Is there really a unique language to talk about wine?
Not the obscure vernacular of the tasting note. Nor the language of the winemakers themselves as they think through every detail and nuance in the alchemy of turning grapes into wine.
Simply for wine lovers to talk to each other. To share wines we like. To get referrals from our wine shop on what to pair with dinner. Or to talk to the sommelier at our favorite restaurant so we end up with something we enjoy in our glasses.
Easy question. Not so simple an answer.
Wine is ever so wacky and wonderful to talk about. But perplexing when it comes to the language of appreciation.
The act of drinking and sharing connects people, culture and places with immediacy and depth. It cuts through differences amongst strangers and builds bonds of interest and easy familiarity.
Yet it’s remarkably hard to describe or talk about in non-technical terms. We more often talk around it. Maybe that’s where the magic lies.
And maybe that’s why the obscure language of the wine critic developed and the horrid simplicity of the numerical scale that stemmed from one man’s palate that came to rule the world with Parker.
In a blog post, you can tell a story. Connect the wine in the glass to the place the grapes were grown and the history of the person who made the wine. Details become syntax in weaving a tale of weather and grape varietal, geography and the mysteries of the cave. In a tasting you can do this as well. This is ideal in every way.
But in the quick phraseology of the web, the natural need to share what we like as icons and emblems, I often find myself stitching together phrases of pure excitement and hyperbole. ‘Can you say…unbelievable?’ or ‘Gamay rules!’ or ‘Eric Texier delivers again!’ attached to a tweeted picture of a wine bottle.
And most people, wine and food lovers, just want to say that they liked it and attach a memory to taste in a word. This is remarkably difficult. Or maybe just so simple we are over intellectualizing it.
Think of all the thousands of glasses of wines that are sipped in tastings every night in New York. Smart, interested people spending real dollars, seriously tasting and having a great time doing it. And many of them in the days that follow will go into their wine shop to buy a bottle for dinner or a party. When asked what they like, they usually just don’t remember. Maybe it’s the arcane nature of the names of the wine or the lack of words to attach the taste to, but many start from scratch every time anew.
Enter the experiment that made me write this post.
A friend needed a list of 20 words for a project where people would rate and share their personal ratings about wine. I was somewhat clueless past the seemingly trivial ones I usually used when blown away by a great glass when out with non-wine geeky friends.
I turned to my community of wine friends for help. They are bloggers, wine tour operators, sommeliers, and restaurateurs. Wine obsessed all. All communicators who professionally or personally share, taste and talk about wine daily.
I phrased my question something like this:
What are your top five words that you use to describe a wine to an interested, articulate and wine loving individual to get them to sense the character of what they are drinking? To give them a handle to hang onto when they might want to share their pleasure in the bottle with someone else? To strike a note that might get them more interested in finding out more about the story behind the bottle?
I unleashed hurricane of response. Some 60+ comments over my Facebook and Twitter communities. With emails on the side.
The choices below are the short list that had the most commonality across those that responded.
Everybody cares: Food friendly. Aromatic. Affordable
Feels like: Fresh. Crisp. Elegant. Full-bodied. Effervescent. Lively.
Tastes like: Floral. Mineral. Earthy. Dry. Sweet. Fruity. Acidic. Tannic.
Love it: Yummy. Unfuckinbelievable. Quaffable. Drinkable. Refreshing.Delicious. Luscious. Big and rich. Silky.
Hate it: Yuck. Dreck. Bleah. Boring.
Moody: Ambitious. Aloof. Recalcitrant.
What’s interesting is that these words on their own are really quite unremarkable. Facile even. They are adjectives of appreciation and general snippets of categories around taste and some basic terms that are true across all wines.
What would you add?
Not to show off your knowledge but to encourage communications. This is an exercise in restraint. And it’s hard.
I think there are other creative endeavors like movies and music that have the same interesting contradiction of complex emotions and simplistic expression. In movies you have plot and dialogue, cinematography and sound to wines’ balance and character, fruit forwardness and the complexity of the finish. Beyond a handful of easily accessible ideas, it’s all about degree and personal expression.
Here’s the rub. And why this exercise is so difficult, the process so interesting and the result so unsatisfying out of context.
Wine is romantic and poetic at its core. Not only because the process of where, how and by whom is a saga when told with skill and passion. But the subject is not the wine, it is your impression of it. It is what you think and this is connected to who you are and the situation you experienced the wine in.
The wine may be the backdrop for romance or the linchpin of the evening to build a dinner around.
Whether you are drinking something incredible in a plastic cup on a picnic with your partner on a bike trip. Or swirling an aromatic translucent Trousseau from Arbois in the Jura in a crystal goblet at a remarkable wine bar in the 6th in Paris with the best of friends. It’s yours. It’s not just the wine. It’s you experiencing it there and then.
We romanticize our lives. We romanticize the accoutrements that make them all the more glorious. We should. This is the good stuff that life is made of. This is what we share with friends on Facebook, Twitter and our blogs and chatting in the elevator with people in the building.
I was really impressed that my wine friends who know the science of wine at its most minute detail came back with adjectives of expression that can be used by everyone. This group is an inspiration for me and can go deep into soils, indigenous yeasts, climate, root stocks and stories of fabled wine families.
The skill is not in giving that detail. It is in creating the scene so that information is indeed interesting as well. The layers that add depth and texture to the story of the bottle and the saga behind the glass.
I’m starting to appreciate this list of expressive adjectives more. A useful lexicon for amateur and pro alike. Enough choices with the perfect combination a function of what you want to express and to whom.
In late Spring last year I snapped a picture with my iPhone of a bottle of Jura red that I was drinking on the rooftop of my building with some friends. It was a marvelous Le Ginglet from Philippe Bornard. I pushed it out into my Tumblr blog and let it roll out to my Twitter and Facebook streams.
The caption said:
The wine of summer. Slightly chilled. Perfect for hot summer night.
The responses came back strong from wine friends all over the globe with Likes, smiley faces, texts and emails wanting to know where to buy it.
Simple words that grabbed the moment. Captured that truly iconic wine. Shared connections.
There was just nothing more to say.
I want to thank all my wine friends, especially those from EWBC for their input and inspiration and friendship.