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Are wine reviews stuffy and pretentious?

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Every form of description has its own particular jargon. Conversations about baseball are filled with references to ERAs and WARs (“wins above replacement”).

Fasionistas debate the distinctions between lettuce hems and unitards. Here in wine-reviewing land, we talk about cassis or earthiness, and get our heads handed to us by critics-of-critics who find us pompous and pretentious.

For instance, here’s Snooth calling wine critics “old men tasting wine in wood-paneled libraries.” Then there’s the wine writer for a Florida pub writing about the “Top 10 Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting,” including “I used to live in Napa” and “What percentage Malo?” So relentless has been the assault on winespeak that even some critics, apparently taking it to heart, have publicly wondered if their approach isn’t “too la-di-da,” as Harvey Steiman did in Wine Spectator.

Why is it more pretentious for a wine person to ask about the percent of malo than for a baseball fan to ask about Miguel Cabrera’s on-base percentage? I don’t think it is, but somehow we’ve allowed wine lingo to fall into this disreputable neighborhood of precious effeteness where you practically can’t say anything about it at all without someone wanting to pour their Chardonnay over your head.

It would behoove us, I think, to get to the bottom of this in a thoughtful way, and The Guardian’s wine columnist, David Williams, does a good job in this latest op-ed piece. I like particularly the distinction he makes between data-driven wine descriptions, such as you would find in a laboratory analysis, and an esthetic approach—“the juggling of a random assortment of associations”—that has dominated wine writing from the rise of English critics, in the 1800s, to the Parkers of today. (And I openly concede that my own approach has been the esthetic one.) Williams asserts that connections can, and should, be made between them. For example, a Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, described analytically, might refer to “thiols and pyrazines,” whereas the same wine, in more esthetic hands, would reference “gooseberries and grass.” The writer must, of course, consider his audience: a strictly lay readership will not understand “thiols and pyrazines,” but a good writer might wish to give them a little understanding of wine chemistry and its causative terroir in order to broaden their appreciation: after all, “gooseberries and grass” don’t just appear willy-nilly in the wine, but have specific reasons for being there.

But Williams also catches something that must always make a good tasting note at least semi-esthetic rather than purely analytical; and that is the ability to give “a sense of something more elusive: of the wine’s flow and feel, of how the flavours dovetail both with each other and with the wine’s texture, of its context in nature and the world of winemaking. All the things, in fact, that make a wine worth drinking, and, despite the inevitable ridicule, talking and writing about.”

It is impossible to over-stress the importance of this “more elusive” aspect. Every wine writer who has ever lived and dared to put her impressions into words for the benefit of readers has come across wines that inspire her to the heights of poetic allusion. Indeed, if a writer is incapable of rising to such lofty altitudes, he ought not to be in the business of wine writing! For he would then be a very dreary and boring wine writer, and who wants to read that sort?

How have we come to this pass? Our beer lobby—which is to say, the breweries that cater to the forehead-can-smashers who frequent sports bars—have been partly responsible for creating this impression that wine is not a real man’s drink. From there, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to ridiculing wine, and everything pertaining to it, including wine writing, as insufferably poofy. This is untrue, but it is perhaps not unhelpful for wine writers to be aware of this viewpoint in our culture; such a consciousness of the boundaries that some writers occasionally cross should help to keep the rest of us within the foul lines.

  1. Mo Bazzinni says:

    Wine reviews are a consensual hallucination, unrelated to the life of 99.9 % wine consumers. Unless you have the same genetic make up in terms of total taste bud count, the identical olfactory genes as the reviewer, the review is at best misleading. Throw in the impact of 10,000 hours of focused practice by reviewers to rewire their olfactory neurons to more easily discern wine aromas and you get even farther from the norm. Many humans are unable to discern the aroma of violets, some find cilantro smells like soap, some like a spice and others discern no aroma at all. Genetically based aroma specific anosmia is common for a number of aromas. Wine descriptors are of northern European origin. It is difficult to explain “gooseberry” to a person form China. Does it look like a goose, as big as a goose smell like a goose? Pompous? Not really. Reviewers are just talking to each other and a very small slice of consumers.

  2. Interestingly there is a rapidly growing segment of the beer world that has taken on beer with the same spirit that critics take on wine. While it is the “craft beer” group rather than the forhead can smashers, it’s rate of growth has been extremely fast and many of these people have not (yet) been introduced to serious wine. As the prices of beer trend towards that of a ultra-premium bottle of wine (~30 for a 750mL), there is definitely a large potential market out there of young consumers that would absolutely appreciate the tasting notes that repulse the “critics-of-critics”. It may even be possible that there are more amateur beer reviewers online than wine reviewers, and certainly in these younger generations. As an example I pulled the most recent review at random of Pliny the Younger on Beeradvocate.

    “Had the Younger on two separate occasions at the same establishment with consistent results limited to two 5oz tulip tasting glasses. Clear, light amber color with little head. Sweet vanilla, orange and papaya nose with just the slightest, slightest hint of barnyard animal aromas, but in a good way. Creamy, rounded and well balanced flavors of vanilla, citrus and tropical fruit with just the right amount of hops. Had a pint of the Elder next to the Younger for comparison purposes and I can say the Younger is no comparison. Big, big triple IPA with smooth and delicate features. Delicious!”

  3. One thing that can make wine tasting notes sound so pretentious compared to “inside baseball” is that the writer is describing something that’s happening in their mouth as opposed to on a playing field: “On entry . . . “; “drying finish” etc. And then there’s the purple prose that some critics resort to: “A dark, voluptuous beauty . . . Lavender, smoke, violets, mint and succulent black cherries blossom through to the inviting, resonant finish.” (I found that in 1.3 seconds by googling Galloni 93.) Yes, wine writing can sound pretentious if the writer seems to be boasting of their well-devleoped palate.

  4. Wine writing has always lived on the edge of pretentiousness because it is trying to describe the indescribable. While it is true that WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and other “inside baseball” jargon are only helpful to the geeks among us (yes, me, thank you), they are at least somewhat based on real life.

    Trying to describe a wine or a painting is far less given to hard fact and far more to impressions. There can be no “hard, defined” lingo for wine descriptions, but there are gradations of soaring bullshit and most good writers do not live in the “soaring bullshit” field of wine description.

    Or to be less “Donald Trump” about it, we do not subscribe to the “prismatic luminescence” school of wine writing.

    But, as I and so many others have said, this is not a new complaint, and it will continue to be heard from those who do not wish to understand, and it will be forward and made all to real by those who write about “fruit that blossoms through to a resonant finish”.

    And I hope the wine writing gods forgive me because I am sure that I have written things that silly on occasion. Sometimes we just love our own words.

  5. Critics of wine critics can be sooo stuffy and pretentious, don’t you think?

    Your point that I think is best aimed is that wine writers are… writers! Much can be drawn from this observation alone. Foremost is that (in theory) they are trying to communicate a particular something to a particular audience. Good communication as a standard cuts through the theoretical considerations. If your audience doesn’t understand your words, you need to pick words they will understand, or educate them. Different writers will do this differently.

    When I wrote recently that a particular California white blend “more than anything else resembles our favorite Vermentinos from Liguria: delicate, grassy, fragrant, with citrus rising gently as it warms,” what is the pretentious part? Naming the area of Italy, itemizing the smells, or mentioning that serving temperature changes things? At the time, it all seemed to me to be interesting, useful information to someone who was interested in the wine.

  6. redmond barry says:

    I can’t wait til the Hosemaster gets at those thiols and pyrazines. And goose berries.

  7. Dear Mo Bazzinni, I disagree that “reviewers are just talking to…a very small slice of consumers.” Actually they’re talking to huge numbers of people, when you consider how wineries and retail outlets use their reviews: in shelf talkers, newsletters, advertisements and so on. This may sound immodest of me, but a Costco executive once told me that a good Heimoff review on a shelf talker could empty a SKU in a day.

  8. Excerpt from Slate
    (June 15, 2007):

    “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
    Why wine writers talk that way.”

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/cherries_berries_asphalt_and_jam.html

    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    . . .

    How to put wine into words is a subject over which wine writers have long anguished. True, wine tasting is not the only gustatory experience that is difficult to convey linguistically; it is certainly not easy to describe how a steak tastes, or to capture the flavor of an oyster in a few pithy comments. But for restaurant critics, at least, the descriptive imperatives are generally less onerous: They are not obliged to go on at great length about how individual dishes taste, and they can pad their reviews with lots of scene-setting details. Not so wine critics: They are expected to talk only about what’s in the bottle and to construct what amounts to a three-dimensional view of a Cabernet or Chardonnay — and words rarely seem adequate to the task.

    In his book “The Taste of Wine,” legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. “We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language,” he wrote. “It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.” …

    So, how did such phrases become standard-issue wine nomenclature? We can trace it back to a revolution in winespeak that took place three decades ago. In 1976, two University of California, Davis professors, Maynard Amerine and Edward Roessler, published a book titled “Wines — Their Sensory Evaluation.” A dense, bone-dry monograph stuffed with mathematical equations, the book touched on many subjects, but it was the chapter devoted to the vocabulary of wine that ultimately wielded the most influence. At the time, wines were generally evaluated anthropomorphically and tended to be described as masculine or feminine, coarse or refined, noble or common, ingratiating or overbearing.

    Amerine and Roessler proposed that oenophiles abandon this vague terminology, rooted in the British class system, in favor of a more rigorous lexicon that treated wines not as living creatures with personalities but as agricultural products with precise flavors and aromas. Other researchers, notably fellow UC Davis professor Ann Noble (creator of the famous Wine Aroma Wheel), refined this new diction. Raiding the garden and the kitchen pantry, they prescribed a new, food-based nomenclature, in which wines were to be described as evoking specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, flowers, and the like.

    Although anthropomorphic language all but disappeared from the academic literature, mainstream wine writers continued to make abundant use of gender- and class-based metaphors. But many wine critics also started to employ a very specific, largely pastoral vocabulary. In 1978, Robert Parker began publishing :The Wine Advocate,” and although Parker has never shied away from slippery adjectives (he often uses words like hedonistic, sexy, and intellectual), his tasting notes have always stood out for their no-nonsense, just-the-flavors-ma’am approach. Here’s Parker, for instance, on the 1996 Chateau d’Yquem (the great sweet wine of Bordeaux): “[l]ight gold with a tight but promising nose of roasted hazelnuts intermixed with crème brûlée, vanilla beans, honey, orange marmalade, and peach …”

    Over the last two decades or so, this type of tasting note has become the industry standard; most critics nowadays make a point of listing the exact aromas, flavors, and tactile sensations they perceive in a wine. These grab bags of specific and often obscure tastes and scents breed a certain awe and deference among many wine enthusiasts (Gee, he really must be gifted if he can smell all those things — I should heed his recommendations), which is undoubtedly part of their appeal. Wine writers perhaps also feel pressured to use the “right” lingo for fear of losing street cred in the eyes of their peers and other industry insiders. But while the cherry-and-berry imagery may be good for establishing critical authority, its value to the layman is open to debate.

    . . .

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