Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam
Why wine writers talk that way.
"Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine," Fran Lebowitz once said. And what might she say about people who talk about how to talk about wine? I'm guessing she'd call them midgets. Which would be OK: Most oenophiles have been called worse, and usually in response to a word or expression that they've used to describe a wine. Sweaty saddles, beef's blood, pencil shavings, cat's piss, wet dog, caramel-coated autumn leaves—professional and amateur tasting notes are filled with such expressions and are, as a result, a source of endless ridicule among casual wine drinkers and the uninitiated. As Jon Cohen put it in Slate seven years ago, "Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?" Actually, we'd still write this way even if we held off until lunchtime; we use this language because it's the best we've got.
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." This linguistic failure is surely one reason that numerical scores for wines have proven so popular; points are simplistic and distorting, too, but they at least give you something to hold onto—more so than, say, "spice box," "melted asphalt," or "liquefied minerals."
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.
Photograph of wine on Slate's home page by John Foxx/Stockbyte.