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The Synesthetic Sommelier

Jaime Smith, a top sommelier, can see the color and shape of wine

Jaime Smith of Las Vegas, twice named Best Sommelier in America by Food and Wine magazine, has a distinct advantage, a gift…

He can see wine synesthetically. He calls it "Liquid Art."

I ask him to describe a couple of his favorite wines with his cross-sensory superpower. “If it’s white wine, it’s always high-acid whites, because acid is the backbone of the wine. Champagne and German Rieslings have long, linear ribbons of yellow and green that flow up to orange like strings on a harp. For red wines, they are most pleasurable when, like all wines, they have a sense of being.

“Red wines need to tell you who they are. And all places have their own particular smell, a profile of what they are. They taste like where they were born. You can blind-taste, generally, countries, because of style; because of grapes…Traditional style wines literally have a stamp on them. They have identity."

A favorite red is Barolo from Piedmont in Northwestern Italy. “The grape is called nebbiolo-- because it’s a place with a lot of fog. It’s a very small grape with a thick skin and a high skin-to-pulp ratio (meaning that it doesn’t get a lot of juice out of the berries but it gets a lot of concentration out of the skin). It’s one of the weird grapes out there that has high acid and high tannin.”

“So when I smell nebbiolo that hasn’t been over oaked …the smell of the wine is like a big fat braided knot of purple and brown and then as it starts to unwind and release its aromatics it starts to bloom into red. The smells are just explosive. It’s the most aromatic red varietal. It has so much that goes on.”

He describes the space in which he senses wines like a chamber. “Sometimes the way that things break up for me in smells is low-medium-high and then front-center-back. If it’s a whole chamber, certain smells hit in certain parts of the room, and then there’s like a microphone in each part of these rooms. And then I can hear through the smell what part of the room they’re in and then this goes into logical deduction into where these things belong globally, or 'grape-ally.'”

Sommelier Jaime Smith

Jaime Smith uses his synesthesia to perfect his art as a sommelier.

Celebrity Cruise Line has featured Mr. Smith in on-board seminars. They say he epitomizes the connoisseur among connoisseurs, “delivering a savant-like capacity to absorb and astutely apply an expansive knowledge of all things wine related.” He was appointed the first Director of Wine at the prestigious, MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 1998, Mr. Smith helped open the AAA Five Diamond award-winning Bellagio as the sommelier of Le Cirque and Osteria del Circo, where he remained for two years. During this time, he also explored his interests in teaching as a Distance Professor for Experimental Oenology classes through the University of California at Davis. In 2000, he accepted the position of head sommelier at Charlie Palmer’s Aureole at Mandalay Bay. During his five year tenure, he was instrumental in helping to create the world’s first digital wine list - the restaurant’s ingenious solution to managing its 4000-plus wine labels and five vast cellars.”

All tasters build up a smell memory, he explains. “They just stack up and stack up and stack up. The recollection of it sometimes clicks in really fast and sometimes it’s a puzzle. The synesthesia helps me with the expansion of the stacking and comprehension and the enjoyable nature of the story that I get from that.”

He also says he has a great memory, like many synesthetes, but credits his parents for his learning environment as much as the brain trait. He can roll memories like movies. He has eidetic memory, particularly for reading. He reads voraciously. He also writes and edits and paints and teaches.

“I’m the luckiest person in the world of wine. I can speak with the best tasters in the world as a friend. I’m just lucky enough to know certain people. And I’m always amazed to learn how people smell because it’s always such a different way than I go about things. I’m constantly learning from all these great people.”

As for the synesthesia? “I think in a lot of ways it is beneficial for what I do. Unquestionably it has added to things…”

Are there any drawbacks to it? “Before, I guess I have learned how to shut it down to where it doesn’t overwhelm me, and if I tune it up, I keep so many things away. It drives women crazy. I have to give you the smell that you can wear from hand lotion to perfume to laundry detergents. So it’s bothersome. But I think some of them get it after they get into it. Like, ‘I’ve never thought about it before but now I’m in tune to certain things.’ ”

If he walks into a room he can smell the entire atmosphere of smells from hair products to perfumes to soaps. “And then if I’m in setting where there’s a lot of wine, say 200 wines, all of them begin to attack!” It’s something he’s learning to control however, ratcheting the synesthesia up or down as needed.

For Jaime Smith, life is an unending adventure and a sensory one at that.

“It’s still this overwhelming quest. It’s the joy of life.”

--with thanks to Michelle Krell Kydd who first featured Jaime in her terrific blog, Glass Petal Smoke, here:

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