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It's Just Wine. Or Is It?
By Rich Cook
Sep 13, 2023
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I love reading writing about wine – and since wine has become a job of sorts over the years (I have a questionable habit of turning things that I love into job situations), I suppose loving reading about it is a good thing.  A current encounter with a book is helping me exercise my mind as I think about my own writing and how it’s targeted and whether the words that I choose are useful to you, the reader.

The book, Finding Meaning in Wine by Michael Sinowitz is written from an interesting perspective – interesting in that Mr. Sinowitz is a Professor in the English department at DePauw University in Indiana.  He’s a wine aficionado, with an obvious interest in going beyond the basics of what wine is about, and a particular interest in what those of us who write about it have to say, and whether it’s helpful or not.  While I’m only about halfway through the book – remember it’s written by a professor so I wouldn’t call it a breezy summer read – I’ve already found his work to be thought provoking.  So, here I am, writing about writing and interpreting, though I think you’ll find what follows pretty provoking as well.

Fundamentally, it seems to me, writing is the recording of thoughts for use, by either by oneself or others, either presently or for posterity, in the hope that ideas are communicated somewhere down the road.  When it comes to wine criticism, I would say that I write for myself first, and hopefully in editing I find a way to make the writing palatable to an audience that is not me, and that is as wide as possible.  Like Mr. Sinowitz, my background is in another area of the arts.  My background area is music in general, and jazz music in particular.  Like with wine, the subject matter is a “not words” thing – wine is a liquid, and music is a sound, and neither of these things are words, so trying to interpret the subject matter by using words to communicate something meaningful has its challenges.

Sinowitz points out Susan Sontag’s idea that interpretation of a work of art can in some way damage that work of art, and I can certainly see her point, and I’d add that it’s probably at a minimum presumptive (and at worst dangerous) to “taint the pool” with words prior to another’s experience of the work itself.  It’s clear that this could be said about just about any subject – there’s no substitute for firsthand experience—devoid of any contact that could be prejudicial—regarding anything that is subject to aesthetic appreciation or criticism.

Yet, we write and interpret to spread ideas around.  One of my tasks in the world of wine is to set up environments where wines can be tasted and evaluated – interpreted – in useful context without prejudice as much as possible.  There are a few guidelines that I use to prep a room of wine judges with prior to presenting wines to them, the first being to hold two ideas in mind.  Idea one is that people have gone to great expense, labor, sleepless nights, etc. to produce the wine in the glass that is in front of them, and that should be respected.  The second idea is that it’s just wine, and that the judge is bringing their experience and expertise to bear in hopes of finding the products that are transcendent – more than “just wine,” but wines that rise above the mundane and are worthy of both praise and further public scrutiny.

There are a few other guidelines, but very few.  It’s useful here to look at one as an illustration.  

When setting up categories of blended red wines, I divide them into a few subgroups for contextual purposes.  Wines made up of Bordeaux varieties alone get their own category, and wines made up of Rhone varieties alone get their own category, etc. to give some context of what the winemaker had in mind when producing the wine.  Some judgings use more subcategories, some use less, and neither methodology can lay claim to being more proper than the other.  That said, I do find it useful to draw some hard lines to try to avoid tainting the pool beyond some basic context.  Some judges wish to know what the specific blend of a particular wine is (sometimes vehemently so), and that’s a line I don’t cross for a couple of reasons, but the main reason is that any unnecessary information about a given wine is potentially prejudicial.  Particularly when it comes to blends that aren’t trying to be regional in nature, it seems that the wine’s job is to be delicious, and a judge’s knowing whether or not there is two percent Kekfrankos in the blend is meaningless.

How does this idea transfer to writing about a wine?  I’m sure you’ve noticed that particular wine writers have particular styles, and that along your journey you’ve found particular writers whose work resonates with you as a reader, and that those writers evolve over time as your tastes evolve over time.  Each writer uses a particular vocabulary, and I’d go so far as to say that while there are commonalities, each writer’s use of words is unique to them.  Sinowitz gets into a discussion of the word “balance” and tells some great stories about a group called In Pursuit of Balance – I won’t spoil the story here but suffice it to say that balance can be found across a huge spectrum of styles.  So, then, is the term “balance” useful?

I would argue that of course “balance” is a useful term, but context when using it is where the use bears fruit.  Is Kim Crawford’s Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc more or less balanced than Spottswoode’s Napa County/Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc?  I’d say they are both balanced wines, but the act of balancing is different.  Try this. Stand up (yes, right now) and notice that you are not falling over (if you’re having a glass while reading you’re on your own).  That’s balance, right?  Now, stand on one leg and notice what you had to do to find balance, whether you grabbed the back of the chair, shifted your weight, whatever.  Context.  You’re balanced, but differently.  Okay, you can sit back down now.

That’s just a simple example, but it gives a glimpse into what we writers are dealing with when trying to convey something to you the reader that might tip your interest one way or another.  Whether it’s a flavor or aroma descriptor, a word about structure, winemaking, a little backstory, an allegorical adjective, balance, etc., you’ve likely gotten to know the writers that you read and are able to take meaning from the words they offer.  When I write, my goal is to convey a positive experience that I’ve had with a wine so that you might be intrigued and consider experiencing the wine for yourself.

I’m running out of space here, so I’ll close with this thought:  The limitations of language are fairly strict, and finding meaning through them can be an adventure.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest of what Sinowitz has to say, and if the above discussion is intriguing to you it’d be worth your time to grab a copy of Finding Meaning In Wine – I think that academic exercises that dig into the minutiae of a favorite subject usually leads to finding deeper meaning.  After all, if you’re still here, I suspect you’re looking for writers that say more than “this wine is wet and contains alcohol” – that take you past “it’s just wine” and into the transcendent.  Here’s to seeking more!         

More wine columns:    Rich Cook
Wine reviews:     Wine Reviews