Jean Lenoir who died on February 22, aged 85, was one of those rare people who created something that genuinely solved a problem: how to train oneself to identify the smells associated with wine.
I first met Jean in 1981 when I was living in Burgundy, working for a now-famous broker called Becky Wasserman and doing some freelance translation. Becky introduced me to Jean who had just created his extraordinary box of wine aromas. He wanted to launch it in English as well as French, but Becky had just told him that the native-born Norwegian to whom he had entrusted the translation had done a rotten job.
I was given a few days to repair the damage.
Jean was a memorable figure. Tall, bearded and with quite possibly the thickest Burgundian accent I encountered in 6 years of living in the region. There was an intensity to him that set me in mind of a poet or a sculptor, but there was also a practicality that might have made him a compelling science teacher.
Despite being born in the Côte d’Or in the heart of the region he had come to working with wine via a spell working in French cultural centres, including as deputy-director of the Maison de la Culture in Chalon-sur-Saône.
This had led to him wanting to combine smells and flavours with art, and his own studies with local wine expert and writer Max Leglise. In 1978 he launched a wine tasting course led by Georges Pertuiset who, two years later, would be named France’s top sommelier, and became the first person in France to include wine as an artwork in a cultural institution.
Le Nez du Vin was born when Lenoir met Olivier Baussan, the man behind the French beauty and skincare brand, L'Occitane en Provence. Baussan introduced him to the experts who could create a set of 120 aromas he could use in his wine classes. The next step, in 1981, was to package the aromas in a box that he insisted on calling – and pricing as - an ‘art-object’.
The original Nez du Vin was followed by smaller versions and ones that were dedicated to faults and specific styles such as Champagne. More recently the wine-focused boxes were joined by ones dedicated to coffee and whisky.
Over the 40 years since its launch le Nez du Vin has remained an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to learn about wine, and anyone generally interested in aromas. My own children became fascinated with the box of smells when they discovered it – long before wine would be of any relevance to them – and loved puzzling over whether a sample was orange, apricot or peach. As I watched them, I remembered the man who created it. He may now be gone but, like the memories evoked by aromas, he will remain in the minds of everybody who met him.
Jean is survived by his wife, Sibylle, and children, Isabelle, Jérome, Marie-Viva, Clea, Laouen, Mannaïg and Malo.