Following the Scent: Fragrance, Taste and Sense of Place

by Cari Borja

[Click here for Part One of “Following the Scent,” with Scribe Winery, Leif Hedendal, Masayo Funakoshi, Angelo Garro and Connie Green.]

I met Hall Newbegin while co-hosting a dinner last year with a dear friend, Alexandra Foote. I had heard of Juniper Ridge, but really got to experience its founder that evening. Since then, I have worn his oils, used his soaps and gotten to understand some of his philosophy of translating a sense of place into something that can be embodied. For me, one of the most compelling questions I asked him is “Why capture scent?”—meaning: why him, and just plain why?

Hall Newbegin of Juniper Ridge. Credit: Juniper Ridge.

Hall Newbegin of Juniper Ridge. Credit: Juniper Ridge.

Hall Newbegin, Sierra Granite harvest, August 2014. Credit: Juniper Ridge.

Hall Newbegin, Sierra Granite harvest, August 2014. Credit: Juniper Ridge.

“It’s the way my brain works. It was what I grew up with. It’s how I see things. I see the world through places. That rich fantasy place in my head is about places. I dream about music and places. I think about different records and about different steep ravines. My mind drifts off to that place in the ocean, the redwoods nearby. It makes me happy and [I] feel something in my body … It’s about this part of our face (Hall covers his mouth and nose with his hand). This is primitive. It bypasses our frontal lobe. Fragrance is nature working on you … that bypasses everything beyond our mind. Using this part of my face is something I love. It drives me crazy. It’s what I need … and my fragrance is singing that beautiful place. It’s the real place. So 15 years ago (after making my first soap to smell like Big Sur), I would ask ‘Is it the real place?’ That was December of 1998.”

Cathy Corison and Richard Hylton, Wine Dinner #42. February 23, 2014.

Cathy Corison and Richard Hylton, Wine Dinner #42. February 23, 2014.

I asked winemaker Cathy Corison about her wine-making process and capturing a sense of place. To me, Corison invokes a sense of place, but where I first drank it, at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I remember that first moment, and then every moment of drinking it thereafter. What I love is the thread and that consistency of knowing it is Corison….

In her words: “Our first job as a winemaker is to make good, sound wine. That’s the technical part, what we studied in school. After that the art part takes over, and that’s very hard to pin down. I find that I make wine more intuitively every year. After making wine for others from great hillside vineyards for a long time I found that there was a wine inside me that wanted out. It was powerful and elegant—would grace the table and enjoy a long, interesting life. In 1987, that vision sent me to the bench (alluvial fans) between Rutherford and St. Helena for my first Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve kept that stylistic goal all these years. I’ve had the good fortune to source the same vineyards for 28 years now, and I’m involved intimately in their farming. From bud-break on I walk them every week, so I’ve come to know them very well. This is another source of consistency … I’ve always said that good wine can be made by committee, but great wine needs to reflect the hand of the winemaker.”

Bottles from Wine Dinner #42, co-hosted with Emily Schindler.

Bottles from Wine Dinner #42, co-hosted with Emily Schindler.

To add to the conversation, I had asked my friend Richard Hylton about his relationship to wine: “There’s a layering—a palimpsest. I sometimes think of that word because my life has been layers, building on building on building. And it’s similar to wine for me. I’ve been a consumer of wine now for 30 years and I’m always building on tastings from the past. The first wine I remember was a 1961 Saint-Estephe Bourdeaux. I was 21 and in Paris … With all wines, you are building on previous tastes and it is relative to this or that; and after 30 years it’s all about memory—of the wines, the countries, the people—the contexts. It’s been a great enriching experience especially for a Jamaican, because where I’m from is a rum culture. Cuisines and wines are similar to literature—they are really about an ongoing conversation and dialectic. You can enter at one point or another. To me you can enter them and live in them if you want, but it’s helpful to have a well-stocked mind. It enhances your ability to appreciate these worlds and they are worlds.”

My copy of Gulp (Amazon or Indiebound) by Mary Roach.

My copy of Gulp (Amazon or Indiebound) by Mary Roach.

And in thinking about how these worlds and studying them changes us, I asked writer Mary Roach – known for her brilliant and provocative books Stiff (2004, Amazon or Indiebound), Spook (2006, Amazon or Indiebound), Bonk (2009, Amazon or Indiebound), Packing for Mars (2010, Amazon or Indiebound) and most recently Gulp (2014, Amazon or Indiebound)—how the experience of her research might have an effect on who she is and how she experiences the world.

With respect to Gulp , particularly chapter one, entitled “Nose Job: Tasting Has Little to Do With Taste,” she says: “It was that first chapter, learning about the nose and the importance of the sense of smell … not just eating, but when I ride my bike home, I’m always trying to breathe through my nose, because on my bike ride home I go through at least ten different smells, and I just love that— like (in the book) the woman on the motorcycle did, so I try to do that … Also when I’m eating the kind of aromatic foods that have a lot of volatiles and the kinds of gases that are wafting up into your nose. I try to leave it in my mouth for awhile while it’s warming up and the gases are being released. You just experience a lot more and it’s such a more intense and varied experience to eat slowly that way … With wine, to exhale while you have the wine in the mouth—just that concept that you smell not only on the inhale but on the exhale; it’s called retronasal olfaction. You have another way of smelling—an internal set of nostrils. How did I get to this point in my life and not know about this? It’s that kind of thing. I get very excited when I come across something like that. It’s a different approach to life, and people don’t give a lot of thought to the sense of smell and the role of the nose except as a warning system, of bad smells … Not many people use their nose to appreciate good smells the way they could.”

After I mention Juniper Ridge, and Hall’s philosophy behind his fragrances: “That’s why I love oysters, because to me it is so much the ocean … and I almost see a certain kind of beach—a tide pool, not just the breeze and the water, a whole landscape and bits of grit and saltwater. It’s such an olfactory experience as well.”

It’s not just about the power of the senses to evoke a past or create a new memory, but the focus of attention we give to perception itself—the way that our experiential research, or the act of actual doing and making has the capacity to transform us … It’s the way my guests educate me and remind me of what’s out there, but also to just pause for the moment and be present—through the scent of Big Sur in a bottle; the presence of my grandmother in her blue polyester muumuu; the terroir of a glass of Meurseult that instantly brings me back to Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris; white truffle olive oil on burrata, to Alba; cinghiale con pappardelle, to Montepulciano; my husband Lloyd’s pizza dough at home, to Scribe. I have this image below of my son’s appreciation of his dad’s amazingly perfected dough, attached to this precise moment.

August, eating Lloyd's pizza at Scribe. Circa 2009/2010.

August, eating Lloyd’s pizza at Scribe. Circa 2009/2010.

It’s the simple things, at times mixed with the novel, the taboo. Whilst talking about some of the parallels of her books, but also about knowledge in general and the distribution of it, Mary and I took a bit of a detour and talked about 50 Shades of Grey (which had just come out, and which I’d just seen), and Suskind’s Perfume and its protagonist’s ultimate passion to bottle the essence of a virgin:

Still from Tom Tykwer's Perfume (2006).

Still from Tom Tykwer’s Perfume (2006).

“What’s interesting is the newness … It’s titillating because it’s taboo and new and anything new is more titillating. But what’s the next taboo? What’s left that is taboo? Where is it all going?”

—Mary Roach

Exactly, where is it all going? Whether talking about smell, taste, desire, pleasure, taboo, what it comes back to in the end is the balance: of the winemaker’s hand and the sense of place from which the grapes come. That balance between past recollections and being present, the new and the old; the detail or the wide shot; that which is expected, or the beauty of the unexpected. But which holds the most power over you? I think that is the question … I end this inquiry with the quote from which writer Michael Pollan began his much-read New York Times piece from 2006, “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer.” I find it poignant.

“Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete.  Nothing in my experience has prepared me for the quality of this attention.”

Michael Pollan

My grandmother's hands, and her blue muumuu. 2012.

My grandmother’s hands, and her blue muumuu. 2012.

Horizontal RuleCariBorjaCari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food, and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier, where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book of interviews with dinner guests featured on her FashionFilmFood blog, and she also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Click here and here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.


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