Several years ago, 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 – aside from some far-too-frequent mistakes – 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.
You’re reading this now because, as with one other post, here, last week, this little gremlin popped up AGAIN, yesterday, looking for all the world like it was brand new.
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 use your imagination and 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 or 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 or some incestuous form of Hipster Jive 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.
Some 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”.
Again, “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 WANT – ever – 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:
“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.”
“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 writes 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, as with the earlier review of Baby Jesus, which appeared in a national publication: “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 Barolo piece…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 just 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.
I 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.
In 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.