Graphite, currant, camphor: Wine descriptors tell us more about a bottle's price than its flavor.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Feb. 23 2011 10:08 AM

Velvety Chocolate With a Silky Ruby Finish. Pair With Shellfish.

Ridiculous wine descriptors may reveal more about a bottle's price than its flavor.

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Why, then, do critics preferentially pin flavors such as boysenberry and butterscotch to expensive bottles? It's simple, really. When a critic sits down to write a review he often already knows the cost of the bottle. Even at a so-called blind tasting he probably has a rough idea since he knows the prices associated with the vineyards, varietals, and regions represented there. Critics might also observe an industry standard that pairs expensive wines with certain kinds of words, and not want to seem naive or out of the loop—so when they come across a pricey bottle, they reach for the tobacco. It's the herd mentality.

Of course that doesn't explain why boysenberry, for instance, sounds expensive to wine critics, while refreshing sounds cheap. My guess is that, when it comes to invoking elegance, foreign and complex words have a natural advantage. Cigars and truffle conjure up prestige and luxury. Meanwhile, a little-known berry or spice conveys the worldly sophistication of the critic, which the drinker can share. For a price. (As for why unkosher foods, in particular, go so well with fine wine—that's a puzzle for the rabbis.)

It's worth remembering that, before the advent of modern reviews in the 1980s, critics only talked about a wine's body. Varietals were supple or strong, masculine or feminine. André Simon, the pre-eminent English-language wine critic of the early 20th century, once compared a wine to "a girl of fifteen, with laughing blue eyes." Our appreciation of wine has benefited from the innovations of Robert Parker and others, who have tried to make wine-writing less abstract through meticulous descriptions. We now have touchstones to distinguish among basic flavors: a wine can be sweet or dry, full of tannins, light or full-bodied. Think of how a sommelier would differentiate between two wines on a restaurant list: words like full, sweet, fruity, and dry are, unlike camphor, genuinely helpful. In an earnest effort to nix subjectivity from reviews, critics have gone too far, leaving us with a bag of adjectives that say a lot about price, and almost nothing about flavor.

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Coco Krumme studies behavioral economics at the MIT Media Lab, and is a member of the American Association of Wine Economists.

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