Wine and Words

It seems impossible to drink wine silently. More than any other comestible, wine somehow demands a gush of words.

Matt Kramer, Matt Kramer on Wine

Since this is essentially a chapter about drinking and talking, I want to begin with a simple idea that is rarely addressed in the wine literature; drinking and talking are things we do with our mouth. Drinking and talking each draws upon different muscles, organs, physical processes and sensory channels but, they are primarily oral activities. One process is consumptive, wine goes in, and one is productive – words come out.

What is also worth noting is the relationship between drinking and talking. The more wine goes in, the more words come out! There seems to be a strong connection between the amount of drinking one does and the amount of talking that occurs. In general, the more you drink, the more you talk, up to a point of passing out, of course. But what you talk about and how all these words connect to a particular discourse of wine is a more complicated issue.

What we talk about (wine content knowledge) is different from how we talk about it (discourse of wine). In addition, how we share content knowledge of wine is done primarily through oral communication (speeches, videos, podcasts etc.) and writing (tasting notes, essays, books, blogs etc.). Wine content knowledge is organized into a lexicon of words associated with wine over the years. As wine enthusiasts we learn how to talk about wine and knowing certain words can signal one’s “expertise” on all things wine related. Conversely, not knowing certain types of wine content knowledge, like specific wine varietals, regions, important members of the wine community, wine production processes, wine history, agricultural aspects of wine can signal your outsider status in the discourse community.

Language and Wine

Learning about wine (wine content knowledge) and how to talk about wine (discourse of wine) has a long and varied history. Matt Kramer, a columnist for the wine magazine Wine Spectator, says the challenge to writing and talking about wine is putting words to wine. He states, “language shapes thought” and footnotes a cognitive scientist in an issue of Scientific American to back up his claim, citing numerous experiments that have shown how language influences one’s thoughts. In his book Making Sense of Taste, Kramer concedes that language shapes thought, and he goes on to suggest that how we talk about wine informs and colors not just one’s appreciation of it, but language also reveals which particular attributes persuade people to conclude one wine is better than another. 

However, Kramer also states that good wines, and less good wines, exist independently of our personal preferences. Dear Matt, I love your writing, but can you have it both ways? Either language shapes thought, or it simply expresses aspects of wine that exist independently. Theoretical schizophrenia may not be the best way to proceed here.

In epistemological terms, stating that a condition exists a priori to language, or before language is used to represent the independent qualities of a particular phenomenon like wine, would suggest language simply serves as a representational mode or communicative device for explaining what exists independently of language. This essentialist perspective is a rather outdated and naïve vision of language, ignoring the social and contextual aspects of language and communication. Language not only represents what we think, it shapes how we think, our identities, and our perspectives on the world. 

Connecting this back to wine knowledge, language also shapes how we understand and communicate about wine. Wine may come with certain a priori physiochemical elements and characteristics, however, whether our senses provide us with unbiased access to these elements, or whether language can objectively represent the one true essence of a wine is a matter of much debate. The vital question is, “Does language innocently and objectively name things that already exist in the world, or does it organize and construct the way humans see the world?”

In order to move forward and reveal my own perspectives on these topics, I begin with the following assertion, language shapes thought. Language is infused with historical, cultural, and social meanings and interpretations that are not stable across time and context. This assertion is fairly well accepted in the academic and research communities to which I belong. In fact, there is a hypothesis developed by Edward Sapir, a student of the famous linguistic anthropologist Franz Boas, and his colleague Benjamin Lee Whorf, known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that asserts language not only shapes thought, in fact, it determines much of the ways we think and categorize human experiences and reality. This is often referred to as the theory of linguistic relativity. By now your eyes may have glazed over and you are thinking about quietly drinking a glass of wine instead of reading any further, but if you indulge me just a bit more, I will bring this around to make some (hopefully) interesting points. It’s what academics are expected to do.

In other words (no pun intended), it comes down to the fact that how we talk and write about a particular wine is the primary way we communicate what we know about wine. Of course, we could always draw a picture of a bottle of wine or take a photograph of a vineyard. These other modes of representation can be used to represent certain aspects of wine, but they don’t work well when describing the qualities of a wine. For that we draw upon language. Additionally, we can’t peer inside a wine expert’s head and do some sort of Spock mind-meld and experience what the expert experienced directly. In fact, we, as humans, cannot access a “God’s Eye View” of anything. In other words, we cannot step outside of ourselves and our senses and know the world as it “really” is, even the simple qualities of a glass of wine. We can only experience wine through our senses which are colored by our perceptual apparatus and experiences, and the language with which we share these perceptions. We only have access to what wine critics say or write, not what is happening in their mouths or inside their heads. 

From a discourse of wine perspective, it boils down to how one writes or talks about wine that matters more than one’s perceptual apparatus or how one experiences what is actually in the glass. I do believe that a glass of wine has certain inherent qualities and characteristics, I just don’t think humans can directly access them. As long as our sensory apparatus, expectations, perceptions, prior experiences, and the contexts of consumption play a role in wine tasting and evaluation there will be subjective biases and evaluations.

Scientific Wine Tasting and Evaluation

One of the primary challenges to the ideas associated with various scientific approaches to wine tasting and wine criticism is understanding the differences among experiencing, evaluating, and communicating the qualities of a glass of wine. One can experience a glass of wine without using language, but that is about as far as it goes. I suggest that how we talk about wine may have more to do with social relationships, the histories of how we use language, and expectations for how we behave around wine than anything to do with what may or may not exist in the wine glass. As long as there is a person involved in tasting the wine there will always be an amount of subjectivity. How well, and in what ways, we can control our subjectivities is open for further debate. 

The Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a certifying body and educational organization has endorsed, “the importance of a codified lexicon, agreed upon by industry use and acceptance, used by tasting groups, certifying exams, and wine organizations to make wine discourse more scientific and valid.” This codified body of knowledge provides important information for novice wine tasters and enophiles to become familiar with, including wine regions, varietals, vintages, aspects of viticulture, and vinification processes. It has been suggested that in order to make the whole wine tasting and reviewing enterprise more scientific, wine writers, tasters, and critics need to work to free themselves from the distorting effects of emotions when it comes to wine tasting and reviews. Is this even possible? 

Kinnikova, in an article in The New Yorker, stated, “It’s in the ability to phrase and label these [wine] experiences more precisely, a more developed sensory vocabulary that helps you to identify and remember what you experience.” For her, language affected not only our experiences and how we communicate with others, but how we remember these experiences. I wonder whether wine writers can, in fact, create literal descriptions that do not include emotions and other connotations associated with language. Why would this type of writing be different from all other forms of communication?

Rajat Parr, a famous sommelier turned wine-maker, is said to have an extraordinary vinous memory, where he is able to remember what a particular wine tastes and smells like for a very long time and to recall these memories with uncanny accuracy. However, in order to share his sensory experiences and evaluations of the wines he tastes, he still has to use language in some way to represent and communicate his thoughts. It seems that the scientific process of describing a wine objectively has two potential places it breaks down, one in the subjectivity of human perception, the other in using language to describe those perceptions.

A Wine Lexicon

Every professional community has an accepted body of words, or lexicon, that is used to communicate with other members of the community. The world of wine is no different. Winespeak, a term I first encountered in a book by Ronald Searle published in 1983, entitled The Illustrated Winespeak, has been used to denote the extensive catalogue of abstract and esoteric language used in wine writing and tasting notes. This extensive lexicon, directly aligned with a particular community of practice, can be used to signal membership in a particular group of like-minded people, or as a code to deny access to the uninitiated. Wine writers use lots of specific vocabulary or jargon when talking about wine, and many young wine drinkers are concerned with this tradition as a way of excluding new members into the wine community.

The search for an agreed upon lexicon or vocabulary of wine words that can accurately and unequivocally denote meanings is fraught with pitfalls. As Jacques Derrida reminded philosophers of language, when we look up a word in the dictionary all we see are more words, not objective meanings. Based on the foundational work in the field of semiotics, the connection between words and meanings, or what is commonly known as the signifying chain, always includes a meaning-maker or interpretant, a signifier – words, symbols, or images that represent something, and the signified which includes the idea, object or intended meaning. 

The association of words and meanings is never direct, singular, universal, or stable over time. Words can mean many things in many different contexts, and it is up to the people or interpretants involved in reading or talking to decide what things mean. Although the semiotic concepts I alluded to here are much more complex than I have presented them, it is important to acknowledge that there is no direct, objective correspondence between words and meanings. We are unable to assume a perfectly objective perspective. In other words, we still cannot approach a God’s Eye View of reality or the taste of a wine. Although, many wine critics make a decent living and build their reputations on their ability to talk or write about wine with clarity, accuracy, and nuanced inflections, we will never know exactly whether we experience the same elements in a wine or have the same sensory experiences as the published wine critic. 

Philosopher Cain Todd, in his book The Philosophy of Wine: A Case of Truth, Beauty and Intoxication, asks, “Can wines really be brooding, profound, elegant, pretentious, charming, cheeky, or deceitful? Todd also wonders whether metaphorical characterizations of wine transgress the hazy boundary dividing the imaginative and informative from the outlandish and absurd. The range of opinions of this topic is wide and diverse, with scientific perspectives trying to offer objectivity as the gold standard, and artistic perspectives suggesting wine is a mystery better left to be experienced than dissected and analyzed.

Some Ways of Organizing Wine Words

In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges (2003), Sean Shesgreen suggests the types of wine writing, or as he calls it, “contemporary literary-oenological styles of writing,” falls into three categories, namely: 1) language of social class, 2) language of gender, and 3) language of fruits and vegetables. The third can be seen as a more analytical or technical language that objectively describes what is in the glass of wine.

One of my favorite language games to play with wine is asking whether a wine is more feminine or masculine. This is a traditional distinction often made between Barolo (male) and Barbaresco (female). The language of gender was used to identify frail, light body wines as feminine, and full-body, powerful wines as masculine. If we want to describe a wine as full-bodied and powerful, why not just say it is full-bodied and powerful rather than calling it masculine? In these days of problematizing traditional gender distinctions and roles, should we even use traditional gender terms any longer? Can there be gender-fluid wines? If so, what would a trans, non-binary, gender-fluid wine taste like? These days, distinguished wine writers need to be a tad more “woke” in their descriptions.

The language of social class has traditionally been used to describe wines with proper breeding, elite taste, and noble upbringing. Wines that cost more are more noble, while cheap wines are more pedestrian. Shesgreen further suggested contemporary wine guides are, “modern forms of the pastoral, a literary genre inventing idealized, imaginary, and nonsensical images of country life for the amusement of city dwellers.”

Caballero and Suarez Toste divide the most commonly used metaphors into three categories, 1) characteristics of living organisms, including human characteristics like youthful, honest, tired, weak, aggressive, and upfront, 2) metaphors associated with textiles and other manufactured entities, for example velvety, tightly wound, knitted, and woven together, and 3) geometrical shapes, like angular, rounded, layered, and square.

The choices of which flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs to mention does not cover all the possibilities. Lima beans, Brussel sprouts, and other less appealing fruits and veggies are not mentioned and are suggested carry more negative connotations than lemons, roses, and pineapples for some reason. From hedonistic descriptions proffered by old Englishmen to analytical descriptions of the pyrazines in green bell peppers, what types of wine writing helps the average day to day wine drinker? Matt Kramer referred to this type of wine writing as the “I Spy” style. I spy grass, I spy lemons, I spy pencil shavings and so on. Does describing wines like one would a fruit salad help anyone pick out or enjoy a wine more?

Dan Dunn, in his wine travel memoire, American Wino, offers, “…five simple words that can be used indiscriminately and interchangeably such that no wine snob will ever look at you sideways. They are complex, balanced, layered, intense, and well-rounded.” Simple enough. 

Neel Burton and James Flewellen, in The Concise Guide to Wine & Blind Tasting, offer five criteria by which to assess the quality of a wine: 1) balance, 2) length, 3) intensity, 4) complexity, and 5) typicity. Wine experts can’t even agree on the criteria for evaluating the quality of wine. No wonder we struggle reading tasting notes and wine reviews.

Matt Kramer, offers seven essential wine words to consider in his book True Taste. He suggested these seven concepts are markers for recognizing and understanding what makes one wine better than another. He proposed seven essential words that might offer a more rewarding and more refreshing way of talking about wine. The seven words are: 1) insight, 2) harmony, 3) texture, 4) layers, 5) finesse, 6) surprise, and 7) nuance. For many of you reading this book, I am sure that some of these words might come as a surprise. Not many wine drinkers talk about insight or nuance when describing a particular wine or one’s experiences. It does give us something new to think about.

Wine critics and writers consistently use a wide range of language devices including personification (muscular), figurative language (pretentious), a degree of nobility (well-bred), fruit salad descriptors (citric), architectural references (well-balanced), similes (like honeysuckle), textural (velvety), gastronomical (buttery), or metaphorical reference (god-like) when describing the characteristics of a particular wine. Whether these descriptors help anyone enjoy wine or make more informed purchases remains a mystery to me. However, I want to make clear that after all this debate, and all of these words written about wine, I still love reading tasting notes, sometimes as humorous anecdotes more than helpful descriptions, and I continue to wonder how this type of writing will evolve into the future.

So What?

Sometimes winespeak descends into verbal sparring or a “snob-match” where critics argue about whether a particular wine has the flavor characteristics of wet cement, old dogs or barnyards. Do we really want to drink wine that smells like a wet dog or a barnyard? Or, are these just fancy terms we use to describe something that is really difficult to describe, using metaphors that we hope other tasters will recognize? There is no doubt that language plays a vital role in how we access and judge wines. What role it plays and how it is used is a topic I will pick up again throughout the book.

Kermit Lynch, a famous wine importer, suggested, “wine becomes a dialogue between your evolving taste and the bottles you drink, between you and your friends, you and the articles and commentaries you read.” Thinking about wine talk as a dialogue among friends, bottles, and settings is a nice way to think about the discourse of wine. I would go further. It is also a dialogue, though often unseen, between wine drinkers and the culture and the communities in which they reside. This dialogue includes one’s identities and how we want the world to see us. So, speak carefully.

Wine needs stories. Narratives that contextualize what one is drinking. We as humans use stories to organize and make sense of the world, and stories are made up of words. Across many of the chapters in this book, the concept of wine as a story will continue to pop up.

So, what is a wine enthusiast to do? I suggest finding a wine critic who writes in a way that you enjoy, provides information you find valuable, and take all of their recommendations with a grain of salt. Try some of the wines they describe and consider the practicality and utility of what they are saying. If it helps, excellent! If not, try reading someone else.