Another Revelation Concerning Our Olfactory Sensors

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

We are part of The Trust Project

GrapevineHaving attended, and conducted, many wine tastings, I have concluded that each of our palates is unique, possessing sensory neurons and translating these into instinctive behaviors that set apart our perceptions from each other.

I am repeatedly surprised at the uniqueness of each participant’s plate. The impressions of an individual wine can be so diverse that I wonder if we’re sipping from the same bottle.

Although it is commonly believed our impression of wine is based primarily on our sense of taste, science has determined that this is not so. Our taste buds perceive five elements in a glass of wine, whereas our olfactory receptors sense thousands of elements.

This raises the question of our perception versus the reality of our relationship with the natural world in general. How does our conscious brain process inputs? How do our subconscious impressions influence our personal reality?

When my intellectual and sensory being is immersed in the world at large, certain learned traits stored in my cortex inform my reaction and responses to my surroundings. But when I am engaged in more finite activities, like wine appreciation, my senses dominate my intellectual interplay. Seemingly contradictory, my sensory perceptions may not be learned through repetitive experiences with my engagement in wine consumption; rather, certain of my senses may dominate over logical, intellectual conclusions I might otherwise draw.   

I came upon a research project conclusion that posits our sense of smell is on a higher plane than popularly perceived. One that I had not previously considered, and found fascinating. The study revealed that one of our olfactory receptors is much more distinctive, and precise, than previously believed.

I’m sure each of us has experienced the natural distinction of hearing music differently in each ear or seeing colors differently through each eye. Now I’ve learned that each of my nostrils performs in a unique manner to deliver divergent, yet complementary, aromatics that ultimately converge in a more readily perceived profile.

In a prior column I focused on the role of the piriform cortex in organizing sensory information to enable select learned generalizations. Now I know each nostril separately affects the sense and the development of individual components of wine aromas and then combines them into a new and unique sensory experience.

My reference point is my first experience with stereo recordings, which channeled a background track into one ear and (typically) the melody into another. Single channel monaural compared to multitrack stereophonic? No comparison.

Here’s the science, culled from the research study.  

The flow of air is greater into one nostril than into the other, caused by a natural swelling in one nostril compared to the physiology of the other. This creates varying airflows, sensitizing each nostril to different aromas, so that each nostril conveys a slightly different olfactory message to our olfactory senses. As they are transmitted to the threshold of our cortex these distinctions are melded into a more commonly perceived trait.

The study also recommends the best way to trigger this phenomenon. Rather than a single deep breath from a glass, inhale in multiple short breaths (like a truffle-hunting dog). This produces a greater airflow, flooding a broader area in each nostril, hence a more intense and vivid impact in our cortex.

It works. I’ve experimented several times with wine, pizza, even coffee. Each nostril picked up a nuance I hadn’t noticed after the aromas melded in my higher-plane olfactory senses. (I must admit having experimented in the privacy of my home, lest I risk strange glances from others.)

The functionality of physiology, whether in humans or nature, is an astoundingly intricate and symbiotic support mechanism for allowing full immersion in our particular environment. I encourage you to engage in enjoying what nature has wrought for us.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

We'd love for you to support our work by joining as a free, partial access subscriber, or by registering as a full access member. Members get full access to all of our content, and receive a variety of bonus perks like free show tickets. Learn more here.