This is a story about what happens when one of life’s joys is taken away, perhaps forever. In this case it’s wine, but it could as easily have been painting, cooking, dancing, or playing golf or tennis.
The potential loss of these pleasures, of course, is trivial compared with the social and personal catastrophes the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted. It has taken friends and loved ones, destroyed jobs and businesses, and shaken up lives. The human cost has been immense.
Yet people still want to savor what they love, what has shaped their personalities and lives. They want to return to bars and restaurants, to date and find romance, to play softball on the weekends and dive once more into the wild surf.
Dr. Michael Pourfar’s pleasure was wine, particularly on the weekends when he and his wife, Jennifer, retreated from their workaday lives in Manhattan to the Hudson Valley with their children, Alex, 13, and Caroline, 9.
His loss of that pleasure traces back to one morning in mid-March when his wife told him she could not smell her coffee.
Dr. Pourfar, 49, a neurologist who specializes in treating people with Parkinson’s disease and other nerve disorders, had not been treating Covid-19 patients directly, but he knew about its symptoms.
He also realized that if his wife was infected with the coronavirus, he had a greater chance of getting it, too.
As anyone might, he at first pondered the most morbid possibilities. He was particularly worried about their children.
But his medical training soon kicked in. After rationally assessing the situation, he concluded that while they might all get sick, the chances of grave illness were low. For now, he and his wife needed to maintain a calm routine for the sake of the children, as well as for their own peace of mind.
That evening, routine meant choosing a bottle of wine from the cellar. It was their weekend custom, and Ms. Pourfar wanted a glass even though she was unable to smell anything.
Knowing that this might be the last bottle they would enjoy for a while, he pondered his selection.
He considered a few of the most precious bottles he owned — a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of the great Burgundies, perhaps, or a Cheval Blanc, an equally hallowed Bordeaux. But he settled on a bottle of Williams Selyem pinot noir from the Russian River Valley, a wine he and his wife had discovered early in their marriage and enjoyed together regularly.
Within a few days of opening the Williams Selyem, the couple were feverish, with aches and chills and relentless coughs. They could not smell a thing, nor taste the food they forced themselves to eat.
But they were not sick enough for the hospital. Instead, they quarantined themselves in their home, where they were able to care in shifts for their children. Their son had mild symptoms, their daughter none at all. But for the parents, the illness dragged on.
“You’d think you were getting better, then evening would come, and you’d realize you’re not out of it yet,” he said. “It wasn’t really a dragon, but it had a long tail.”
After a full month, they began to feel much better; Dr. Pourfar’s symptoms did not disappear entirely until mid-May. His sense of smell, though, did not return. He understood that losing the ability to enjoy wine was a small price to pay for one’s life and health. Still, he could not help but feel that in a small way he had been diminished.
Like many wine lovers, he had constructed what he called “life’s comforting rituals” around fetching a bottle: “The considered selection, the careful handling, the slow, deliberate opening and thoughtful smelling, the little smile, they were gone,” he said.
Dr. Pourfar, who grew up in Monroe, N.Y., near West Point, discovered wine when, as a high school student, he spent a year in Alsace, France. There, he lived with a family who always had wine on the table. He found himself paying attention to it, and wine became entwined with his time there.
“You don’t realize what a powerful connection these sorts of flavors can have with your life’s experiences and memories,” he said.
From there, in fits and starts, Dr. Pourfar set out on his exploration. In medical school, he fell in with some fans of German wines, and then, when he decided to study wine seriously, he began with Bordeaux, a customary point of departure because of its rich history and the relative simplicity of its structure and geography.
Like many whose wine journey began in the 1990s, Dr. Pourfar first embraced the bold, fruity bottles that were popular and critically acclaimed at the time. As he became more confident in his own tastes, he gravitated toward subtler, more nuanced wines. Eventually, his arc of discovery led him to Burgundy.
“It’s where everybody ends up in this world, and it took me a long time before I got it,” he said.
Any wine at all, however, seemed unthinkable as he recovered from Covid-19. So much of the pleasure of wine and the ability to taste are dependent on the nose. But he could not smell much of anything.
Shortly after he had fallen ill, he gave himself a daily exercise, partly in hopes of rehabilitating his olfactory sense, and partly out of scientific curiosity. Because of its relative subtlety, wine was beyond his capability, but he began taking daily whiffs of coffee in the morning and of Rémy Martin X.O., a particularly aromatic Cognac, in the afternoon, in order to gauge his sensitivity.
Early on, he could smell nothing. But slowly the sense began to return. Each day he tracked his progression, and rated his ability using a scale derived from Cognac’s hierarchy of classifications: V.S. would represent a trace return of smell, V.S.O.P. a moderate return and X.O. a complete recovery.
The trajectory, like the overall recovery, was frustrating and erratic. After two weeks of peaks and valleys, he found himself plateauing at the V.S.O.P. level. Entire realms of aromas seemed beyond his reach, yet his taste for wine was returning.
“Only when you start to get better do you realize you want part of your sense of self back,” he said. “It’s a joy that’s part of something bigger. Not everybody feels this way about wine, but they feel this way about something.”
He found that he could not appreciate the subtleties of wines he had come to love, like good Burgundies. At first he considered this a sort of wine purgatory, a limbo where the desire had returned, but not the means for satisfaction.
In his diminished state, he found his tastes beginning to change. He was being drawn to the sorts of bolder, more effusive wines that he had once enjoyed but believed he had outgrown.
Most especially, he said, he found renewed love and respect for Bordeaux, another old favorite he had largely abandoned.
“These wines I thought I’d moved on from, I’ve found I’m grateful for them now,” he said. Enjoying Bordeaux again, he said, was like “a Rosebud moment.” But where he might have craved one of the more exclusive labels, if only to try to understand the appeal, he now found good bistro bottles like a Château Poujeaux delightful and satisfying.
The rediscovery and acceptance of wines past, particularly those not considered in the top echelon, he decided, was an indication that perhaps he has become a little less judgmental about wine, a little more tolerant.
“You don’t have to put down what you liked at a certain time in your life because you are different now,” Dr. Pourfar said. “I hope I will have the ability not to be so binary. All of these things are wonderful in the right context. If somebody’s excited about it, there’s probably something to it.”
His path toward recovery has also made him consider the role wine came to play in his life, not just as an enjoyable beverage, but as an essential component of his character. He wonders whether his altered experience of wine has changed him as a person.
“We all compose a sensory kaleidoscope out of our life experiences that shapes our appreciation of the world,” he said. “Losing an appreciation of wine’s flavors was for me like losing the color red from my kaleidoscope. The world was still beautiful and I was grateful for the greens, blues and other colors that remained, but I realized something important and familiar was missing, and the world just isn’t quite the same.”
As he recovered, Dr. Pourfar gingerly returned to work, first practicing telemedicine from his country house, then heading into New York a few times a week.
He has thought about the advice he has given in the past to some of his Parkinson’s patients who enjoy golf.
“I say, ‘You won’t play golf like you did in your 30s, but you can still play and enjoy the game,’” he said.
And he has continued to measure his recovery on what he calls the Cognac-o-meter. The most recent report was positive.
“Gamay, which tasted all out of whack with shrill tartness a few weeks ago, has fallen back in line,” he said. “Maybe not X.O., but getting there.”
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