartment. One day as I was cooking salmon and pasta for lunch Gina walked into the kitchen and said, “It smells amazing in here.”

“Gina: you can smell!”

“Oh my god! I can smell!”

We high-fived.

I couldn’t smell the cooking food at all until I leaned my face right into the pan. Another evening I didn’t realize I was burning dinner until the smoke detectors went off. Even while fanning out the oven I could see the haze of smoke but couldn’t smell the spilled, burning oil.

As I recovered over the course of a few weeks it became clear that my relationship to wine had changed. At first I had almost no taste for alcohol at all. The only wines I found palatable were light, low-alcohol, aromatic white wines. Mountain wines from the Alps and Mosel Riesling. Reds remained off, seeming flat and metallic to me.

The kind of rapid analysis and cataloging I had learned for my job wasn’t happening automatically anymore. I had to work to pull out and name flavors and aromas. Some days my smell and taste were simply off-line and I knew there was no reason to continue tasting, I wouldn’t be able to pick up on anything.

I started retraining my nose by trying wines I was familiar with that I could use as benchmarks. I sought out wines that I thought would have enough intensity to stand out even if my senses were dulled and muddied. I was also looking for wines that would give me other sensations, physical elements I could focus on. Wines with sharp acidity and gripping tannins.

A bottle of 2016 Conterno Langhe Nebbiolo was an early one I spent one evening with trying to calibrate my palate. Overall, my sense of smell remained muted and I could still only primarily smell out of the right side of my nose. Sticking my nose in the glass – orthonasal olfaction – didn’t give me much. Red fruits were the most apparent. High-toned red cherry, maybe strawberry. With time, some light touches of pepper, oak, and earth. I had to work for it.

My “taste” seemed more sensitive at this point. Flavors were more intense and defined through retronasal olfaction – sipping the wine and exhaling out the nose. Concentrated ripe red fruits, cherry, raspberry, cranberry, floral and spice notes, licorice, earth. I couldn’t always find the specific words, but the broad categories were coming into focus.

Most days my senses were just muddled. I could pick up fruit and flowers, but nothing precise. Many of my notes say things like “berries” or “citrus” while I struggled to tell if I was getting lemon or orange or grapefruit. Are those floral notes, or is that actually vanilla? Why does this smell like wood varnish, or is it butterscotch? Woodsmoke or espresso? Is it me or the wine? Other days a wine might have an eye-watering intensity, an acidity so sharp it was like drinking vinegar. Some flavors and aromas showed more vibrant technicolor nuance than I ever noticed before – I always thought of black pepper as floral, but has it always been this citrusy?

This experience with anosmia has made me more attentive to the elements of wine which are separate from flavor and aromas, like the texture, structure, and acidity. I realized I had underestimated their importance in the enjoyment and understanding of wine. While relearning to taste I started to focus on these elements and how they tied in with flavors and aromas: the high-tones of tart fruit; the rich sensation of sweet ripeness in tropical flavors; a hard to place savory note of dried herb; the tangy acidity of underripe fruit; or a bitter finish that calls to mind citrus peel.

I have a lingering kind of dysphasia for flavors and aromas, a disconnect between my senses and the language used to describe them. I recognize an aroma but may struggle to put a name to it. Some wires seem to have been crossed, some connections have been severed. I’ve been rebuilding my sense memory along with my vocabulary. It’s similar to my early experiences judging and describing wine when I would be stuck putting a name to an unexpected aroma until someone else spoke up – “Yes! Of course, pineapple.”

I vividly recall the first distinct wine aroma I recognized by myself when I began selling wine. My first job in wine was at a shop and cafe in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. One weekend we had a small tasting of Oregon wines. I sniffed a glass of Big Fire Pinot Noir and took in the heady aroma of sweet cinnamon candies. It was so intense and distinct I immediately went to the shelf to read the description for confirmation: aromas of cinnamon. It was exciting. Ok, I thought, I can do this.

Losing my Sense of Smell



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