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TPFRecently, in a thread on Facebook, a link was provided to an online piece from a Seattle website run by a person who holds a sommelier’s certificate. The website purports to be a comprehensive reference guide to All Things Wine, and, to be fair, quite a bit of the site is helpful information that any aspiring wine newbie can and should use to help navigate the always-murky waters (okay, “juices”) of the world’s and the Northwest’s Byzantine wine cultures.

But, in following the link, one old problem came roaring back to bite the author of the thing squarely in the rump: wine descriptors…those words that wine writers use to help convey what it was that they tasted (remember those two words as you read on) in writing an evaluation of what they’re reviewing.

nzwineguy

Photo from nzwineguy.com

Ever since the first cave man scrawled “Unggh…taste like mashed strawberry” on the wall to describe his handful of…mashed strawberries, the task of trying to convey the complex of sensations that make up our appreciation of anything – wines, chocolate, cars, movies, coon dogs, etc., etc. – has been, at very best, hazy. No real scintilla of the exact sensation of pouring a wine into your piehole can be even really hinted at in words. You can get a vague suggestion of what it’s gonna taste like but you have to remember, anytime you read a review, that what’s being described is just what that single person tasted, in that place, on that day. There are so many variables in how we perceive taste – medications affecting the taste buds (and there are hundreds of those), what the taster had to eat just before or the rest of the day, whether he or she brushed their teeth, what the temperature was like, what mood the reviewer was in, any personal animosities between the winemaker and writer, whether the wine was slightly (or badly) tainted in some way, allergies, someone in the room wearing cologne or perfume, the type of glass tasted from, whether it was decanted or should have been….the list runs on for a full page.

Given all that, this intrepid “somm” (as we uber-hip wine geeks like to call sommeliers) decided to try to give all those who read the site a translation of the terms (In a post called “40 Wine Descriptions and What They Really Mean“) used in the majority of wine reviews we all read, from the Advocate to the Spectator to the Enthusiast to Steven Tanzer to Your Humble Fool. In principle, it was a noble undertaking, since the majority of folks to whom I’ve sold wine in the past have complained that they had no idea what Parker meant when he called a wine “unctuous” or “jazzy”. I’ve also been baffled, on occasion, by what some reviewer meant and finally just had to admit that I’d have to ignore it trust the context for a definition. It is not now and never was an exact science. It’s not at all about linguistics. It has far more to do with free association or free-verse poetry than with any formal language, since the terms used are peculiar to that one person and their subjective frame of reference.

And that’s where this person failed at the attempt at demystifying all us wine-geek scribes. What the blogger/somm gave us was a list of their own definitions of forty wine terms and what they mean for those terms to say. Setting aside the presumptuousness of anyone presenting their definitions of wine terms as used by other people, this blogger attempted to boil down terms that are, most times, used to convey rather complex information into what amounts to Twitterese: a bumper-sticker version of an idea which may very well be hard to really cover in a long paragraph. Or a book.

EarthySome examples:  “EARTHY:   A classic go-to move for a wine writer trying to describe that awkward green and unpleasant finish on a wine. They don’t want to hate on the wine, they just want you to know that if you don’t like the wine it means you don’t like earthy and you’re a bad person.”

In the first place, “green” is a term that is used very widely. It’s not necessary to try to convey it with “earthy”. And “unpleasant” is unequivocal. If the writer thinks the wine is unpleasant, most just say “I found this to be an unpleasant wine“. No ambiguity, no translation needed. And the statement about writers wanting you to think you’re a bad person is totally absurd. Critics who DO try to impugn the tastes and intelligence of their readers don’t remain critics for long. Rudeness is rudeness, no matter how it’s couched.

I’ve been writing about wine for 25 years, now. I emailed back and forth with four rather well-placed wine critics and asked for their take on the explanations contained in this piece. NONE of the five of us mean at all what this blogger/somm says in the quote above. I replied on the blog page’s comments:

“Earthy”, too, gets shackles slapped on it: “awkward green and unpleasant finish”? That’s all? What about loam, mushrooms, vegetation, soil, rainwater, and decayed wood?

There are even a few other meanings to the term “earthy” that I left out but the point is that “earthy” is not necessarily a pejorative. It quite often describes flavor/aroma elements of a wine that can be very appealing in the context of that flavor profile.

From the blog:  “BARNYARD“:  This means the wine smells like poo. It’s never used anymore describing a wine, unless the wine writer is attempting to dig that wine an early grave.”

Well, that may be what it means, sometimes, but, in my reply:   “Barnyard”, especially, can either mean “poo”,as the writer insists, or it can mean the aroma of wet animal fur, moldy hay, wet leather, and two or three other aromas that have nothing to do with “poo”.

BarnyardAgain, “barnyard” is not, in every case, a negative term. In some wines, a dash of barnyard funk can be intriguing and, in my own experience, it’s been true many times that a barnyard funk on the nose points to a big, sunny, happy wine underneath. In the same way that  – in a spectacular application of the term “counter-intuitively” – the descriptor “cat piss” is occasionally (okay, rarely) a GOOD aroma trait of a dry white, “barnyard” can work just fine in context.

I won’t belabor every single point in this writer’s piece. That would be pointless because the bottom line here is that what this person tried CANNOT be done. There is no standardized list of what wine terms mean to every critic and there will never be. Why? Because no two people have the same palates or the same brains. In hearing back from my four colleagues, the message was crystal clear: “Is this person kidding? And why is _____ putting words in my mouth?

Folks, it’s this simple: a writer means what he or she means in using any term. And, short of an explanation or a glossary coming forth from that critic, there is always some guesswork involved in reading a wine (or beer or booze or potato chip) review. I’ve said this time and time again and it bears repeating: The ONLY reasonable way to use any critic’s information to benefit you, as a consumer, is to build a history with the reviewer. Read what they write, determine if the tone and presentation suits you, (translation: see if they seem crazy) taste a few of the wines recommended, and see if their palate aligns with your own. If it happens enough times that you like the wines that reviewer recommends, THEN you can invest that person with some credibility and start to build some degree of trust. I know, for my part, I DO NOT WANTever – for a reader of The Pour Fool to take what I write as gospel. What I mainly intend, in writing this, is a gentle (or wildly enthusiastic) encouragement that – because I liked the wine and I try, HARD, to avoid any taint of personal agenda or becoming a slave to my own tastes – you might want to check out that wine. My personal preference would be that you use my recommendation to go after a sample of the wine, at a shop or restaurant or the winery, and see if you find what I found.

Last, there’s the question of who you like and trust and why critics say what they say. I read other critics. I probably shouldn’t but I’ve done, I think, a pretty good job of not being unduly influenced by their views. But there are some who, it appears to me, are trying to be deliberately obtuse:

 

en cerise“2005 Cayuse Syrah En Cerise – You will feel like you’ve been hit by a bowling ball that splits open to reveal a spicy fruitbomb. Give it a 92”

Prior to the French Revolution, the Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus vineyard belonged to an order of Carmelite nuns especially devoted to the Infant Jesus. Legend has it that the nuns were so enamored of the wine’s silky texture that they exclaimed, “It slips down the throat as easily as the Infant Jesus in velvet pants.” (I am NOT making this up!) Strangely, Jesus is wearing some sort of royal dress on the label, rather than velvet pants. This was a little disappointing (who wouldn’t want to see the baby Jesus in velvet pants?), but the wine more than made up for the fashion faux pas. Vigne de l’Enfant Jesus has drool-inducing strawberry aromas with hints of Swedish fish (the candy, not the critter) — which is a high compliment, in my book. Fruity and deeee-lish, with intense berry flavors. I think those nuns got it wrong about the velvet pants; the wine’s smoothness is more akin to satin pajamas.

Les Greves vineyard, source of le vignes de l'enfant Jesu/Photo from burgundy-report.com

Les Greves vineyard, source of le vignes de l’enfant Jesu/Photo from burgundy-report.com

This is just a straight village Barolo DOCG rather than a wine designated as being sourced from a particular cru, but it would be a bad mistake to dismiss it on that ground.  It shows impressively dark color, and backs up its appearance with big aromas and flavors.  My raw note from the blind tasting in which I encountered it reads, “Just a total kick-ass wine,” with perfectly ripened fruit that is only enhanced by a tastefully restrained dose of oak.

These are not attributed and won’t be, because that would be tacky and that’s not the point of pasting them in here. The Point is….what is the review intended to accomplish? IMHO, there is only ONE reason to review wine: to let the reader get some idea of what it tastes like. In example one, above, cuteness is really all it contains. No suggestion of what the flavor profile is and nothing on the wine’s other characteristics. Just a glib quip, designed to show how clever a wordsmith the writer is. In short, basically useless. The trend toward this sort of mindless self-aggrandizement is advancing, sadly. There is one local Seattle jackass who seems to delight at telling everybody how great he is and bagging on everybody else who write about wine, anywhere. He squawks constantly about how he’s Washington’s most electric wine critic and, indeed, he’s performed a noble service to everybody else in that he siphons off nearly all the trolls and cranks and morons and arrested development cases who think being snarky with no real substance is groovy and who would otherwise be clogging up the comments sections on other blogs written by intelligent people. He’s a real dork-magnet and that’s an invaluable service. But reading his baloney? Ten miles of bad road, folks. NOT for the squeamish…or anyone with a working cerebral cortex.

Example two is a history lesson couched in a funny story and those are always entertaining but you have to slip some cake into all that icing: “drool-inducing strawberry aromas with hints of Swedish fish (the candy, not the critter) — which is a high compliment, in my book. Fruity and deeee-lish, with intense berry flavors.” What berries? WTF are “Swedish fish”? (I barely know; some people won’t at all) Are the Swedish fish on the nose or the palate? Define “dee-lish“. Again, ALL about flashing wine knowledge and almost nothing about the wine. All sizzle, no steak. And the last…well, one of the most heinous mistakes a writer can make is to presume a hefty knowledge base on the part of their readers. “Big aromas and flavors“…flavors of what, exactly? Can ya give us a hint? Define “Just a totally kick-ass wine“, please. The writer presumes a level of knowledge in Barolo wines that a passing casual reader will probably not have; a level, in fact, that many, many wine-savvy people won’t possess. I know dozens of wine tradespeople (and a couple of winemakers) who can tell you anything you want to know about French, California, or Washington wine but don’t know squat about Northern Italy. This review gives, in all likelihood, the majority of people who read it absolutely NOTHING to draw them into the wine, unless they’re looking for anything described as “Kick Ass”.

I’ve been called “wordy” so many times that, if it’s not actually carved onto my tombstone, some wag will probably sneak into the cemetery one night and spray-paint it on there. And, YES, My God Almighty, I confess, I confess! Mea Culpa, Father Forgive me, I am WORLD-CLASS wordy. But it’s largely driven by a neurotic need for clarity. Some ideas simply cannot be rendered, in any way that explores the complexities and grey areas of the subject, in what’ll fit on Twitter. This dumbing-down and encapsulating of complicated subjects into sound bites is clever and New Age Techno-Cool but the trade-off is that you lose a LOT of information and, therefore, whole strata of understanding. That’s what my main objection is to the piece that spurred this post. I BEG YOU, beseech you, plead pathetically with you…DO NOT – EVER! – take anybody’s definitions of what ANY words mean unless those terms are set down in some codified form – such as the BJCP Beer Guidelines or the Associated Press Stylebook – and adopted by common consent of those who constitute that profession or culture.

drwineI can appreciate WHY the person who wrote “40 Wine Terms…” might have wanted to write it but there should be a moment, at least, in which you get ready to write something like that and stop to think, “Okay, can I possibly do this and, if so, do I have the necessary general consent of those whom for whom I’m about to speak?” The person has actually won some sort of award, which they are shown holding on the site’s front page, so people evidently like the site. But this is the same person who also wrote a piece entitled, “World’s Drunkest Job: Wine Blogger“, in which several statements  were casually dropped as facts, the worst of which was “Being a wine blogger might just be the world’s drunkest job –if you can call it a job. Many wine blogs are the passionate side project of a wine enthusiast just crazy enough to spend their days off glued to a laptop. The best wine bloggers get snapped up by major publications.” I can’t speak for any other wine writer (lest I get into the same mess the blogger/somm fell into) but that is absolutely NOT – at all! – indicative of the attitude and professionalism that MOST wine writers (wine bloggers may be a whole different story. I don’t know. I was a published writer for twenty-five years before I started writing about wine) live by, mostly because a drunk is a drunk is a drunk and none of ’em are very much fun to be around and less than none of them are credible.

1dc16bac6e3b1dea899b5fb980164d01In almost thirty years of wine writing, I’ve gotten myself into a state which would even approach “drunk”, exactly twice…and in neither instance did I become happy  or gloat about it. Wine writing is a JOB and, once again, this blogger/somm draws ZERO distinctions between their own approach to the craft and those of all the rest of us. I take this work seriously because it IS work. People constantly tell me, “Oh, you review wine, beer, and spirits. What a tough job! You must really hate being forced to drink all that booze!” Is this job fun? You betcha! I love doing what I do for a living. But I TASTE the beverages I’m asked to evaluate. I do NOT DRINK those beverages. In 98% of the tastings, I spit after sampling. You have to, if you do this job with professionalism and serious intent. My liver would have its own zip code if I swallowed everything I taste. And it would now be mouldering in a specially-designed casket because I’d be DEAD. Do the math: 2,000 wines tasted every year, 1,500 beers, 500 spirits…NOBODY can drink that and survive. For this blogger/somm to put words into the mouths of those who are, in very real terms, colleagues, and to make an unqualified inference that those of us who do this operate on some frat-boy level of “Let’s Party, Dude!” is presumption that I find INCREDIBLY offensive and I wrote one of the few snarky posts ever to appear in The Pour Fool because I want YOU to know…It’s NOT, by Damnit, TRUE.

7 thoughts on “Wine Descriptions: Those Words May NOT Mean What You Think

  1. Hi Steve,

    Can you recommend, for a complete novice like me, an online location to find a respectable list of general descriptors? I don’t plan on joining wine enthusiasts at gatherings or online, and don’t intend to write about wine. I would, however, like to be able to answer the question, “What characteristics are you looking for in a wine?” that I inevitably encounter when purchasing wine, without sounding like a complete hick.

    Thank you, from “all us hicks.”

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      • Angela: I’m sorry for taking so bloody long to reply to your questions but, A) I’m frantically painting and fixing up a condo to sell and, B) I had to do a little research. Obviously, in sending you somewhere for wine terminology, I can’t send you to winefolly.com because Madelaine Puckette got a ton of stuff dead wrong. I never looked at any wine glossaries because I’m a wordy geek and usually just phrase stuff my own way but I have to admit to being influenced by wine critics I read and that leads me, in the interest of accuracy, to recommend Robert Parker’s list in Wine Advocate, the link for which appears below. Parker’s definitions are straight-forward, concise, and as close to universal as anybody’s. But the problem you’re going to face – which is inescapable and which everybody faces – is that so much of what goes into describing wines is wildly subjective. When a specific flavor or aroma is mentioned – tobacco, lychi, buttermint, mango, stone fruit, hay, cat pee, burnt match, etc., unto infinity – that’s just the reviewer’s more or less accurate sense memory and we’re all different. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t taste what I taste or what Parker does. But to the technical terms, yeah, those are a LOT less open to interpretation. Ms. Puckette trampled on those like an Umbrian field hand stomping grapes. Take the term “earthy” for example. Puckette gets cute and covers only half the definition: “A classic go-to move for a wine writer trying to describe that awkward green and unpleasant finish on a wine. They don’t want to hate on the wine, they just want you to know that if you don’t like the wine it means you don’t like earthy and you’re a bad person.” Parker gets it right: “May be used in both a negative and a positive sense; however, I prefer to use earthy to denote a positive aroma of fresh, rich, clean soil. Earthy is a more intense smell than woody or truffle scents.” Ditto (and then some) for “chewy”. Puckette: “When you take a sip of wine with chewy tannins, it dries out the interior of your mouth so that you “chew” or clean the tannins out of the insides of your mouth.” Parker gets it right: “If a wine has a rather dense, viscous texture from a high glycerin content, it is often referred to as being chewy. High-extract wines from great vintages can often be chewy, largely because they have higher alcohol hence high levels of glycerin, which imparts a fleshy mouthfeel.

        Even having said that, Parker’s terminology differs from mine, in some cases, as mine differs from Tanzer’s who differs from Gregutt’s who differs from James Suckling’s, who differs….See the problem? The ONLY remedy for this is to get to know that reviewer and learn his or her meanings. That’s a huge time commitment and I don’t blame folks who don’t want to take what could be months to find out they have no lasting affinity for a particular critic. I used to be a professional actor and did a TON of Shakespeare. Like everybody else, I didn’t always know what ol’ Bill meant by certain phrases, (“They will kill each other with a look, like cockatrices!“) but I had no trouble with the story or his general meaning. That’s a good approach with wine reviewers. The crux of the matter: Does The Pour Fool think this wine is good to drink and a smart use of your $$$? I hope that, at very least, is clear in what I write. But if it isn’t, email me and I’ll explain anything you don’t get. In fact, I believe that most reviewers will answer emailed queries on their terminology and do, in fact, welcome the occasional honest question, a wonderful relief from the tsunami of “You suck!!” that accounts for about 90% of all the messages we get. Finally, just don’t get too hung up on the descriptors, anyway. Taste the wines, as many as you can at the thousands of FREE tastings that happen at almost every wine shop in America, and decide what you like. Then – and ONLY then – with an idea of what you find pleasurable in a wine, look it up on a few wine review sites and compare notes. What the reviewer wrote will appear in reviews of other wines and those are probably your next best bets. And, most of all, read all the critics you like but a good wine shop steward – and also a surprising number of supermarket wine stewards! – is invaluable. If a steward ever, even for a moment, tried to badger you into buying a wine or criticizes your tastes, WALK OUT. That’s not erudition, it’s rudeness, period. Fine a good, friendly wine steward whose tastes are broad and varied and that person, right there where the wine meets your pocketbook, can steer you along your wine journey better than 200 writers. Good luck and most of all: RELAX, don’t sweat the subjectives, and enjoy learning.

        https://www.erobertparker.com/info/glossary.asp

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  2. Read both blogs. I found the other one to be lighthearted and entertaining. Yours, not so much. I respect your right to defend your profession. I just think you missed the point.

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    • No, Ben, I didn’t. The POINT is that anybody who presumes to speak for all their colleagues in ANY line of work had better be DAMNED sure they have a consensus before they do it. What’s-Her-Name was ostensibly trying to make wine descriptions more clear. All her little golssaryette did was make it more confusing and create problems that the rest of us have to deal with. You’re entitled to see it any way you like. What you’re not even remotely connected to is the effects that crap like that has on those of us who WORK – as in “jobs” and “livelihoods” – in the profession. EVERY wine writer who has contacted me about this has felt exactly as I do: what was this person thinking? It’s not even up for debate, as far as I’m concerned. She just simply screwed up – BADLY.

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      • Easy fella, you’re about to pop a string. Perhaps you should swallow that next sip or two of vino. Perhaps she was simply attempting to fill a void your collegues and yourself have left to the novice wine drinker? I know, I know, “It cannot be done!!!”, with a thunderous fist crashing upon a table somewhere. Such a grating outlook for someone with such a seemingly enjoyable job/livelihood.

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        • I have never understood – and am getting no closer to it – this business of “Easy fella, you’re about to pop a string“. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that you, Rye, have at some time in your life, gotten irritated and offended at something and felt moved to speak up about it. I don’t know what you do for a living but let’s say that you’re a furniture builder. You have a lifetime of experience at it and know your stuff, inside and out. Somebody posts on a home improvement site that balsa wood is all the rage and that furniture made of balsa wood is just da shizz. You know damned well that the stuff is about as durable as a fart in a hurricane but everybody insists on using it and cites that blog post as proof that you’re wrong. I think, after a time, you would say “Enough!”. That’s what I did. Somebody who should know better sets out glossary of terms that she claims are common to all critics and thereby saddles the rest of us with her wildly erroneous notions. I blew the whistle on her, aided and abetted by about a dozen of my fellow writers who know that I have less riding on consequences of my showing our collective irritation than they do. I was glad to be their mouthpiece.

          I also don’t get why so freakin’ many people feel compelled to tell the rest of us how to act, think, feel, and express ourselves. The only common factor in all the replies like yours I read is some sort of faux-cool, studiously laid-back facade that they all seem to feel will slip, somehow, if they don’t constantly put it on very public display. Seriously, what drives someone to write something like this? Are you afraid that someone will think you indulge yourself is such uncool behavior as mine if you don’t speak up? And what possible outcome could you reasonably expect? That I’m going to retract it or be more even-tempered (a pseudonym for “bland”) in the future? If so, you wasted several minutes of your life. This blog is about MY views on a subject I know about as well as anybody you’ll find: adult beverages. I have 40+ years invested in this business. I’m not guessing about anything I say. As for “attempting to fill a void your collegues and yourself have left to the novice wine drinker“, she didn’t. She didn’t even get close. All she did was widen the void because wrong information creates FAR more problems than no information. Somebody reads her silly definitions and the reads me or Robert Parker or Steven Tanzer or Paul Gregutt or any other wine reviewer and gets LESS real information because they read our terms, the way we use them, and interpret them in the erroneous manner of winefolly. And, as to “Such a grating outlook for someone with such a seemingly enjoyable job/livelihood“, therein lies part of the problem. YES, my job is frequently enjoyable. Just as often, it’s simply an endurance contest. It is a JOB, for guys like me, not some 24/7/365 party time extravaganza. I probably drink far less than almost anybody you know; MAYBE one beer or glass of wine or shot a night and I skip it a LOT of nights. I do not – EVER – just sit around and swill anything, either as conversational lubricant or just to be drinking because I’ve tried THOUSANDS of beverages, in one ounce tasters, and spit 98% of those. I vowed long ago to quit drinking anything that wasn’t absolutely great and, a lot of the time, that’s not available, so I just don’t drink. I don’t do recreational or social drinking. I approach this like what it is: my job, in EXACTLY the same way a plumber or drywall guy does his. And you don’t usually see those people just joining pipes or hanging sheetrock for fun on the weekends. My job has the same degree of aggravations and frustrations as many people’s do, and I get passionate about it, as I did in this post. My suggestion to you, if you’re made so uncomfortable with direct, un-sugar-coated expression, is to find another beverage blog to read. There is NO shortage and MOST beverage writers are less “excitable” than me. But writing something just to tell me to chill…that’s just a waste of your time and energy. The Pour Fool Is What It Is and it is not going to change.

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Speak yer piece, Pilgrim.

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