PARIS — Hélène Barre, 35, lost her sense of smell when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November, a condition known as anosmia. Her slow recovery was plagued by disturbing distortions: Peanuts smelled like shrimp, raw ham like butter, rice like Nutella. The phantom scent of something burning still bothers her for hours at a time.
Those symptoms would be troubling enough for anyone. But Barre is an oenologist, an expert on wines and winemaking. Her career, her livelihood, her passion — they all depend on one thing: her ability to smell.
“It’s our work tool, our way of detecting problems,” said Barre, who works at a wine cooperative in Limoux, a town in southwestern France not far from Carcassonne. “We use it to describe the wine, but also to analyze and criticize it.
“It’s like taking a bricklayer’s trowel away,” she said. “Very frustrating. And nerve-wracking.”
For millions worldwide, anosmia has become a telltale sign of COVID-19, often accompanied by the inability to taste anything more than basic characteristics like sweetness or saltiness. Compared with the disease’s more serious symptoms, though, and the risk of drawn-out illness or death, it is often experienced as a minor, if jarring, inconvenience.
But for professionals like Barre, smell is not a lesser sense — especially in France, with its celebrated cuisine, wines and perfumes. For sommeliers, perfumers, oenologists and others, smell is a skill honed over many years of identifying things like subtle notes of citrus in a perfume, or parsing the bouquet of a mature Bordeaux.
When COVID-19 snatches that away, the fear of career-ending consequences can be particularly gripping, making anosmia a difficult, even taboo topic.
Barre, who can still do other work at the cooperative, said her employer and colleagues had been understanding. But even as grape harvest season starts, she still has not fully recovered her smelling ability and feels helpless relying on others to taste and approve wines.
“It’s very stressful to ask myself, ‘Tomorrow, if I never recover my sense of smell, what do I do?’” Barre said. “And I haven’t answered that question yet.”
A poll last year by Oenologues de France, a union of wine experts, found that coronavirus infection rates for its members were comparable to those in the general population. But nearly 40% of those who were infected said smell or taste disruptions had affected them professionally.
Sophie Pallas, the union’s executive director, said that oenologists who lost their senses of smell because of COVID-19 were often reluctant to admit it publicly “because it hurts their professional image.”
Pallas herself fell ill and said her anosmia was like a “black curtain” that sucked the pleasure out of drinking wine. Even those who quickly recover may hesitate to speak out.
“We don’t yet have very precise measuring tools,” Pallas said, noting that basic abilities quickly return, but not the peak performance of a nose. “It’s complicated to certify that you’ve recovered all your faculties.”
Fears that COVID-19 could derail careers are particularly acute in the highly competitive world of perfumery, where perfumers — sometimes known as “noses” in France — work hand-in-hand with evaluators to select and dose the chemical components of a fragrance for months or even years.
“It’s terrifying, like a pianist who loses their fingers,” said Calice Becker, a French perfumer who has created several top scents, including Dior’s J’adore, and who is now director of an in-house perfumery school at Givaudan, a Swiss flavors and fragrances company.
Anosmia is not limited to COVID-19, which scientists believe disrupts neural pathways from the nose to the brain, although its effect on the olfactory system is not yet fully understood. Other illnesses or head traumas can also cause loss of smell or parosmia, the condition that causes phantom or distorted odors.
But for perfumers, the pandemic has made a previously rare and distant threat much more real, Becker said.
Veteran professionals with anosmia can still compose the formula for a fragrance, she said, because experience tells them how products smell and how they will interact, just as Beethoven was able to compose music near the end of his life despite being deaf.
Still, she said, “You have to trust people who can be your nose and tell you that you are going in the right direction.”
Similarly, sommeliers know instinctively which wines and foods will pair well. But Philippe Faure-Brac, the head of the French union of sommeliers, said that anosmia made it harder to work with chefs on new or more subtle pairings; worse, its victims cannot detect corked wines.
“We are professionals,” said Faure-Brac, who lost his smell to COVID-19 last year. Recovery, he said, “has to be measured by our professional standards.”
Anosmia is particularly stressful for students who need to pass tests and secure internships that are crucial for their careers.
When Louane Cousseau, a second-year student at the École Supérieure du Parfum, a perfumery school in Paris, came down with what she thought was a cold in April, she brewed a thyme inhalation but could not smell it. She then rushed to her refrigerator to grab a fistful of basil, one of her favorite herbs: nothing. She had COVID-19.
“I called my mother in tears,” said Cousseau, 19, who wants to work in the cosmetics industry. She has recovered slowly and struggled with her end-of-year olfaction exam: a blind smelling test.
Her school recommended that she work with Olga Alexandre, a neuropsychiatrist and instructor who uses smell to help patients cope with serious diseases or psychological conditions and who has applied her method to anosmia patients.
“We use this sense so often and so unconsciously that we are not at all aware of how important it is,” Alexandre said.
On a recent morning at the school, she was evaluating Cousseau by having her smell blotters dipped into scent vials. Cousseau correctly identified black pepper but mistook bitter orange for mandarin. Scents of pineapple, cucumber and porcini mushroom remained elusive.
Cousseau closed her eyes to sniff the tip of another strip. “Mandarin, this time?” she ventured. It was lemon. “Really?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide open. “I usually have that one.”
Alexandre, who tries to help rebuild smell-related neural pathways through memories or emotions, asked Cousseau to pick a square of colored paper to go with the smell (vivid yellow), talk about its aspects (“acid, sparkling, fresh”) and associate it with a happy thought (her mother cutting lemon in a sun-drenched kitchen in southwestern France).
Cousseau, cheerful and outgoing, had a positive outlook on her predicament.
“It’s true that I panicked, but I quickly told the school because I knew that they could help,” she said. Not all students felt as comfortable coming forward. “There are people in my class who didn’t want to do that, who were infected and I didn’t even know about it,” she said.
Even established professionals can be stigmatized because of COVID-19.
Mathilde Ollivier, 33, an independent oenologist who advises winemakers in the Loire Valley, realized one morning in February that she could not smell her shower gel, sending her scrambling through toiletries to see if any scents came through. She followed a training regimen and after several weeks — once wines no longer had the persistent smell of roasted hazelnuts — felt confident enough to return to work.
But a fellow oenologist was bewildered that she had told her clients about her “embarrassing” illness. Another said it was a mistake to open up to the local media about her experience. Ollivier countered that transparency was crucial to keeping her clients’ hard-earned trust.
“We have to talk about it,” she said, to break the taboo.
Ollivier, who comes from a long line of winegrowers, recalled childhood memories of smelling wines during family meals. Soon she will be the eighth generation to take over the family vineyard — plans that were abruptly, if temporarily, thrown into disarray when she got sick.
“Taking over the vineyard without being able to smell my own wines, that’s impossible,” she remembered thinking. “When your job is your passion — and it’s the same for many artisans and food professionals — it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.”