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The Folly of Winespeak
By Paul Lukacs
Sep 5, 2017
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What’s the deal with the way critics talk about wine?  Otherwise sensible people become astonishingly fanciful when it comes to describing how wines taste.  This is certainly true of me and my WRO colleagues, as well as scores of other writers, bloggers and commentators.  In our attempt to make sense of what we taste, we employ extravagant imagery, referring to all sorts of fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, as well as even more exotic ingredients including graphite, pipe tobacco, bacon fat, and horse manure, none of which are actually in any wine that anyone would want to drink.     

The problem isn’t confined to critics.  Vintners, or their publicists, use much the same vocabulary, as a glance at almost any winery’s website will make clear.  Consumers are usually less florid, but only because they’re more likely to just call a wine good, or perhaps more honestly, simply to say that they like it.

So what’s going on here?  Why is so much winespeak (a term first coined, as best I can tell, by the illustrator Ronald Searle) at best amusing and at worst annoying?  It’s certainly true that all critics, whether their subject be film, literature, painting, cuisine or whatever, can use language filled with jargon, but those of us who talk about wine seem especially susceptible to pretense and pomposity. 

It didn’t used to be this way, but then people didn’t used to talk about wine all that much.  Oh, they discussed its effects, as well as when and where and why they drank it, and they distinguished firmly between sound and flawed wines, but they rarely attempted to describe specific flavors.  Even the men who initiated the genre of gastronomic criticism, most notably Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savrin and Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière, did not try to analyze how particular wines tasted.

This began to change around the turn of the last century, when the practice of collecting and aging wine had come into vogue.  Before then, virtually all wines were drunk young.  But by 1920, when the British author, George Saintsbury, wrote his Notes on a Cellar-Book, a wine’s ability not only to survive the passage of time but actually to improve with years of cellaring had become a mark of quality.  The critic thus needed words with which to describe the differences between old and young wines, as well as those that had passed their prime.  “Good” and “bad” no longer proved sufficient.  A new, more expansive vocabulary needed to do more.

This new vocabulary was both descriptive and comparative.  A “coarse” wine (these are all Saintsbury’s words) was opposed to a “delicate” one, just as one with “breeding” could be thought “fine” rather than “vulgar.”  Being comparative, the language reflected the class and gender biases of the day, but no matter if called “manly” or “feminine,” wine was invariably being described in words more commonly used to characterize people. 

Today’s winespeak avoids comparison, aiming instead for an analysis of the wine itself.  So too, it eschews personification, preferring portrayals that pretend to be exact.  Though we all know that none of the descriptors commonly used to depict wine refer to ingredients that are actually in wine, their specificity suggests a degree of precision to which Saintstbury’s old-fashioned lexicon never pretended.  Read the reviews on WRO.  A Cabernet Sauvignon won’t be said to taste fruity, but rather to taste of very specific fruits--wild blackberrries, perhaps, just as a Chianti won’t taste of cherries, but instead of tart pie cherries.  Critics love to claim that Sauvignon Blancs taste of gooseberries, even though I’d wager that few have ever actually tasted a gooseberry.  And those are just examples of fruit flavors.  When it comes to other ones, the sort that we sometimes call secondary flavors, the sky becomes the proverbial limit.  Critics declare that wines taste of crushed stones, or slate, or minerals, as well as every spice found in a spice rack, earth, dust, barnyard animals, sweat, and yes, manure.     

There is some scientific evidence suggesting that all these descriptors are not just fanciful inventions.  Esters and other chemical compounds found in a whole host of fruits may be found in wines; so too with flowers, spices, or leather.  Retired University of California Professor Ann Noble’s well-known “aroma wheel” categorizes these into groups--chemical flavors and aromas, for instance, or vegetative ones, or those deemed microbiological.  (That last section is where you’ll find the manure.)  Noble writes that her goal in creating these categories “was to facilitate communication about wine flavor.”  How would she accomplish this?  “The requirements of words included in the wheel were very simply that the terms had to be specific and analytical and not be hedonistic or the result of an integrated or judgmental response.”  I don’t know if my responses are integrated (whatever that means), but I may well be too pleasure-oriented to agree.  After all, I not only drink wine but also talk and think about it because of the happiness, both gustatory and mental, it brings.

There may be similarities between blackberries and wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, cherries and Chiantis, even manure and red wines from the southern Rhône in France.  And those similarities may even be chemical as well as intellectual.  But a similarity is not an equation or an equivalency.  It instead is the hallmark of metaphor, and in truth all winespeak is at heart metaphoric.  No wine tastes of any of the things critics talk about.  Instead, it reminds them me of such things.  That is, it tastes like them.

Metaphor enriches language in a way that scientific precision cannot.  The danger comes when we fail to distinguish between these different uses of the same words.  When the poet declares his love to be “a red, red rose,” he does not mean that he loves the bloom.  Instead his love is like the rose.  And why is it so?  Not because it has thorns, or costs $20 a dozen, or any of many things that are true of roses.  No, his love is a rose because both are deep and rich and beautiful. 

The folly of today’s winespeak is thus not so much the vocabulary we use as how and why we use it.  If we choose our words in an effort to be analytic and precise in our descriptions, we will deserve the snickers of our readers.  But if we speak knowing that we can only approximate what we experience, we at least have the chance to make sense.  Metaphor, which certainly includes personification, is after all the language of poetry, and as Robert Louis Stevenson told us, wine is “bottled poetry.”  In this respect, old Saintsbury (he was 75 years old when he wrote his Notes) may well have known as well as anyone how best to talk about wine.  Remembering the wine that inspired his passion, a Hermitage from 1846, he wrote, “You could meditate on it; and it kept up with your meditations.”  Now that’s true winespeak!