Talking About Wine


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How To Communicate Your Wine Experience

Goji Berry and Dragon Fruit may be exemplary wine descriptors, but does your audience have any idea what they taste like? Are you trying to show off your ability to identify  flavors and aromas in wine, or are you honestly trying to communicate what you just experienced? If the latter, how is that working for you?

No two people experience the same wine the same way. The fruits, flowers and other aromas we recognize are rarely actually in the glass. Rather, there is a hint, a trace, of something that sort of reminds of of something else. Our mind fills in the blanks. It pigeon holes all the information it receives in an attempt at recognition. Our minds have limited resources, and especially in the case of smells and tastes, close is close enough.

The language of wine is a form of poetry.

The language of wine is a form of poetry. It is a way to evoke imagery, an attempt to share something subjective, something personal. So too our general vocabulary and understanding of the nuance of words is derived from our observation of life, and therefore becomes uniquely our own. It is at the intersection of where words and understanding overlap that communication is found.

Common ground can be hard to find when you are groping for a description of something as fleeting as an aroma. We grasp at straws. Some of these straws may be better known than others, but few if any are universal. Something as seemingly common as strawberry will mean nothing to someone who has never smelled or tasted one.

It would be hard to remove all of the French from wine speak. The poetic language and soul of the French people has influenced wine writing around the world. The overflowing fruit basket of flavors that are so often published, harken towards an ideal of wine that is too rarely achieved. Based on a two hundred year old tradition that began in part with Brillat-Savarin, we strive to dissect the essence of the aromas and flavors into bite sized pieces, easily spewed, but harder to reconcile with what we experience.

Anne Noble's indispensable Wine Aroma Wheel

In my book "Juice Jargon - How to talk about wine" I advocate stepping back from the specific to the general. Instead of strawberries, red fruit. Citrus in place of lemon. Tropical encompasses both pineapple and mango. Anne Noble's indispensable Wine Aroma Wheel has a similar architecture, with specific aromas on the outside, and increasingly general terms towards the center.

In the U.S. the influence of Amerine and Roessler's "Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation" helped to shape a generation of UC grads that eschewed any term that they could not point to in a laboratory. Peynaud, across the pond in Bordeaux would advocate a wider vocabulary, but one still restricted by historic commonality, in his "The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation." Two approaches, from two of the most influential learning centers for wine making in the world.

Numbers, […] are now the most often verbalized aspect of a wine

Meanwhile, consumers overwhelmed with verbiage they read but could not relate to would increasingly ignore the review in favor of the rating. Numbers, not aroma descriptors, are now the most often verbalized aspect of a wine. Trading any attempt at communicating the experience of a wine for a discussion of how deserving the wine was of its score.

Prosumers, that Venn diagram intersection which includes aficionados and those too often dangerous with a little bit of knowledge, aspire towards the word salad they consume so eagerly, but regularly use too haphazardly. They are too often us, as we blather on about a wine long after we have lost our the attention of our listeners. The concept of communication lost in our passion.

We end up compromised. Electing to use words that have great popularity but little agreement or understanding, such as "minerality" or "Swedish lingonberries." At least the charming "cat piss" is more universal, if not so hard to find. The straws we grasp are colored by our own backgrounds, tempered by familiarity. We use words that evoke our own memories. For communication we need to use words that evokes our audience's memory.

Find commonality and use it whenever you can

Ultimately, there will never be a single language or group of words that fits wine perfectly. The Wine Wheel, my books, or all the others, are more limited than our imaginations. We have a much greater capacity to confuse than to create understanding, not just with wine, but anytime we open our mouths or take pen to paper. Communicating is about rising above ourselves, or perhaps lowering ourselves is a better image. Lowering ourselves to a common denominator. Lowering ourselves to place of understanding.

Read all of the books I have mentioned. Join or host a wine tasting group. Talk about wine, and listen to others talk about wine. If your goal is to communicate your wine experience, find commonality and use it whenever you can. Above all else, never forget the most important phrase in all of wine speak: "Would you buy it again?"

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