Addicted to novelty since 2001

Is Wine Talk Partial or Total Bollocks?

Last night we were discussing snobby wine talk. For a few reasons, it’s one of my pet peeves:

  • I don’t drink, so I can’t participate at all.
  • It seems like anybody who’s taken three hours of wine tasting at the local rec centre speaks with the authority of a veteran oenophile.
  • The wine industry has always felt like a bit of a sham. It’s built on these minute, subjective taste differentiations. If I tried to build an industry around the regional differences in orange juice, I’d get laughed out of the room.

Our conversation was inspired by this blog post concerning a couple of studies on wine tasting. You can add those studies to a growing body of science which debunks wine experts and affirms that the taste of wine is largely subjective.

I’ve been trying to think of the right metaphors for wine experts and connoisseurs. Are they like theatre critics and patrons of the arts? Sort of. I sound snobby and elitist when I discuss the set design of a recent play I’ve seen. I’ve got plenty of training and experience in the field to justify my pretension, but is that any better?

Then I thought of the fashion world. There seems to be a similar trendy, nearly baseless analysis going on when I watch Fashion TV (which, admittedly, isn’t often). And while styles come in and out of fashion, they’re just on a treadmill (or perhaps a spiral staircase). What was garish and repulsive ten years ago is now de rigueur. I’m not saying that fashion designers aren’t experts and craftspeople–I just find the argot of fashion as queer and subjective as wine talk.

Am I out to lunch? Or do I just need a glass of a nice chiraz with a great aroma of oak jousting with just a hint of cherry?

14 Responses to “Is Wine Talk Partial or Total Bollocks?”

  1. Cellobella

    Complete bollocks. I once went to a “Vertical Tasting”. That’s where you taste one wine – say Shiraz – from the one winery but you taste every year… say 1995-2005.

    We sat there, complete noobs, and wrote down words like “full bodied” and scored the wines.

    One of them I scored 18/20 but it was corked. Luckily I didn’t reveal my score before one of the experts dismissed it out of hand.

    Anyway, we scored this other wine and the others were still slurping and spitting and writing their notes when one of the experts leaned over and passed me a note.

    The note read: “Wet wool”.

    He looked at me knowingly nodding his head.

    I must have looked completely blank.

    He was talking about a flavour he’d tasted.

    Yeah. Right.

  2. Brian El

    Darren, i’m afriad you’re indeed out to lunch on this one. It’s not our fault that you don’t experience good wine from time to time. And we’re all entitled to listen to each others opinions on what’s good wine and what isn’t, what tasted good and when. If it all tasted the same, we wouldn’t have the conversations.

  3. Meg

    I think you can know a fair amount about beverages like wine (and beer and coffee) if you do some basic learning about the origin of the ingredients and some of the basic chemical and taste qualities of the drink. I used to do coffee tastings all the time, and there’s some pretty marked differences between different varietals.

    BUT…

    Some of the language is beyond pretentious, and used by people who haven’t put the time in to try things and test things and learn about them the right way: by experience.

  4. Craig S. Cottingham

    First, a bit of disclosure. I’m a certified beer judge (http://www.bjcp.org/) and I have also judged in homemade wine competitions. I’m actually trained to notice things like oak with a hint of cherry.

    That being said, wine talk, like any *other* talk that gets into the minutiae of a subject, can be unnecessarily pretentious. (Is that redundant?) Does it really matter if this particular wine has notes of pepper, or tobacco, or mint? Comments like those about wine are like comments about the lighting in a stage production. They’re simply observations.

    The most important question is, do you like the wine, or not? Doug Frost, one of the few people in the world to hold the tiles of both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, wrote in his book “On Wine” that if you get cornered at a party by someone going on about how such-and-such a vintage of such-and-such a French vineyard and how it compares to other vintages from that vineyard, find someone else to talk to.

    I can identify a few varieties of wine by their aroma; Gewurztraminer smells like honeysuckle blossoms to me, and Sauvignon Blanc like grapefruit. I can sometimes distinguish between a Merlot, a Shiraz, and a Zinfandel by the flavor. And it doesn’t matter one bit in the grand scheme of things.

    The analogy that just occurred to me is music. Before I got into classical music, music was just sound; pleasant, sure, but just sound. Then I discovered JS Bach, and started noticing that there’s a *lot* going on in there — themes, interplay between instruments, that kind of thing. Then I started noticing it in popular music. (Kathy Valentine’s bass work for The Go-Gos *still* blows me away.)

    Wine and beer are like that for me now, too. (And food, now that I think about it.) It’s fun, somehow, to pull apart the experience, to try to identify the individual aromas or tastes that make up the whole.

  5. Bruce Taylor

    I was just about to give you an ear full about wine appreciation, but Craig Cottingham has said it much more eloquenlty than I.

    cheers

  6. Derek K. Miller

    I find wine talk remarkably similar to font talk. I agree that there *are* noticeable characteristics and distinctions to the trained connoisseur, but:

    (a) Words rarely express those characteristics properly. (Listening to wine geeks and typeface geeks argue the minutiae of their obsessions is an uninformative bore to nearly anyone else.)

    (b) For most people, it just doesn’t matter. I like a good red wine, and I can tell which ones I like better than others. Similarly, I prefer certain fonts to others. But I don’t necessarily care if I’m “wrong” or “right” according to the experts — because the experts can’t seem to agree either.

    I think there’s a similar reason why I prefer sports like downhill skiing to ice skating: the fastest person down the mountain is inarguable, while the best skater seems left up to the whims of the judges.

  7. darren

    Derek: An apt comparison, indeed, though I hear a lot more amateur wine talk than font talk.

    In my aforementioned conversation, I raised the comparison to sports talk. But at least there there’s plenty of objective facts you can agree upon. Whether the Canucks won is not a matter of taste.

  8. Udge

    The vocabulary used to describe wine, and the management of the events, is pretentious as hell, I’ll grant you that. But there are great differences in flavour and for that matter in aftertaste and aftereffects. IMHO life is improved by learning to recognize these, so that you may drink more of the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff.

  9. Andy K

    Craig said a lot of good things I agree with. One thing no one has mentioned about wine talk, whether snobbish or not, and sports talk, and perhaps font talk in certain circles is that there is altogether too much of it.

    After living in France for six years and moving back to the US, that’s one thing I noticed. In France, part of being an upper middle-class adult is being somewhat knowledgeable about wine. But that doesn’t mean they talk about it much. Instead they buy a case here or there, visit some producers on a weekend trip, and share it with friends and family at meals. Guests will compliment hosts on the wine (or vice versa if the guests brought it), but they won’t go all analytical about it. Guys (mostly) will sometimes talk together about a good producer or a good bottle on sale somewhere, but the whole idea of analyzing wine is reserved for wine clubs and conventions.

  10. Johnny K

    I think some people make it a load of bollocks but it is similar to how I’d talk about sport. I know some things about sport are objective, as you mention whether a team wins or loses, but there are other pieces that are subjective.

    For example, if you and I could be talking about ice hockey. I could be saying my favourite goal was X where the player smashed the puck from halfway and the sheer power beat the keeper. Yours could be a goal that involved some very subtle stick work that I just wouldn’t notice. Now you may have to replay that goal 10 times for me to fully grasp how good it was.

    I suspect it would take a wine expert a similar amount of effort to highlight a particular flavour.

    I agree with Andy K that the sheer quantity of bollocks talk is what wrecks my head. Someone can tell me there’s a hint of cherry in a wine and I’ll take their word for it even if I can’t taste it. But, sometimes they will persist.

    I think Christy Brown summed up bollocks talk: “I don’t need a fuckin’ psychology lesson, I just need a fuckin’ light.”

  11. Heather

    I read this morning that a group of wine connoisseurs were given two glasses of wine, one red, one white wine dyed with food colouring to appear red. 57% of them thought the dyed wine was the real deal. Voici, le link.

    They’re likely the same people who used to come into the winery I worked at and proclaim that our chardonnay had the flavour of ‘wet slate’. As a compliment.

  12. Martin

    All wine tastes of one thing… wine.

    All of it.

    I’ve often been forced to endure wine talk… and usually it has a “deep hint of clap-trap… subtle bullshit overtones and a thrust of heady pretention and snobbishness that linger as a aftertaste of complete and utter bollocks”

    it’s a fairly cheap alcoholic drink made from fermented grapes. Thats all. Get over it and go read a book.

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