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.)
DEPT. OF “BOUND TO RAISE A SMILE”
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