Cheat Sheets For Wine Wannabees

A new aroma kit helps budding wine aficionados improve their nose.

It's not easy putting scents that evoke descriptions like “barnyard” into a bottle. But Gary Pickering, professor at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in the Niagara wine region, found a way. Working with chemists, Pickering developed “notes” to help budding wine aficionados improve their nose. Most wine aromas are pleasant–think strawberries, chocolate, vanilla. However, Pickering says oenophiles should also acquaint themselves with the pungent scents of wine gone bad. “There is nothing like [barnyard] in the perfume industry,” he says. “We had to start from scratch.”

The result is Wine Awakenings: aroma kits aimed at experts and novices. Specialty kits of vials filled with the 12 aromas most associated with a particular varietal, like Pinot Noir, sell for $129.99. The faults kit goes for $139.99.

Wine Awakenings is the brainchild of CEO Tim Burke, a retired RCMP officer based in Niagara, and his business partner Virginia Podio. Burke points to the growing popularity of wine in North America. Statistics Canada says Canadians bought $3.7 billion worth of wine in 2003, up 9.3% from the previous year, and nearly double 1993's sales. And since the Academy-award-winning indie film Sideways came out, sales of Pinot Noir, a varietal that the lead character, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, is particularly fond, have spiked. (In one scene, Miles passionately describes wines with “a flutter of nutty Edam” and the “faintest soupçon” of asparagus.) Burke and Podio now hope to cash in by offering tools to help any budding Miles wannabe.

The company's chief competition is Le Nez du Vin of France, which sells a 54-aroma kit for US$349. (It has also started selling 12-vial kits–one for red, one for white, one for faults–for US$99.) But packaging kits according to varietals gives Wine Awakenings an advantage, Burke says, as it picks up on the way New World wines are marketed according to the grape variety used. (Old World wines, such as Burgundy, are marketed according to the region they come from.) The Wine Awakenings kits went on sale this year in wineries, wine stores and through the company website.

Wine Awakenings forecasts sales of $500,000 in 2005. Taking a cue from Sideways' appeal, it's also negotiating with a yet-unnamed celebrity to front a marketing campaign. By giving their kits a touch of silver-screen sparkle, Burke, Podio and Pickering hope to soon raise a glass to booming sales.