by Celia Bryan-Brown

The dangers of nostalgia

My first memories of drinking involve no-name bottles; the greasy, Crayola-funk of MaxFactor kohl; the fusty basement sitting room of a friend’s Wandsworth semi. I drank Kentish vodka, before that sort of thing had a right to be fashionable; sips passed around the circle with the slick of glandular fever on the bottle neck. My first memories of drinking are furtive, charged with the heady fuzz of early-onset adulthood, and its attendant secrecy.

I call these memories, but this is all nostalgia – the bad bits either edited out or rendered sterile as funny anecdotes. Do you remember the time…? Nostalgia has assumed a dangerous power in our society. No longer the preserve of outlying political factions, nostalgia is actively cultivated by all political and cultural sectors of our society as marketing dynamite. It’s the cause of Brexit. It’s arguably the driving force behind the recent announcement of the points-based system for immigrant visas.

Nostalgia is painted as benign, the wistful remembering of happy memories; a mental movie montage. But psychologically, nostalgia is the yearning for an idealized past, referred to in psychoanalysis as ‘screen memory’. Nostalgia does not relate to a specific memory, but rather an emotional state – with all negative emotion filtered out.

I’ve written before about the role of emotion in wine marketing, but it’s worth noting that the consumption of wine is also an emotional act. It is the ultimate sensory experience, far more so than food because we don’t actually need wine to survive (technically). Smell, in particular, is impossible to separate from emotional experience. Of the senses, it is the anomaly. Uniquely, our scent perception is filtered through the emotional centre of our brains, bypassing rational interpretation for the instinctual hub: the hypothalamus. That’s why we have such an emotional response to a stranger wearing our mother’s perfume; and why smells are so hard to separate from these innate emotional responses.

There has been much discussion over the past month about the role of language in how wine is sold, especially in restaurants. Indeed, wine presents a serious dilemma for those who make their living attempting the impossible – describing smells to others through education, writing or recommendations. In all the poetic, often hyperbolic, descriptions of the smell of a wine, what we grasp at is the essential experience of smelling and tasting those spicy, earthy, fruity aromas. The unknowable, indescribable quality of the drink — and its intoxicating properties — move beyond our linguistic abilities and can only be experienced on an emotional level.

Smell is a fundamentally multidimensional sense, but (common) human perception is essentially unidimensional. It’s no wonder our Western olfactory vocabulary feels so limited. Our current capacity to describe scent is rooted in simile: Sauvignon smells like fresh cut grass; Cabernet like cassis. Attempts to divorce literal chemical description from metaphor feel somehow off. The movement a few years ago from the US Guild of Sommeliers’ to enforce technical, chemical description of a wine’s smell in its exams proved unpopular. Its sterile accuracy felt discomforting, prompting tech journalist turned somm and wine writer, Bianca Bosker, to despair of this technical vocabulary’s ‘[failure] to capture anything close to the full experience’ [of a wine’s smell]’.

Perhaps smell – and its power of emotional recall – is a way we can try to fill the inevitable shortfall in ‘unskilled’ labour in British hospitality. Have customers Scratch and Sniff to choose their drinks without any input from an, as defined, ‘unskilled’ somm or wine waiter. Maybe Home Secretary Priti Patel recalls the fad for these stickers from her Watford classroom? Perhaps she’s feeling nostalgic for them.