Do you smell like a bear?

Have you ever had an idea that you know has potential but you don’t want to execute it yourself because the last time you did that, you ended up with burnt English muffins when all you wanted was a mini pizza? I was thinking about stupid wine tasting terms the other day as I looked at my gut and realized that it was as flabby as a $2 bottle of ice wine. My mind immediately went to my friend the Liquorstore Bear, who I knew could give the topic of bizarre wine tasting terms a far better sendoff than I ever could. So here he is: the one, the only, Liquorstore Bear.


My friend Scarybear knows we’ve ordered pizza before the delivery guy even rings the bell. What’s more, he can tell which toppings we’ve ordered and which pizzeria.

Okay, so you don’t know who the hell Scarybear is. But bear with me.

Many thanks to Emily for allowing me to do a guest post. My friend Scarybear will be delighted that this pic is circulating to yet more readers.

Many thanks to Emily for allowing me to do a guest post. My friend Scarybear will be delighted that this pic is circulating to yet more readers.

When you think of bears you probably think of lumbering, garbage-raiding pests who regularly take a tranq dart for encroaching on campers. Bears (I happen to be one) are famous for being nuisances, but they can’t help it. They have the most awesome noses in the animal kingdom.

It was the ursine nose that enslaved me to wine, but human noses aren’t too shabby (they’re at least a two-thousandth as acute as bear noses). You need to have that olfactory bulb on board to really enjoy wine, and it’s probably better just to smell the wine in the room, not the empties that have already been brought out to the garage, right? Meaning, you humans are probably in the olfactory sweet spot for wine enjoyment, whereas wine’s amazing aromas will eventually drive me mad.

You’re familiar with the welcome wine aromas: oak, tannin, tobacco, leather, spice, berries, orchard fruit, tropical fruit…etc. But when you buy wine within the LBHQ budget (which is to say, a small budget aiming for max wine), you encounter all sorts of unexpected aromas too…

Fair to say, a wine can smell like anything, depending on the (in)competence of the winemaker.


orville rIf you think Orville Redenbacher bottled your vino, you’re not imagining something’s off. Excess diacetyl, formed early on when the yeasts are first converting grape sugar into alcohol, produces that fake butter odor. A little butter isn’t unwelcome in a Chardonnay, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re in a movie theater.

Sweaty horse blanket

One of our local wine consultant’s eyes lit up as she described the slight barnyard notes in a Carmenere. She’s not alone; plenty of wine drinkers adore manure aromas; others (correctly?) think they smell like ass. They indicate the presence of Brettanomyces, a yeast capable of wrecking a wine but acceptable in tiny amounts. (Not to bears with kick-ass noses though!)

Skunk cabbage

Bambi-Flower2Skunky beer has its adherents, but skunk in a wine indicates an excess of sulfur, used in winemaking to inhibit bacteria. Especially in low-nitrogen wines, sulfuric chords assert themselves rudely—rotten eggs, snuffed matches, Scarybear’s farts—making wine undrinkable for all except the most determined alcoholic bears. Riesling and Chardonnay most often fall prey to skunkiness.

Wet packing material

Damp cardboard is a surefire sign that a wine is corked. There is some debate as to what exactly causes cork taint (2-4-6-trichloranisole)—fungus, contact between corks and cardboard packing material, chlorine used to wash the cork, although this practice was discontinued in the 90s. Throw that wine down the sink (unless it will leave you without wine) and get a clean glass for your next bottle; the odor is persistent. And don’t be embarrassed to embrace the screw-top.



Not asparagus pee, per se, but soggy asparagus itself, this odor may emanate from Sauvignon Blanc and is the result of vinifying underripe grapes. Vegetal odors are all wrong, if you ask me, just like vegetables are all wrong.

Campfire marshmallow

This smell may accompany a brick-red hue (for reds) or a tawny shade (for whites). It signifies oxidation. Some dumbass stored or transported the wine improperly and exposed it to air or high temperatures.

Nail polish remover

Another reason to toss the wine (or take it back to the store if you can), this screeching high note does not belong. It’s a kind of bacterial spoilage known as volatile acidity (VA).

Cat pee

One of the most interesting and even sought-after aromas, feline urine occurs most often in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. The responsible compound, p-mentha-8-thiol-3-one, smells like kitty tinkle only in a specific concentration range, below which it smells herbal and above which it smells like blackcurrants. Wow! Basically you want to attack this wine right away or let it sit for a day so you can bypass the pee phase. Unless you like pee.

Which smells have you encountered with wine?


  1. LOL! In the event that this Mormon girl goes shopping for alcohol, I’ll know what to look for and what to watch out for. a wonderful and practical guide. :)

    1. LB is pretty awesome.

      1. How do I make a smiley that blushes?

        1. I still don’t know how you added color in the text of the post.

          1. Your kitchen sink was closed, so I clicked on it. At this point I felt I was really violating your space but, you know, in for a martini, in for a 26er, so then I highlighted the text and changed the color. Did the kitchen sink close again? Did you not always have color? You must not need it, because I didn’t notice!

  2. Great post, Emily. One of the more interesting encounters I’ve had with what might be considered a desirable note in wine is the Petrol smell/taste in a German Reisling. We had one several years ago recommend by the Sommelier and indeed, it has notes of gasoline. A little much for me. Have you ever encountered this?

    1. I knew I’d forgot one. Yes, petrol is a popular odor among Riesling-drinking wine geeks, but, like barnyard, it’s one of those acquired tastes. Personally, I think it’s a case of the emperor’s new clothes. That petrol/rubber/WD40 aroma develops after the Riesling has aged and therefore is a hallmark of aging–which has inherent value to many a wine aficionado, even though the smell is pretty appalling. My friend Scarybear says that since our planet is at “peak oil,” we should appreciate that petrol odor now. But Scary is more of a pizza expert. Thanks for reading!

  3. Mmmm! Kitty tinkle!

    1. So good, right?

  4. I always find this sooo amusing! Dirty diaper, I’ve heard that one too! Seriously. So appealing. Not. Wet packing material? So many of these are not things you imagine eating/drinking. Very funny and informative.

    1. Surprisingly there is a place for dirty diaper in the wine world, somewhere close to chicken coop and smelly horse blanket. But wet cardboard is universally condemned. Go figure.

  5. You did your research with this one! I am not a wine drinker, and it’s safe to say, none of these smells have enticed be to become one. I’ll stick with my unsophisticated beer. :)

    1. Great post, by the way!

      1. Thank you! I really live my research. I like to start as soon as I wake up.

  6. […] right… I wandered out of my enclosure this morning and ended up over here. Come visit and find out what that nasty odor […]

  7. I so admire those who can sniff out all the nuances. I guess I’ve smelled different smells but I couldn’t identify them — thank you for this. I love to go to wine tastings and so admire those who paint such a beautiful picture about the wine — why this wine is this way or that — temperature, the region, the day it’s opened — and now, this…there are so many lovely variables that go into a fine wine. (or it becoming not such a fine wine!).

    1. Shucks, I’m a bear. The humans I live with sometimes have difficulty identifying smells or verbalizing what they’re smelling. I think much of the wine world does, too! Judging from reviews I’ve read, I think wine critics crib from each other a lot, not to mention the tasting notes on the bottle. Not to be cynical, but some of the sensitivity they claim is questionable, especially since they are subject to the same variables as everybody–what they’ve eaten, how full they are, level of hydration, mood, hormones, time of day, whatever–and I think critics often put up a wall between themselves and the regular wine-buying public. It doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a lot of nuance and complexity to wine; it’s just that I think sometimes critics are protecting their own role in wine culture by suggesting they have rarefied senses of smell and that therefore they are needed to “interpret” wine for regular consumers. Then again, sometimes it’s nice to have the tasting notes so you can recognize the smells and say “Aha, that’s what I’m detecting.” What am I saying at this not-yet-drunk hour of the day? Ah yes, that the wine world walks a tightrope between art and douchebaggery.

  8. I used to date a wine snob. He showed me how to properly hold a wine glass, swirl, sniff, do that weird thing where you hold the wine in your mouth and make little bubbles or whatever. The only thing I smelled with him was douchebag.

    1. Wine snobs wreck it for everybody. That’s why my favorite wine reviewer is the Reverse Wine Snob (I’m even on his blogroll!).

  9. Thank you so much for writing this, LB! We had asparagus for dinner the other night. I really love it, but I truly cannot wrap my brain around the idea of it being a favorable wine descriptor. I’d rather have a glass of cat piss.

    1. I don’t know, cat piss is pretty horrid, so it’s a toss-up. We have asparagus all the time and I don’t see the point of it. It’s all wrong!! Even the kids don’t have to eat all of it; it’s like there’s some universal understanding that asparagus isn’t really edible. And yet.

  10. Is it wrong that I once fed my uncle wine that smelled like Nail polish remover and then made him walk home by himself?

    That shit is poisonous, man.

    1. Hmmm, do you like your uncle? In 2009, 35% of the 4,000 pedestrians killed in the US were drunk, so it’s just about as dangerous as drunk driving (41% of 34,000). It’s a pretty good way to dispatch a nasty uncle, but who could know? Sometimes, when we don’t have any wine in the house, I go and look at the nail polish remover bottles. But I have no thumbs.

      1. Woh, then there’s something wrong with the sidewalks in the US. Or do US-citizens have difficulties walking in a straight line, perhaps? :P

        Here in the Netherlands, only 72 pedestrians were killed in traffic. Which is about 9% of the total number of traffic accidents.

        I don’t know how much of those were drunk, but if I want to get rid of someone! I’ll send them to the US drunk!

        Thanks for the tip!

  11. I guess I’m kind of glad that my sense of smell isn’t that good, even by human standards. I do love me some Riesling, but I’d be super sad if I caught a whiff of skunk when I went to take a sip.

    1. Riesling does seem to have a lot of complicated flavors. It’s not one of our go-to wines, but we’ll definitely have to investigate further, especially since Canada’s making so much of it these days. I wouldn’t have any room for skunk either (unless, as mentioned, we didn’t have any other wine in the house).

  12. This is hilarious, Emily!
    Let’s see – I’ve had Hairspray smelling wine (Aqua Net).
    Cool Water cologne wine (cologne not Cologne). This is probably from the delivery guy.
    And Ground up Earthworms. My favorite boxed wine. Yum. Earthy.

    Also, how close do you have to be with a person for them to get a ‘Bear’ moniker?

    1. Thanks, Mike! All credit goes to Liquorstore Bear. He is my favorite Canadian alcoholic blogging bear. We go way back.

      Ground Up Earthworms sounds excellent. I am pretty sure they have that at ALDI.

      1. I see, I see – thanks for the introduction!
        They do. Earthworm Franzia.

    2. Earthworms! Was that a Pinot Noir by chance? I didn’t mention the earthy side of things (ironically because it was Earth Day and somehow I got involved in a last-minute purchase of a plant the kid was supposed to take to kindergarten). Pinot Noir drinkers cherish those earthy notes but sometimes I find them a bit much. Cheap Pinot is, like, ten times less forgiving than cheap Cab. (And thank you for the compliment!)

      1. Can’t remember if it was a Pinot – but it was a regift, possibly re-regift. First wine I ever spit out (involuntarily).

        Agreed. I’m not a huge wine drinker, but do appreciate the sense ceremony of it. Unless I’m drinking like a pirate…then, well, yeah.

        Thanks for the hilarious read.

        1. My pleasure! I don’t think I’d ever take the gamble of giving someone Pinot Noir as a gift unless I was willing to spend quite a bit of money and I had a good recommendation. It’s a very finnicky varietal. If I’m remembering, I think it was the favorite varietal of the main character in Sideways, who ended up drinking it like a pirate, or worse. Incidentally, it’s World Malbec Day, and Malbec in the $15 range is a pretty safe bet. I’ve had some cheap ones that smelled like cheese, though.

  13. Hooray for the Brett funk and a little well-placed oxidization…in some beers, that is.

    1. I can TOTALLY live without Brett, unless I have nothing but Brett.

      1. If you see Allagash Interlude, get it…and embrace the Brett.

        1. Wow, ratebeer gives that 99 points (I had to look it up). Chances are we won’t encounter it at our government-run booze joint. And then I have to talk my dad into it because he’s not into weird things, but I will try for sure.

  14. The title of this is hilarious, and it just gets funnier from there.

    1. Not if you have to smell me, it doesn’t. Somebody said “Maytag” today … said this post had reminded them that a certain bear needs a wash :(

  15. …I wonder if my cat’s smelly pee is actually worth something?!

    1. As if cats don’t own the Internet already! Why not cat pee? It’s the next frontier for cats.

      1. …more like for me! Must profit from something that insists on pooping on the carpet.

        1. ha! one just wandered into the house from next door. P threatened to kick it and we had to have a talk about being nice. (She wouldn’t have actually done it.)

Now you can hold the magic talking stick.

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