On a brisk winter’s night, New Jersey resident Kim Berg attends a friend’s tree-trimming party. It’s a casual affair. Guests make small talk amid the din of late-season football. Strains of “O Holy Night” emanate from the hi-fi. In the kitchen, a redolent array of holiday goodies crowns the granite countertop – sugar cookies, apple pies, an artichoke frittata. The scent of fresh-cut pine wafts through the converted loft. And a small crowd gathers around Berg, hungry for details about her unusual line of work.
Kim Berg sniffs for a living. She’s a professional nose, and she’s studied fragrance design in France.
For centuries, the town of Grasse in southern France has been the epicenter of the fragrance industry. Grasse is home to four perfume houses, a perfume museum, and the elite Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Tricks of the trade get passed down from generation to generation. Secrecy abounds, partly due to custom and partly over concerns about intellectual property. Berg, like many in her trade, feels obliged to protect that age-old mystery.
But attitudes among newly minted noses are beginning to change.
When Brooklynite Anne McClain studied at the Grasse Institute in 2009, she was one of 12 admitted students and the only American. Her typical day involved memorizing 10 to 15 ingredients, natural and synthetic. Over the course of a year she learned to identify some 500 compounds.
“I was told over and over how elite this program is,” she says. “I was told none of us would become noses.”
McClain’s American ethos bridled at such snootiness. After earning top honors, she returned to Brooklyn to establish MCMC Fragrances. She now builds custom fragrances and runs classes for hobbyists who want to improve their sense of smell. “I’m trying to bring down that secrecy a little bit,” she says proudly. “It’s one of the reasons that I teach.”
A similar democratizing movement is afoot in the wine industry, which has long shared the clubby aura and florid descriptions (think of Paul Giamatti’s comic conniption over merlot in the 2004 film Sideways). According to Kevin Shannon, a sommelier certified by the International Wine Center in New York, modern wine professionals learn to avoid such pretention. “We use words that aren’t so esoteric,” he says. “The whole point is not to mystify people.”
Even so, the language of professional noses remains enigmatic. So what sets them apart from the rest of us?
Berg would be the first to say that her sense of smell is not extraordinary. “Most people have this, they’re just not trained with a vocabulary of what they’re smelling,” she says. “And then I also have an olfactive memory – and that’s been trained.”
It turns out, the training and vocabulary are key.
Recently, researchers in Grenoble, France gained insight into how olfactory training works. A team at the Université Joseph Fourier used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain activity of student and professional perfumers. The researchers focused on the olfactory and memory-processing areas of the brain, known as the piriform cortex and hippocampus. One distinguishes odors while the other determines which odor information gets moved from short- to long-term memory.
Participants identified various scents and also imagined odors in the absence of stimuli. The visible changes in the brain produced by both tasks – identifying and imagining – led researchers to conclude the brain handles olfactory processing much like a musical or athletic performance.
With increased practice, certain activities become second nature, requiring little conscious thought. The brain reorganizes neural pathways, liberating itself for high-order processing – or art. When a jazz pianist knows her scales well enough to play them in her sleep, she’s more free to improvise.
This high-order processing is vital to the work of perfumers and sommeliers alike. It also helps explain the mystery.
Many of us take the sense of smell for granted, unless we’re stuck in a crowded elevator or behind a garbage truck. We certainly don’t devote much thought to the functioning or quality of our sense of smell. Coffee smells good. Spoiled milk smells bad. Flowers, good. Wet dogs, bad. And that’s pretty much where our scent appraisals end.
“Most people just don’t rely on [smell],” says Shannon. “We don’t use it to appreciate the things around us.” Without training, few of us can describe what we smell in nuanced terms.
But professional noses and sommeliers teach themselves to recognize and talk about scents. They develop a vocabulary. They train for it.
Jeremy Block, co-owner of Sussex Wines in Manhattan, sees a desire among his customers to learn the language. They often lack words to describe what they’re looking for, and he finds himself finishing their sentences. “It takes a long time to be able to decipher what it is you’re smelling,” he says.
The good news is we can all develop our neural pathways and olfactory awareness.
While some may opt for a wine class, Block suggests a more pragmatic approach. “Go to a farmers market and smell everything,” he says. “Then smell everything in your house over and over again. When you smell wine, try to make the connection.” He eschews the linguistic smoke and mirrors of the past in favor of common-sense descriptions.
Back at MCMC Fragrances, McClain takes a similar tack. “The biggest thing is to try to put words to what you’re smelling.” With an improved vocabulary, we can more easily find the food, wine, and fragrances we prefer. That’s the advantage for the rest of us.
“Go out and smell everything you can,” says Shannon. “You may think you know your sense of smell, but you don’t.”
Thanks to this new wave of noses, the vaunted veil of secrecy begins to lift.
Welcome to the party.