A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another Wine Column

My co-author and I take turns writing our semi-weekly wine column (we each offer feedback on the other's before it goes out). Here's one I wrote that came out yesterday. It's about the ways oenophiles describe the flavors and aromas of wines. Of all the columns I've written, this one draws the most on my training in rhetoric, especially the not to kairos in my discussion of wine tastings as specific moments. Here it is:

Like any subculture, the world of wine that is so dear to us and our fellow oenophiles (that is, wine lovers) can seem—with its rituals and jargon—downright silly to some. Swirling your glass, sticking your nose in it for a sniff, swishing the wine around in your mouth: these practices are, admittedly, easy targets for satire. But no ritual is an easier mark than how we describe the wines themselves, using terms like “barnyard,” “hot dog,” and even “diesel fuel” to capture their tastes and aromas.

And we’re ok with that. After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? We love it, for example, when the über-pretentious Miles, from the film Sideways—you know, the one who won’t drink Merlot because he thinks it’s pedestrian—describes a wine as having “just a flutter of, like, a nutty Edam cheese,” even though we see more than a bit of ourselves in the caricature.

Yet, fun as they may be to lampoon, such descriptions are also deeply communicative. In addition to (and perhaps even more important than) conveying simple sensory impressions like taste and smell, they evoke feelings and moods, suggesting holistic impressions that capture the full range of the tasting experience.

After all, tasting a wine isn’t just about gathering information. It’s also about the ineffably rich texture of a moment—season, time of day, setting, circumstances, company, and of course the wine itself. All these things come together to form a single, unique event. Are the other tasters lighthearted, or are they tired from a long work week? Are you tasting wines from the same region, or are they all over the map? Can you smell the bakery next door? Is it cold outside? Did you wear your new pants? There are an infinite number of factors that affect your perception of a tasting. How could describing a wine as merely “a dry red, full-bodied, with dark berry fruit” do justice to such a moment?

If you’re still not convinced, though, then consider one other reason: some wines are just so special that they defy simple, straightforward descriptions; each sip is an experience in itself. For example, Lance once described a Hungarian dessert wine as “apricot syrup infused with medicinal herbs and cigarette tobacco, which transsubstantiates into sweet pipe tobacco on the improbably long finish. This is Sauternes after reading Kafka.” At that moment he couldn’t have said it any other way or—modesty aside—any better.

So we’ll continue to be easy targets for satire, and we’ll even send ourselves up now and then. But we wouldn’t quit describing wines this way for all the minty, peppery, graphite-laced wine in France.



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