One night when we were teenagers, a friend and I took the bus to the Gentrified District in our town to attend gallery openings. We weren’t going for the art: Broke and underage, we were lured by rumors of free wine and lax policies on checking ID.
Score. Shuffling around chugging Franzia at a painting exhibit, we happened to hear a man describe one of the splotched atrocities on the wall as “percussive.” This meant nothing to the two of us, if it even needs to be said, except that the guy was a blowhard. But we gained courage as the evening went on and the box wine kept flowing, and we began sidling up to people at random and using percussive to describe whatever they were looking at.
“I don’t know; it’s a little percussive for my taste.”
“Red, yet percussive. It’s breathtaking.”
You can probably picture the reactions. Furrowed brows, pursed lips, and nodding heads. Deep in contemplation or fettered by politeness, no one asked us to explain this usage. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them even chided themselves for not having thought of it first.
Spend enough time around experts (or people who so fancy themselves), and you might start to talk funny. If you happen to be an expert yourself—real or imagined—you assume your listener has a given level of knowledge, and before long shorthand communication becomes not only convenient but necessary. As far as those gallery patrons could tell, we really knew our stuff, and we could have been saying something profound.
Many years later, I still enjoy wine and propagating BS. I recently took a job translating winespeak into English, with the aim of selling wine to people who don’t want to be sold, our angle being to cultivate an image of knowledge, authority, and hipness. The only snags are that I have little wine knowledge, I am not an authority on anything, and I have never been described as “hip.” Luckily for everyone involved, my employers continually forbid me to write anything that sounds too knowledgeable or authoritative or hip. No problem.
Every single time I tell people I write about wine, they make some sort of crack about all the ludicrous language I must have to use: hints of walnut skin, candied lychee, nettled gooseberries, and on and on. Everyone who has ever read anything about wine knows that something’s up. To the nonexpert, wine writing seems at best uselessly esoteric; at worst, bald fabrication. A food-friendly acid frame is suffused with a pleasant barnyardiness.
Bombarded with wine reviews and tasting notes at my new job, I quickly became fed up. I was convinced that all these jaded, bored people were just making words up, or falling back on what had worked before. Why else were there so many wines with “precise fruit, tinged with Meyer lemon”? In an act of subversion that would shock no one, I resolved to introduce a term of my own into the wine lexicon.
The stupidest adjective I could think of was grapey. I certainly hadn’t encountered that one anywhere. I would use it in a few tasting notes and let it lodge in the consciousness of the wine public, who would soon spit it right back at me. Hilarious. That was the plan I hatched and forgot.
Yet during the next couple of weeks, I saw no fewer than three tasting notes that described wines as “grapey.” Before I even had a chance to turn the wine world on its head, it became plain that my word was already in use among wine people. For many of them, it had just as much meaning as “sexy acidity.”
“Grapey” had actually sprung to my own mind a few times when I tasted wine, but I felt too embarrassed to say it out loud. It turns out the term is pejorative when it’s applied to serious wine, but not to bottles that would qualify as “easy-drinking quaffers.” Still, after using “grapey” to describe some cheap young Beaujolais at a tasting, I got a raised eyebrow in reply. This judgmental wine pourer was clearly less open-minded than the percussive art people. Can it be that wine snobs are even worse than art snobs? Yes, it can. Quoted verbatim from wine professionals at a tasting:
There’s just the faintest whiff of poo there, too.
Oh yeah, I’m getting that now.
Yeah, but it’s like a tan poo.
To be fair: It can be difficult and painful to communicate anything about wine to someone who has less expertise than you do. When you acquire knowledge, you can’t remember what it was like not to know what you know. Or, perhaps more to the point, you often don’t want to. You’ve gone to all this trouble to gain sophistication, and looking back can only be embarrassing. Even when you know exactly how much your listener knows, and it’s less than you, it’s only human to still feel wary of appearing ignorant. (The power of insecurity cannot be dismissed. It moves a fair bit of merchandise, I can tell you that.)
So one way to approach wine is to aim over people’s heads when you’re talking, pretend you can taste the pear skin and describe things in terms as outlandish as you like. Pair this with a hibiscus marinade and impress your guests! Do all this out of fear, and, in the best case, you will be believed (if not understood) and feared yourself.
Another way to go about it is easier said than done, but well worth trying: Shed as much self-consciousness as you can, along with your habit of judging others, and honestly describe what you smell and taste. Do this for love of the drink. As long as you strive to make your comments a little more precise than “tastes like wine,” you’re golden.
Use your own vocabulary, or co-opt industry terms and change the system from the inside, man—but speak with sincerity. The phrase “a grace note of melon” may have been inspired by a real sensation, but someone who uses it to describe 15 wines in a month is either a liar or just not trying.
The experts are rusty precisely because they’ve been saying things like “feisty star anise” for years, and no one has done anything but golf-clap and squeal, “Indeed!”
What’s objectionable in wine writing is not jargon or made-up fruit aromas, but laziness and dishonesty. If experts and novices alike do our best to be sincere in describing what we taste—even if it’s “grapeyness”—then we can all move on with our lives that much sooner. Perhaps we’ll even get back to enjoying wine every once in a while, and maybe, just before pigs fly, we’ll enjoy hearing other people’s opinions about it as well.
Excerpted from Canteen(#2), a new literary magazine that endeavors to showcase the creative process; www.canteenmag.com.