Synesthesia: A Rare Condition That’s Become One Sommelier’s Secret Weapon

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When most people taste a Sémillon, they get citrus and apple flavors. Trained palates might even pick up the white wine’s ability to come off as both rich and fresh, worthy of some aging. Las Vegas-based sommelier Jaime Smith is more inclined to describe his sip as “orange tubes, rolling about in a grassy valley.”

For Smith, there’s no such thing as a blind tasting. The former wine director of the MGM Grand and one-time director of communication and education at Southern Wine & Spirits runs his own consulting outfit and currently commands the wine program at the Charlie Palmer Steakhouse at the Four Seasons. Throughout, Smith has had synesthesia, a rare condition in which the senses crisscross. For example, when a synesthete hears a trumpet, he might taste squash. Or he might see a stack of dark brown octagons every time he smells cloves. Sometimes, words alone prompt flavors so strong it’s enough to make him gag. “One wine was so horrid, with the most interesting faults,” Smith says of a particularly off-putting wine he sampled at a recent festival. “It smelled of bile, not always bad given the type of fermentation, and then it exploded into a minty greenness. It was fractured, like having a wall in front of you and you can only go left. Inside this crazy smell maze, I took two lefts and then I was stuck, staring into the abyss.”

Not much is known about synesthesia, aside from its broad spectrum. As such, the probability estimates are wildly disconnected, averaging about 1 in 1,000 for basic conditions (the vintage “1995” appearing farther away visually than the year “2005,” when browsing at a bottle shop) and 1 in 100,000 for more extreme cases (experiencing the taste of maple syrup when touching foam, for example). Formal study of synesthesia is fairly recent, with national organizations taking shape and notable research occurring at places like the Centre for the Study of the Senses in London.

Smith, 48, says his highly textural impressions began as a child, when he started putting everything into his mouth. When some things tasted blue and others like a square, his parents responded with, “impossible.” Today, amid our collective obsession with flavor, his condition is practically a superpower. But that’s not to say it doesn’t distract. “The AC just kicked on and I can smell it,” Smith says, sidetracked. He’s 25 feet away from his house, by the way. He returns to the conversation, describing potential hangups. “When I walk into a crowd, I can smell everything,” he says. “Most smells have waves and peaks, like a heart monitor. When there are a lot of artificial smells, it’s like cardiac arrest.”

With so much stimulation firing at once, you’d think Smith would need to evaluate wine in a vacuum, just to stay on track. “I have laser focus,” he assures, a skill acquired from a long career of tasting nearly 15,000 wines a year during its height. By now, experience has dealt him a vast smell memory, and visual accompaniment to that only adds to his sensory ability.

In fact, Smith refers to synesthesia as his secret weapon. He knows of other people with similar sense-crossing brains but says most are a bit anti-social. An attorney might not benefit from associating his client with a ring of spinning purple triangles, but Smith’s mental picture of a dry Alsatian Riesling will more than likely sell you a bottle if he’s working the floor in Vegas. “Nothing stays the same as the original interpretation,” Smith says. “Like a photo caught in that second, a still frame in a movie. As a wine pro, my goal is to ‘preview’ its entire life and extrapolate where it will be when it gets drunk now and in the future—like reading tarot.”

His advice to other sommeliers and wine enthusiasts? Trust your palate, even if it doesn’t function as dynamically as his does. And, he insists, stop serving everything so cold, because it mutes an otherwise good wine. “Everything’s better at room temperature,” he says. “Otherwise a wine doesn’t speak as much. It’s like a room of sheets in all colors, enveloping you.”