Dear reader and wine lover, how’s it going?
I’m Breno, hoping to find you well amidst this sea of distress that are the rampant covid-19 numbers everywhere.
Although vaccines are rolling out, it’s one step a time, and keeping safe in the meantime is the best we can do.
Speaking of Covid, which has a been a true nightmare for the whole world, I’ve been speaking to friends and colleagues who are oenologists or winemakers about one specific symptom that has become a profound challenge for many wine lovers who get infected with the virus: the feared loss of sense of smell and taste.
Let’s get into some personal stories of how this problem that can take all the joy of wine tasting (and also the very ability of those whose work involves tasting, particularly sommeliers) happens, the science behind it and the medical advances towards rehabilitating these senses. Right on…
Why losing smell and taste is tragic for oenologists
Given that some degree of loss of taste and smell could affect over 80% of mild cases of covid-19 (as recent studies have been pointing out to), a problem suddenly arises for those who taste wine. Tasting and understanding the sacred liquid relies heavily on being able to carefully sense depths of aromas and flavours. So, imagine losing the most cherished senses of a wine lover. Or even worse: losing the very ability that pays one’s bills?
A few friends whom I reached out to, work in the industry and had the novel coronavirus asked to remain anonymous simply because they didn’t want any attention given to the loss of their “main skills” – meaning they feared losing work opportunities or even their full-time job in the business due to feeling unfit for service.
It goes exactly in line with what Wired magazine put out a little while ago:
Anxiety about this ailment is creeping into wine and fine dining. In the wine industry, losing your sense of smell is so taboo that several sommeliers interviewed for this piece did not want to be identified. One sommelier at a top London restaurant likened the symptoms to a star athlete injuring their anterior cruciate ligament – a knee injury used to routinely put an end to professional athletes’ careers. They warned that those with a compromised sense of smell could be branded as “damaged goods” or unfit for work in the eyes of the profession.
Friends who went beyond feeling simply bland, without any ability to detect the nuances of wine, or many times even any aroma, have gone as far as comparing tasting wine as if was kerosene or simply something spoiled or rotten.
What is more intriguing is the sense of parosmia, which distorts known flavours. Some colleagues in the business have reported that coffee tastes like something metallic, whilst food could go anywhere from tasting like nothing or like plastic.
But I want to leave you this particular definition I read from a patient quoted by Wired: “Chickpeas began to taste like chargrilled fish skins, water took on a tinge of diluted bleach, porridge was like eating plastic carrier bags and chocolate began to smell like faeces.”
It comes oUT of nowhere, but becomes a long struggle
For many, it comes without notice: friends have reported having had loss of smell as the earliest symptom of the disease. Others, alongside sore throat, muscle pain. Meanwhile, a close relative only realized he might have been infected after days with face pain, thinking he was having another case of sinusitis (which troubled him for his entire adult life).
For some, taste and smell simply vanishes, while other said they have had difficulties identifying, but something was still there.
A year on from the known beginning of the disease which would come down as this pandemic, we know that most of the people who suffer a more severe degree of smell or taste loss fully recover from this condition within weeks.
Some, however, are still struggling months later, and we still don’t know how long it will take for them to recover – which is increasingly being alerted as a potential trigger for depression for those who see themselves deprived of such a given condition.
This seemingly disconnected puzzle of symptoms and timelines of loss of sense of smell and taste (which are deeply intertwined) intrigued me so much that I reached out to a dear friend who was born without sense of smell (congenital anosmia). She told me she can taste, telling the difference between red wines in terms of texture and acidity, such as she does with bottled vs. tap water. So, and again, back to square one.
So what’s the science behind the condition that scares wine lovers the most?
The science behind this ailment
So-called olfactory disfunction is one of the most common symptoms reported by people who have had covid-19, though the why behind this is still pretty much a puzzle.
The known neurological processes that connect taste to smell have been under constant review to try to find answers to this condition, especially since many people report having one between anosmia (loss of smell), hyposmia (some degree of loss) and parosmia (distortion of natural flavours into unpleasant ones).
As of January 2021, the biggest hint is that the Covid smell loss happens due to the damaging of supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium – the area in the nose where we detect odours. Parosmia, thus, could be a sign of the damaged cells healing and making new connections to the brain.
“It seems like the virus in the nose itself is not infecting the actual smell neurons or the nerve cells that help us to smell, but rather the supporting cells”, neuroinfectious disease specialist Dr. Felicia Chow told Wine Spectator. “Those supporting cells play an important role, and when those are infected it seems to impair our sense of smell.”
Despite encouraging recovery signs that point out to the preservation of neurons in the epithelium (which, if damaged, would take much longer to restore balance), Dr. Chow and other specialists still haven’t been able to find evidence of speeding up recovery – neither with steroids, acupuncture nor retraining senses. Only time seems truly promising, she told the magazine.
But different studies, starting as early as March 2020, have been meta-analysed in the National Library of Medicine and found that patients who received smell training were “nearly three times more likely to achieve a significant difference in olfactory testing scores”.
And what about you? Have you had similar symptoms? How has the recovery happened? Join the debate in our group of fine and rare wine enthusiasts. We’ll be thrilled to hear from you.
While time (and good old science!) will tell, we hope to see these cases of anosmia, hyposmia and parosmia solved very soon – just as we hope to have the pandemic behind us soon. In the meantime, keep safe and let’s celebrate what’s dearest in our lives.
Until next time!