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Of campfires, dead leaves and wine-speak


When I was an undergraduate philosophy major, my philosophy teacher was working on his magnum opus: a scheme to replace human language (which is notoriously imprecise in its ability to describe “reality”) with brain wave reactions (which presumably are identical in all of us). That way, instead of me saying, “I saw this” and you saying, “I saw that,” we could match up our brain reactions and arrive at the “truth” of what we both observed.

Well, I graduated, and never did find out the results of my professor’s labors (some of which, admittedly, were performed under the stimulation of certain then-popular substances). But I often think of him when it comes to the crazy world of wine descriptors.

I thought about it again this morning when I read this commentary by a guy named William R. Wood, who seems to be the wine-and-food writer at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette. Read it yourself. It’s the kind of slightly amused, bemused take that many people have on wine-talk. The headline, “Wine aromas compared to campfires, dead leaves, lemons, corn on the cob” says it all. Really, you can’t blame the average person — which is most people — for thinking there’s something a little weird about the way we talk about wine. It’s not quite natural. Isn’t it a bit unseemly for grownups to be talking such smack?

There’s probably some good evolutionary reasons why humans develop arcane vocabularies to establish bonding within specific sub-groups. After all, when golf freaks talk about their favorite sport, is their language any less bizarre than wine-speak? From today’s S.F. Chronicle I find these terms in an article about a recent golf tournament: “bogey-bogey finish,” “two-putt birdie,” “par-3 17th from right of the green,” “eagle putt” and “chipped across the green.”

From the point of view of a non-golfer (which is me), is that any less crazy than “campfires, dead leaves, lemons, corn on the cob”?

Still, it does point up the fact that we wine writers are nowhere near united in the terminology we use to describe wine. This wasn’t a problem back in the day when a few people (negociants, mainly) controlled the flow of wine. It was their opinion that mattered, and if they said a wine was “merveilleuse, d’élégance, de grâce, de bouquet, goût dêlicieux” (as the merchants Tastet & Lawton described the 1829 clarets), then the whole world was bound to agree.

Today, we have, what? Approximately 457,993,006 wine critics on Planet Earth, babbling away in everything from Urdu and Portuguese to English and Afrikaans. Every once in a while, somebody tries to impose some order on this unwieldy chaos. The Institute of Masters of Wine is probably the leading proponent of “unionizing” (not exactly the right word, but you catch my drift) the practice of winetasting. Professor Ann C. Noble, at U.C. Davis, famously invented the Aroma Wheel to bring some coherence to wine descriptions. Our friends at Appellation America are on a similar quest with their efforts to establish sensory parameters for every AVA in the country. And although I have long since lost track of my old philosophy professor, maybe he’s still holed up someplace in the Berkshires (where last I heard of him), devising a electro-chemical-based way of allowing humans to describe their sensory experiences beyond the arbitrary distortions of language.

Myself, I kind of like the chaos of our wine community. You say “po-TAY-to” and I say “po-TAH-to.” I’ve always been suspect of rigid fundamentalist organization of anything. Like Mao said, “Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend”. (And, no, that does not make me a Communist.)


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  1. Yes, the difference between wine and golf, besides the clubs, is that golf’s terms are a universal vocabulary while writers take creative license with their tasting notes. I prefer it this way. By creating a strict, universal list of words to use with wine you remove the power of experience and subjectivity that makes tasting wine, tasting wine. That’s an important part we can’t lose, the part of ourselves and the power we have to define our own experience, our way.

  2. Interesting piece, Steve. I draw some parallels between wine assessment and related parlance and what I see happening in the realm of functional brain imaging: everybody says something different – in large part because they approach the subject differently: from philosophical reference to procedure and protocol. As a philosophy major, I think you’ll appreciate the notion that, with those above points in mind, each question dictates its answer.

    Mao may have spoken in lofty terms, but last I checked, there was not much tolerance for many ways of thinking in his neck of the global woods.

    That is also happening in the world of wine: Whether its fundamentalist or traditionalist thinking or one seemingly embracing variation and non-concordance: subscribers to both approaches can be rather rigid about the correctness of their thinking.

  3. Glen Ferguson says:

    Isn’t these a big difference between describing wine for yourself and describing wine for others? Using really odd descriptors frustrate communication and make understanding the type and style of wine more difficult. A tasting note that describes a wine as the Ozarks in Spring doesn’t do me much good.

  4. I would like to agree with the po-TAY-to/po-TAH-to argument, but can we keep the descriptions from being either ridiculously over the top or within the realm of human language.

    I won’t name names, but an over-hyped, well known, East Coast, former lawyer turned wine-critic has a lamentable tendency to make up words to describe characteristics of wine.

    Additionally, the over the top descriptions are just bad writing. I had one review sent to me yesterday by a New York retailer/auction-house that described a wine with following and I quote “had nice waterfall aromas to it. A touch of alley blew off into more corn and yellow smells.” Being as he is from Manhattan does that translate into the smell of garbage giving way to corn and urine? Or is he attempting to describe something else? I believe that ultimately he liked the wine, but the description is open to some very loose interpretation, no?

    Is there a way to have po-TAY-to/po-TAH-to and still accurately describe a wine?

  5. Tom: “Is there a way to have po-TAY-to/po-TAH-to and still accurately describe a wine?” Answer: Yes. But “waterfall” and “yellow smells”? No.

  6. Glen, I totally agree. Over the years I’ve simplified my descriptors. Fewer exotic fruits, flowers and spices, fewer esoteric analogies. The risk is that sometimes my reviews can sound similar, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take in order to communicate with my readers in as clear a way as possible.

  7. Interesting thing about these off-the-wall analogies and similes: while many of them speak to the author’s tendencies to make certain associations between different sensory modalities, some make me raise a brow and wonder if the author might have some synesthetic traits. Yellow flavors, angular aromas, etc….
    It’s fascinating to read how this can be reproduced with psychedelic drugs (a la “swallowing colors of the sounds I hear” – Ozzy Osbourne)

  8. I savor the look of delight when a novice wine appreciator rips out the first thing that comes into their head, and I can tell them “sounds right to me, I would say [whatever] but I think we are describing the same thing.”

    Last year no less of a sensory expert than Sue Langstaff and I were tasting a wine together in a non-professional setting and she commented:”my grandma’s attic” which I countered with “old nuns in an elevator” remembered less than fondly from my trips to the principal in parochial school. Hours of conversation ensued over the emotional content of smell memories and their impact on individual wine enjoyment.

    And have you ever tried to translate a wine description into Japanese? Talk about “liquorice and hints of earth” and you will get a blank stare. Say “this wine has a brave feeling” and you will get nods of agreement.

    So why can’t we agree to disagree? Or better yet, why can’t we recognize that one man’s elevator is one woman’t attic, and we’re talking about the same thing? And acknowledge that there is an inevitable emotional content to the sensory experience?

    I am past even being bored with attempts to regularize and quantify wine descriptors. That sort of rigor has a limited place in the research setting, where it can be pursued with sufficient tools to give meaning to any result.

    IMO things written about wine, including descriptions, are like the wines themselves – I like some of them and don’t care for others. Dry is boring, and there is a fine line between the amusing or literary and the ridiculous.

  9. Well, wine may be one of the few hobbies more expensive than golf…

    Also, mad props to Arthur for quoting Ozzy.

  10. Well said, Mr. John Kelly.

  11. Wow, just wow. Had i not read this piece, i would have missed
    “glass duo”, which was just otherworldly, like John Taylor catching that pass across the middle in Joe Robbie stadium against the Bengals with 23 seconds to go in the Super Bowl. Note that combo above doesn’t work for many, but any 49er fans would understand it instantly. Thanks, Steve, for the link , and also to William Woods whom i somewhat resemble.

    Whatever, less is always more, and one reason i read your blog and your reviews is that i can understand what i just read, and most often, learn something. With a good many wine critics, i just get left out in the cold. My favorites(?) are some New York critics, who describe “ah, a hint of violets, shrouded in a mist of velvety tannins” …said thru a grating nasal twang just like one of my friends in the Big Apple.

    A simple, straightforward description is always preferable for me, and it is interesting that you work to make it so. “A nice, rich Cab that shows off its Napa pedigree. It’s a little soft and not an ager, but lush in black currant, blackberry tart, cherry pie, chocolate, vanilla, smoky oak, and spice flavors that are delicious. The tannins are thick, but so ripe and sweet, you can drink it right now.” S.H., WE, Sept 2007, p.126. Descriptive, straight forward, informational, concise, and makes me want to go try a bottle.

    Contrast that to: “Offers typical peach, apple and lime flavors, underscored by a mineral intensity. Clarity and filigree are the hallmarks of 2007, and the delicate profiles of the best kabinette are heightened by their ripe, bright acidities.” WS, 4/30/09, p. 80, describing the fresh German Rieslings. Probably a very astute, well written and acurate description, but it leaves me with no real “feel” for what i just read. I feel like William Woods here. Musty leaves, grandma’s attic, old nuns in an elevator…that i get. Probably wouldn’t go buy a bottle of this because after rereading, besides peach, apple and lime, i have no idea what i would be buying.

  12. Nice thread, Steve. Especially liked John Kelly’s comment. Also wanted to congrtulate you on becoming wine reviewer for GraceAnn Walden’s Bay area Yummy Letter ( THe fact that they are eschewing ratings is a positive step toward the points made here, namely that wine expression is a personal, subjective endeavor. It’s a challenge, indeed, and puts more of an onus on you as a writer, but I am sure you’re up to it.

  13. Could be a new book in the making “The New Language of Wine” by Steve H

    Go for it.

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