When I first smelled the Clos Roche Blanche Cot, I was overwhelmed by its violet juice sucked through a chalk straw magnetism. It was the violet that stung me.. every time. Yes, even though I could never actually wear the scent, I'm obsessed by it.
So you see, on a morning in Barolo just a few weeks back, I was thinking about violets. It was just after Maria-Teresa Mascarello and just before Beppe Rinaldi. We were steps away at Giovanni Canonica, and sitting in his white clothed study, tasting his concentrated 2008 and I wrote a note that said: thick, crusty, violent violet. His wife had asked him about how to salt the lunch she was making for him. Then we took to see his cantina, nothing more than tarp covered winemaking equipment and then stood on the grass in his back yard in the brilliant light when I saw something flash from the spring tender green grass.
After decade of frustration, of one scent-less violet after the other, I finally found my very first viola odorata.
In my palm, it felt like the most fragile crystal and I feared my excitement would fracture its petal. The smell was a dream, not at all like the drug-like attack of gardenia or jasmine. It did not smell like old sheets or bad poetry and it did not smell like the ghastly perfume, Violetta di Parma. It was a ghost visitation and I couldn't get enough.
"James," I said to my new Australian friend, "Smell this." I hoped I was giving him a gift. I wasn't sure.
James is a chef. He is the rare kind who has an exceptional wine palate as well as for food. Over the next minutes as I went from violet to Barolo back to James, I saw him with the flower pressed to his nose, trying to crack its code. I saw he too was hooked. It was a rare moment, a first time for him too.
Over the years, when feeding my violet obsession, I'd heard all commercial attempts whether in Creme de Violettes (hello Aviation cocktail) or perfumes were synthetic. Some fragrances and taste got away with the spoof; seductive and sweet. Others like that Violetta di Parma are horrific visions of tortured flowers in the muck. Where were the real things? Will I be forced to go to Giovanni Canonica's backyard in spring for my yearly fix?
I asked the master perfumer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier if it was true that no natural violet scent had been captured. From her atelier in California she confirmed, "Violet has resisted scent harvesting forever. I think because it has a tiny yield and from what I have heard, the extracted essence doesn't smell like violet." She added, "I have never been able to find a natural one. "
And the world weeps.
But Mandy, master blender of natural and ephemeral essences, is on the hunt. If anyone can conjure a captured memory as beautiful as what I smelled on that Saturday nebbiolo filled morning, she's the one.
The day went on to more magic, filled with old men with bad teeth, a flirt and a wizard in La Morra. It was a day lavished on my favorite grape and soil mates. I was aswirl with sandlewood, tar and roses and perhaps a bit of that viola with a different kind of chalk, as the limestone in Piemonte is darker and earthier--it continued to raise goosebumps. I tried to keep the poetic perfume close to me, as if I could imprint my nostrils with its memory. What I smelled in that flower was not, I would bet, what Australian James smelled. I wanted to know what he did perceive. What did he find in its stamen, in its gentle trap door. What was so powerful to him that he too had to steal some sniffs?
If he and I tried to paint it aromatically, we would undoubtedly come up with wildly disparate water colors. Me? I would go for the pinpoint sweet, but where would I put the powder, underneath? And where would the soap be? Oh, just the lightest hint please. And how did they come up with that nasty Violetta which drove me to a nasty madness--by focusing on the soap and the powder? I am sure James would be closer to my interpretation, this you know about someone when you taste and smell side by side. This you know.
I'm back in New York. Life and death situations are building fortresses and I find myself more guarded, but yet I find myself still thinking about the flower and its layers. I see how many violet perfumes are failures in their melancholy interpretations. Without a perfumer to mess with it, relying purely on nature, the scent has complex bottom and top notes and plenty in the middle. I could see them all. The powder. The ink. The ultra-sweet candy. The almost lilac, but pinker. I smell the hope and I smell the death. I also smell one of the most appealing notes that I can ever hope to smell in a wine, that special violet juice sucked through a chalk straw.