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By the Nose

How wine-making skills helped one Richmond brewer regain his lost sense of smell.



No doctor ever gave Michael Brandt an explanation. Garden Grove Brewery’s co-owner and brewer was apprenticing at Linden Vineyards and on his way to becoming a winemaker when something alarming happened. He lost his sense of smell.

“It was a weird pocket of my life,” Brandt says — not to mention a potentially career-ending event.

A graduate of James Madison University, Brandt started as an assistant brewer at the now-closed Cally’s Restaurant and Brewing Co. in Harrisonburg. After an unsuccessful foray into the retail side of the business and frustrated by his lack of hours at Cally’s, he went in search of another job in the alcoholic beverage industry.

“I got lucky,” Brandt says, “and got to work at Naked Mountain Vineyards.” The award-winning winery was one of the first four to open in Virginia. There, under vineyard manager Joe Sullivan, Brandt learned every aspect of the wine business, from picking grapes to blending varietals.

From there he went to Linden, where he lost one of the most important tools a winemaker can have. For three or four months each day before bottling, owner Jim Law, along with Brandt, would go through the barrels, smelling and tasting each one.

The sense of smell is an integral part of taste. Although technically Brandt didn’t lose his sense of taste, what he was left with was rudimentary. “That meant that I could tell this [thing] was sweet or this is bitter,” he says. “It wasn’t magical the way it is when the two [senses] are working well together.”

Brandt left Linden and was accepted in the graduate environmental studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He thought his days as a winemaker were over.

“I knew that I could stay in a vineyard and spray pesticides,” he says, “but that just wasn’t going to make me happy.”

But as time passed, Brandt started to think that perhaps he could regain his sense of smell — if he worked hard. The brain has proven plastic in recent studies, and if other parts of the body can be rehabilitated, why not odor receptors?

He bought a few sensory kits online, similar to the kinds of aroma kits with which sommeliers train. He focused on what was around him. “Cigarettes and coffee were the first two things I could smell,” he says.

Eventually, it all came together. Today, Brandt says, he can open any bag of hops and distinguish the subtle differences between each one. He’ll check to see if he’s on track, and so far he seems to perceive the same complex aromas that other people do.

At Garden Grove, he’s applying his winemaking skills to brewing. Balancing flavors is key.

“That’s what I learned from wine,” Brandt says. “You’re supposed to smell and smell again, and taste and turn on different parts of your palate. It’s not one-dimensional stuff.”

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