(ST. HELENA, CA) -- One of the most interesting aspects of a lifestyle that involves the enjoyment of wine is the varied vocabulary and discussion of wine's sensory experience, much of which centers around things olfactory.
I must confess that I fail miserably at the "Smell That" wine game. The recent pronouncement of a Bonny Doon Syrah Port "brimming with aromas of raspberry Kool-Aid on steroids" escapes me. This confounds family and close friends who have accused me of having a shark's keen sense of smell (apparently sharks can smell things as distant as two football fields away). But I guess my nose is a mother's nose, meant for deciphering activities of those close to me. Or perhaps, it is just that I have not educated myself enough to label the hidden notes that waft out of a glass of "inky purple elixir," yet I can clearly identify hidden hints of tobacco, secreted sweets, and other brushes with a day's by-products.
It is my love of smells that drives me Upvalley to a little shop in St. Helena. Diva Perfumes is tucked tightly into a narrow storefront not quite mid-way up the west side of Main Street. At one point, the shop was much like an apothecary's den with a prominent counter behind which the shopkeepers kept their wondrous goods--shelves and shelves of fragrances and scents from floor to ceiling. Steve and Jola Young have recently made a nod to modern buying patterns and now the interior boasts a small amount of delicate women's finery meant to entice discerning shoppers off the street.
While lovely, it is the amazing perfumes, colognes, eau de'toilettes, and fragrances of wonderful breadth and complexity that I come for. Steve and Jola are not unlike alchemists. I bring them a simple description of the person that I am buying for and they disappear among the boxes peppering me with questions about their personality.
For the gentle, aged spirit that lives next door to me, I went home with a fragrance commissioned by the Medici's in medieval Italy that softly, tenderly evoked tradition and longevity; beauty and serenity. I believe it is the only scent she wears now and when I catch a whiff of it when she is busy in the kitchen with her family's evening meal it reminds me that she has more layers than just that of mother, grandmother, and wife of more than 50 years.
My beautiful South American girlfriend, as delicate as a doll and who dances until her shoes crumble off her feet, loves to garden. The scent we found for her would make you lose her amongst the roses. I think if we could not see her and had only our noses to find her, we would not be able to pick her out among the flowers.
Diva's perfumes come from all corners of the earth (excepting those corners that mass produce today's celebrity flavor du jour). When I come into the store, I can pretend that my purchases were discovered on some exotic trip to a faraway village. This is an experience I have never duplicated at the counter of a mall department store.
You can close your eyes and you can close your mind, but you cannot turn off your sense of smell, sound, taste or touch. I know in today's society that is somewhat p.c. to abstain from personal fragrances on the off-chance that you might send someone into seizures caused by the random allergy. Some places have even gone so far as to declare themselves to be fragrance-free zones.
Of course there are smells that can send me into fits -- most better left unnamed, but often found in my adolescent son's bedroom. If life, however, could not provide me the smell of a great meal when you walk into a family's home, obvious black cherry (and alcohol) from a dark glass of wine, a salty man straight from his day's work, or a fragrance that transmutes the ordinary into a fantasy, something would be lost to me. And it would be a dimension that I would mourn.
Diva Perfumes, 1309 Main St., St. Helena, CA 94574. (707) 963-4057