Winemaker’s Madeleine

Fall ColorWoke up to a crisp morning after rain yesterday. The smell of Autumn is in the air. Smells at the winery are reaching their seasonal end also. Thursday I pressed off my last wine lot of the 2014 vintage, the Cabernet I’m making with Marcel that we macerated for 37 days. Completing the work of harvest usually provokes me to reflection, if not melancholy.

Proust — that pedantic f**k — bit into his madeleine and pressed his readers to recognize that time is never really lost. This morning one of my favorite wine slingers and writers in the world, Samantha Dugan, asked the question of what top three aromas evoke memories of happy childhood. In response I tossed back the first three that popped into my head, but I’ve been thinking of many others ever since.

  • I swear in dreams I remember the smell of my mom when she held me as a very small child: the artificial freshness of Prell and Hair Net, the floral complexity of her favorite perfume L’air du Temps which she knew to wear lightly when she was young, and under all the warm natural sweetness of her skin.
  • When I was very young I lived with my grandparents in North Hollywood for several years. The smell of my father’s mother’s kitchen in the morning will always be with me: coffee, bacon, buttermilk biscuits or cinnamon cake cooking in a gas oven, syrup warming on the stove, fresh orange juice, the smell of a newspaper at the table mingled with fresh-cut grass smells coming in the open windows, cigarette smoke on my grandpa, and hints of old linoleum underfoot.
  • My grandparents’ home had a huge sycamore out front. The weirdly aromatic, papery, spicy smell of sycamore leaves in the morning was more powerful even than cut grass, or the incipient smog that would become oppressive in the heat of the day and into the evening. My grandma always hung out the laundry early in the day, the detergent smell of wet clothes as they dried supplanted with hints of those sycamores.
  • The ice cream truck that came through the neighborhood, it seemed daily, had a smell of melting frost and the promise of popsicles. But it was nothing compared to the power of the Charles Chips truck that came by every week with a warmer drawer full of donuts: yeasty dough, fragrant grease, sugary glaze, chocolate, and caramel made a heady, potent mix that to this day evokes a slavering response from my inner child.
  • My disciplined grandpa smoked two cigarettes a day, and sipped a single Old Fashioned in the evening when he returned from his daily walk to say the Rosary. I remember the smells of Old Spice aftershave, tobacco, Bourbon and maraschino cherries fondly. Even more fondly I remember that he occasionally smoked a pipe. He kept several aromatic tobaccos, a collection of briars — one always new — a calabash, and a meerschaum in a cabinet in the study off the main house, a room that had been my father’s when he was a boy. When no one else was around I would take the pipes out of the cabinet to hold them, but really to smell them.
  • I spent less time at my mother’s mother’s more formal home. I recall smells of leather and lacquered furniture, wool carpets over creaky wood floors, vaguely musty drapes, and the sweet spicy and fruity promise of hard candies she kept in a covered ruby glass dish in her den. I recall the warm goodness of gingerbread cake and oatmeal cookies from her kitchen. And cigarettes, which would eventually claim her life. But most strongly I remember the aromas we kids generated when we ran around in her front yard chasing skinks. Her yard was not planted to turf but was covered instead with a food-deep growth of broad-leaf ivy. I can almost taste the sharp vegetal pungency our steps would raise from bruising the purple ivy stems, and the rich loamy mushroom smell from the decay underneath.
  • I have a very sharply-limned memory of my first airplane trip. My mother, my younger brother, and I were flying from Texas to meet my father in Venezuela where he had been sent to live and work. I recall we had an overnight layover, probably in Miami, and our hotel room faced the end of the airport runway. I sat for hours on the balcony that night watching and listening to the 707s taking off right over our heads, drenching me with the smell of jet fuel and exhaust — truly unforgettable.
  • When I was older our family would drive from Houston to Southern California nearly every summer to vacation with family. I remember smells from those long drives: if the forever views in the southern deserts have a smell it is a combination of hot vinyl upholstery, hot asphalt, unburned gasoline and diesel exhaust, dust, mesquite, and sometimes the faint, far-off, and surprisingly pleasant smell of skunk.
  • When we stayed with family in the Valley we would drive to the beaches several times a week: Santa Monica to Malibu. To this day any smell of eucalyptus or bay evokes strong memories of early-morning drives through Laurel or Topanga Canyons, or on Kanan-Dume. The smells of the beach are forever with me: salt spray, ozone, washed-up kelp and small bits of decaying sea life, and always Coppertone, Coppertone, Coppertone on the hot sweet skin of all of us – me, my siblings, and my beautiful cousins from Tarzana.
  • My mother’s father built a home and planted an orchard of citrus and avocado in the hills north of Escondido, near Jesmond Dene Road about a mile east and above Highway 15. My siblings, my Montana cousins, and I roamed that place like wild savages. We hunted and trapped rabbits, and I have good memories of the smells of the dusty dirt road along the flume, gunpowder, and salted pelts drying in the sun.
  • Grandad had a huge shop where he let us make things using power tools and exotic hardwoods, wrench on his old pickup truck, even repaint it, where the pungent aromas of fresh sawdust, of greases, solvents, and paints were deeply ingrained in me. He paid us a little to do chores — mostly picking fresh fruit or cleaning up the fallen stuff before it rotted too badly. Those citrus smells are good memories.
  • But the best and strongest memory of Grandad’s place came from a daily chore we fought over: washing the red dust off the hot painted concrete driveway, with mineral-laden well water at high pressure through a brass nozzle on a thick red rubber hose. Each one of those elements had a distinct, intensely evocative smell, all are intertwined in my memory.
  • I have fewer great smell memories from my childhood in Texas, but there are some. My dad was an engineer and he would at times take me with him to the steel fab shop, the oilfield, the refinery, the ship channel. The oil industry has left me with good memories of the smells of its associated aromas, even of the “bad” smells. Along these lines of appreciating chemical aromas, I liked the smell of the mosquito fogger truck that roamed our neighborhood at dusk, rumbling, growling, and belching clouds of thin, billowy, sweet-smelling death.
  • We lived in a neighborhood of old ranch houses on big parcels covered with oak trees, and every fall all the neighbors would rake dead leaves into big piles and we’d have fragrant bonfires evening after evening. A couple blocks from home there was a bayou surrounded by a wooded nature preserve, redolent with the fresh smells of pines and oaks after rain, and the mustiness of humid decay. We played there nearly every day as children after school, and got up to trouble there well into our teens.
  • My dad was an avid hunter, and from a young age took us out for ducks and geese in the rice fields west of Houston, or for quail, dove, deer, javelina farther afield in central Texas or near the Mexican border at Del Rio. I can hardly begin to describe the complex aromas associated with these hunts, ranging from the close proximity of unwashed humans sharing tents and cabins, to the wild aromatics of mesquite and chaparral, to the funky musk of game on the hoof that I could track by smell without a dog, to the warm, wet saline funky heat of dressing out a kill, to the chemical complexity of cleaning and lubricating firearms.
  • A lot of my good smell memories from this time were amplified by simply getting out of the heat and humidity attendant to living in Houston. There were very few private pools in our neighborhood — two that I remember: our neighbors across the street had a small one and a couple down the block where I house sat when I was older had one indoors (years later I was told that that house had been a porn set before the couple I knew bought it, bit of a shocker in those days) — but we belonged to a swim club and a tennis club that had large pools. The smell of chlorinated pool still washes me with remembered pleasure.
  • My mother was a student of the arts, and often took us to museums, concert halls and especially libraries — each with their own characteristic smells that I at least partly associated with the pleasure of getting out of the heat.
  • Mom was not a particularly adventuresome cook — as I recall it, nobody else was at that place and time either. She made one dish fairly often whose aroma evokes pleasurable memories: a casserole of chicken and rice with curry and raisins.
  • Sundays were special because dad would cook homemade buttermilk pancakes with warm syrup, Jimmy Dean sausage patties cut from that plastic tube, and broiled canned peaches with cinnamon and brown sugar — all good smell memories that harkened back to his mother’s kitchen. In the afternoons we’d watch football on TV and he’d make his version of a “Dagwood” sandwich stacked high with cold cuts, fried slices of hotdogs and Spam, cheeses, and pickles (if he had cut back on the meats a little and had had a sandwich press, it would have made a credible Cubana). The smell of those sandwiches has stuck with me mostly because dad shared the sandwich, not because the smell was that great.
  • I will never forget my first sweet, savory, spicy, smoky smell of real Texas pit barbecue. And there was this deli a few miles from home that I tried to get my parents to take us to all the time that made a sliced roast beef sandwich the like of which I have not smelled or tasted since those days. If I ever encounter that particular smell and taste again, that could be my “madeleine” moment.
    • When, How, Why Wine?

      I grew up with wine as part of our family meal, having sips and small glasses regularly from a young age. Perhaps surprising given where my career path has taken me, I do not have any fond smell memories of wine from those early days. Not then, but I found them later when I was a surly, rebellious teen obsessed with the countercultural pushback against “authority” — tall, skinny, angry, with bad skin, nerdy glasses, and hair halfway down my back in defiance of my father and of school policy.

      The first wine I recall as a distinct life event was a bottle of Valpolicella that dad ordered when he dragged the family to a newly-opened Spanish restaurant where I had my first, revelatory taste of paella. I don’t remember the wine, but I remember the experience. And it triggered something in me that never tripped back.

      Later in that same era we took one of our last family vacations to California and rented a motorhome in Oceanside which we drove up the Coast Highway, ending up in Napa Valley and camping at Bothe State Park. My parents took surly young me along with them to visit at least a half dozen wineries over a couple days. From the get-go I was incensed to find that I would not be allowed to taste the wines with my parents — fine to do in Texas at the time, but against the law in California.

      But the smells, the smells! The wines, in their native environment, the smell of the barrels and old redwood tanks in the cellar all struck a deep chord in me. Maybe the experience was intensified by the anger, but from that point onward I was really interested in wine, not exactly obsessed, but focused. And that is what eventually led me to choose UC Davis as the uni where I would do my doctoral work — the fact of UCD’s proximity to wine country.

3 thoughts on “Winemaker’s Madeleine

  1. Thomas Pellechia

    Yes, nice blog post, John.

    I, too, can come up with a list of childhood memories built on aroma, but this is your blog, so I won’t list them.

    Thanks for making me give them some thought this morning.


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