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Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges


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#1 robert brown

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Posted 15 March 2003 - 12:29 PM

How social change affects various fields of endeavor can often be gleaned from the way that people write and talk about them.

Shifts in the vocabulary and jargon within a field are one of the key barometers of such change. With wine drinking and evaluation, we see this at work to an extreme. As one interested both in wine and in the ways people speak and write, my heart stood still when I encountered Sean Shesgreen's essay "Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges: Winespeak for a New Millenium" that he had written for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately thought that this essay, which I found more enlightening and better written than just about anything I had read in the gastronomic literature, deserved to be made available to eGullet members.

Professor Shesgreen has graciously granted his permission to reproduce his essay for us to read and discuss.

I believe that he lays out a convincing case of the causes for the evolution over the past four decades of how and why the way people describe the properties of wine. He has identified the cultural reasons for it and has deftly described the genres or categories of the adjectives people use and the comparisons they make.

Do you find Professor Shesgreen's thesis compelling, if not convincing? You may also want to use his essay as a point of departure for your thoughts about the accuracy, honesty, and appropriateness of the new "winespeak" (perhaps versus the old or traditional) as it is used in the wine media as well as by certain wine drinkers.

Sean Shesgreen is Distinguished Research Professor of English at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He is the author of numerous articles and five books, most recently Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London (Rutgers University Press, 2002).



Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges: Winespeak for a New Millennium

By SEAN SHESGREEN

As a habitual wine drinker and a former wine columnist, I regularly slog through articles and books filled with the fanciful, extravagant, mystifying babble used by writers whose prose is deeply disconnected from the beverage they pretend to describe.

One such writer, ransacking nature for imagery to promote a French wine, paints a regional Burgundy as "a good mountain stream that could one day become a long, peaceful river." The celebrated Robert Parker, turning to the city for similes and metaphors, describes a 2000 Bordeaux as "a towering skyscraper in the mouth without being heavy or disjoined." Other writers regard wines as if they were mental patients with psychopathologies: Spain's Ribera del Duero from Bodegas Reyes has been called "more brooding than cheerful." A small dose of such criticism is enough to make the common reader rejoice when he or she hears a plain-speaking Englishman pronounce his beverage "a jolly good wine."

As these examples suggest, contemporary literary-oenological styles of writing are diverse. However, that diversity is superficial; in fact, the language that the majority of American wine writers use falls into three categories. Two of those were popular in the middle and late part of the 20th century, when they were eclipsed (but not entirely obscured) by a third style of rhetoric, which has become more and more popular.

Until recently, Americans have described what they drink using just two languages, both abstract and neither, oddly enough, linked directly to wine: the language of social class and the language of gender.

Of the two, the language of class has been the more pervasive. In the 1964 edition of Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine, for example, Portugal's best red wine is characterized as "full-bodied, extremely fruity, [but] somewhat lacking in breed." By contrast, French Sauternes from Château Coutet is praised for "great distinction and breed." Frontignan's muscat, another sweet, French white wine, has "considerable distinction and real class." (Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia grew out of a series of wine columns in The New Yorker, published around the time of the repeal of prohibition in 1933; until recently, and through several editions, it has been the American oenophile's bible.)

Although less ubiquitous, the vocabulary of gender has a more venerable legacy than the language of class; it goes back at least as far as the Victorian literary critic George Saintsbury, who, according to Schoonmaker, described a red Hermitage from France as "the manliest wine" he had ever drunk. Like the language of class, the language of gender bestows praise and blame, but in more nuanced shades.

The red wines of Morey-Saint-Denis and Chambolle-Musigny are distinguished from each other thus: Morey's wines are "big, hard, assertive -- the reverse in every way of the Chambolles," which are "delicate and feminine, with beguiling grace and a captivating, warming bouquet," according to the early editions of Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits in the 1950s.

For Lichine, who viewed the reds of Gevrey as "robust, assertive and strictly masculine" and the whites of Meursault as "soft, round, and feminine," the dichotomies of sex and gender were fundamental to any understanding of wine. A chateau owner whom Newsweek dubbed the pope of oenophiles (according to the book jacket of Lichine's book), Lichine was emphatic about that contrast when he wrote of French wine.

About the time of Frank Schoonmaker's death in 1976, descriptions of wine in America began to shift from the language of class and gender to the language of fruits and vegetables. A recent Wines & Spirits account of a 1998 Argiolas Costera called it "a garden of southern Italian flavors, from sun-baked black plums and fresh, fuzzy figs to almonds, fennel, and cherries. Crisp, lemon-like acidity provides the freshness of a sea breeze." Such passages suggest that, like cookbooks, 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.

This new pastoral language has been widely adopted in the United States, and has also spread to France and the United Kingdom, where the English translation of The Hachette Wine Guide: The French Wine Bible declares that a La Clarière Laithwaite offers aromas "of almond, cocoa, marsh flowers, irises and undergrowth." The same lexicon pervades the wine columns in The New York Times, which recently described a glass of Madeira as "a big, full, brash wine [which] raced for each corner of our palates, gushing oranges, golden raisins, brandied cherries, licorice, mint, and maple sugar." Gushing indeed.

Such descriptions focus on produce with a romantic, idyllic, and halcyon aura. Banished are parsnips, onions, carrots, potatoes, and other roots with lowly ties. Wine writing recoils from vegetables that make gas or blight the breath, like beans and garlic. Naturally, it shuns brussels sprouts, broccoli, and other vegetables forced upon us as children.

It favors picturesque foods like asparagus; green, yellow, or red bell peppers; lemons; oranges; and apples. And it goes for fruits over nuts and vegetables, especially fruits that are high in sugar. It is particularly fond of cherries, Asian pears, peaches, melons, plums, figs, tangerines, lychees, and pineapples. While it also shows a preference for exotic foods like papaya, quince, guava, passion fruit, and mango, its all-time favorite is the berry: strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, mulberries, gooseberries, cranberries, blueberries, and bilberries.

Although fruit lies at its core, the new nomenclature radiates out in other directions, chiefly culinary. The Wine Enthusiast's tasting notes for a bottle of Hidden Cellars finds that its 1997 zinfandel displays "an appealing mix of nut, cocoa, anise, oak, and black fruit on the palate. Opens with paprika and cinnamon, plus cocoa aromas; closes with a definitive vanilla-anise-oak tang." Along with an assortment of herbs, spices, and baking ingredients, wine narratives include everything found in today's kitchen: raw materials like honey, olives, bacon, meat, and coffee; processed foods like tapenade, marzipan, and chocolate; quasi-edibles like violets, tea roses, dried leaves, beeswax, and green tobacco; inedibles like oyster shells, camphor, and stones; imponderables like "orange-scented peach," "precious, very roasted wood," and the titillating "corrupt cherry."

Then there's this account of Standing Stone Pinot Noir, in which "intense aromas of caramel-cola, black cherries, and wet dog give way to a medium-weight, silky palate that offers dark chocolate and cherry flavors." Other bizarre references include new saddle leather, pencil lead, seaweed, ash, smoke, Band-Aids, iodine, beef blood, and creosote. Who among us distinguishes beef blood from, say, pig's or chicken's? And is it really possible for one wine to smell of multiple, antagonistic aromas like "coffee, violets, prunes, smoke, toast, and game"?

Questions probing the accuracy of this new lingo lead to broader ones about why it has won such widespread acceptance, defining the way Americans perceive -- or imagine -- the 565 million gallons of wine they spend $19-billion on yearly.

One answer lies in an obscure but initially influential book published the year Frank Schoonmaker died. In 1976, Maynard A. Amerine (an oenologist) and Edward B. Roessler (a mathematician) wrote Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation to establish a scientific vocabulary of organoleptic terms -- expressions aiding in the sensory evaluation of wine. To that end, the two professors offer a glossary amounting to an index of forbidden wine-tasting words, though they do not give it that undemocratic title. In a preface to their glossary, these two professors from the University of California at Davis's department of viticulture and oenology do admonish: "It is not our intent to condemn the following terms (although some of them deserve it) for your wine vocabulary, but merely to warn you to use them with caution, if at all."

From the realm of class, Amerine and Roessler purge "coarse," "common," "breed," "elegant," "heavy," "noble," "ordinary," and "well-bred," reserving special scorn for "finesse." From the sphere of gender, they outlaw "big," "masculine," "robust," "sturdy," "feminine," "fragrant," "lithe," "perfumed," and "delicate."

But Amerine and Roessler's book did not, by itself, banish the vocabularies of class and gender. And though the book's science (impressive algebraic formulas adorn the volume) played a role in discrediting Schoonmaker's and others' aging terminologies, it did not establish the pastoral paradigm replacing them. The death of the old language and the birth of the new followed a cultural shift in late-20th-century America that has not drawn the comment it deserves.

In the United States (as in England), France and Italy have long stood as models of contrasting cultural and social styles. France represents urbanity, cynicism, artfulness, formality, protocol, high theory, elitism, snobbery, and propriety. Italy stands for naturalness, informality, accessibility, practicality, spontaneity, optimism, intuitiveness, and family feeling. Those contrasts are apparent in movies, literary philosophy, couture, cuisine, wine, and, most recently, education. (Italian styles of child care, emphasizing creativity and spontaneity, are being studied not just by Americans, but by the French themselves, who now view their own system as overregimented.)

In the middle of the 20th century, when the specter of Italy's fascist past still lingered, Americans looked to France for cultural models. French was the language of diplomacy; the adjective "French" was synonymous with the "best" in wines and restaurants everywhere; movies by Truffaut and Godard defined the avant-garde in cinema.

But when Reagan's "morning in America" political optimism and Clinton's prosperity ushered in a period of serenity in the 1980s and '90s, an increasingly self-confident population sought styles of living that embodied informality and familial ease. That casualness drew Americans to Italy. Italian movies like Cinema Paradiso, The Postman, and Life Is Beautiful eclipsed French films in popularity; Bella Tuscany displaced A Year in Provence, the latter enduring through so many sequels only because it celebrated the Italian part of France. Marcella Hazan trumped Julia Child; and impenetrable French menus spawning tiny portions of food drowning in egg-butter-cream sauces yielded to Italy's cornucopia cuisines, prepared in olive oil, now elevated to a medical wonder.

Following the triumph of its cuisines, Italy's Barberas, Pinot Grigios, and Chianti Classicos began to challenge their French rivals. Viewed as more accessible and less costly than astronomically priced French wines, they brought with them the pastoral associations and language of the Italian campagna. Where these bucolic connections and vocabularies had been embraced by oenophiles like Parker, the zest for all things Italian nourished and sustained them, bestowing on such pastoral allusions the naturalness and validity they needed to take root and flourish.

Today, as a result, it is impossible to mass market any wine on American television using French imagery. Political fashion has helped discredit gender referents, so that to praise a Rhone as "manly" or to speak of "the fragile yet resolute charm of feminine wines" is to sound comically old-fashioned. And economic pressure to market a worldwide glut of wine (overproduction runs at 25 percent annually) has made invidious allusions to social standing, high or low, seem snooty. Meanwhile, creating Italian-sounding brands like Mondavi, Gallo, Martini, and Sebastiani, or depicting large, noisy families gathering around Mediterranean feasts has become the preferred way to pitch wines, regardless of their true nationality.

Finally, casting wine, in words or images, as so many heads by the Milan painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo (who fabricated allegories of the seasons out of pears, peaches, cherries, and nuts) gives it the appearance of a health food. Here at last is a natural medicine that keeps the doctor away, but promises to gratify the flesh, not mortify it. Composed of nature's bounty drawn from the four seasons, wines enjoy irresistible appeal to aging boomers obsessed with their physical well-being. Reinvented as those fruits and vegetables touted by physicians and governments as the best defense against cancer -- not to mention heart disease, dementia, and hip fractures -- wine metamorphoses into one of the most powerful prophylactics in our pharmacological arsenal, along with olive oil and green tea.

Clearly, unlike literary critics and art historians, wine critics have failed to invent a dialect of their own to describe precisely what they do. Wine writers are loosely organized into two adversarial camps, researchers and marketers. The first, located in winery labs or universities, is committed to pruning oenoleptic diction back to a limited number of exact, scientific terms, but that camp is too obscure to achieve its goals. The second camp, operating in glossy magazines, prestigious daily papers, and $50-a-year newsletters, is committed to the hard sell, by expanding the language of wine through imagination and expressiveness. Devoted to the "poetry" of the grape, these wine "rappers" resemble nomads who wander from one landscape to another, gleaning their next crop of terms to mythologize their next vintage. As their search leads them farther and farther afield, it yields literary harvests that are increasingly fantastic and improbable.

If current writing is the barometer of the next oenological wave, chronicles of wines as "hedonistic," "pretty and caressing," "ravishing," "pillowy," "seductive," and "overendowed" point to the erotic, affirming the view that, in the kaleidoscope of Americans' fixations, gastronomy has eclipsed sex.

#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 15 March 2003 - 05:25 PM

But when Reagan's "morning in America" political optimism and Clinton's prosperity ushered in a period of serenity in the 1980s and '90s, an increasingly self-confident population sought styles of living that embodied informality and familial ease.

A terrific piece, Robert. A telling demonstration of how great food writing can so easily be found outside the standard food (and wine) media. Thanks to you, Jonathan, and the professor for bringing it to us.

The passage quoted above is the one place where I felt the analysis overreached (save for, perhaps, the concluding paragraph as well). For one thing, I don't understand what evidence would link the Reagan era with casualness in food, wine, or anything. This was the era of the comeback of the black-tie-formal dinner, Gordon Gekko in his Alan Flusser suits, the rise of a new breed of high-end luxury American restaurants, formality in state dinners, and probably the greatest era in American history for consumption of very expensive (French) wines. For another thing, I don't think the mass-market audience of, say, a Gallo marketing campaign, reads the wine press at all (except as quotes; see below). So I don't see how the language used in the wine press would be related to those people's quests for "informality and familial ease." The wine media targets a very high-income, mostly big-city demographic: the investment bankers and other high flyers who, in the boom years, slept in their offices with their neckties at the ready and never even saw their families.

Clearly, unlike literary critics and art historians, wine critics have failed to invent a dialect of their own to describe precisely what they do.


I'm not sure I see this as the logical conclusion to be drawn from the evidence. What the body of the article seems to prove is that there are fashions in wine criticism, just as there are in all forms of criticism. Because wine criticism has far more of a consumer-purchasing-guide aspect to it (I don't see many numerical scores in book and art reviews, for example -- and indeed the scores are part of the language of wine criticism) it is more likely to be directly responsive to readers, but that's not a failure of dialog -- it's just an indication of dynamism. I also think the unifying influence of U.C. Davis and Wine Spectator -- the two forces that really dominate in the category -- cannot be understated. Speaking as a journalist who occasionally writes about wine, I can tell you that these are the top-level sources with which a large percentage of journalists begin their research on wine questions, even if that research ultimately yields disagreement with those sources. Also, I would have to say that the number one tool for communicating wine terminology to the wine-buying public at large is the bottle-neck tag or placard placed on a wine display rack. Those scores -- usually from Wine Spectator -- and quotes are what average wine-buying consumers (the ones who just want a bottle of wine for a date, for dinner, or whatever; not those who follow auctions and the media) are really reading about wine.

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#3 John Whiting

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Posted 16 March 2003 - 06:02 AM

Curious that no mention is made of the UC Davis wine wheel, an attempt to use neutral, non-emotive terminology with some semblance of scientific (i.e. observational) accuracy. It used to be available on their website, but now you have to buy it, rather expensively.
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#4 britcook

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Posted 16 March 2003 - 10:57 AM

Yes, some precious writers and broadcasters try to use a vocabulary that is inappropriate but that is not confined to wine, it features in any field that could be loosely termed arts. Even Professor Shesgreen is not immune to purple prose

Such descriptions focus on produce with a romantic, idyllic, and halcyon aura.

Wine tasting is difficult because wine IS notoriously difficult to describe, the UC Davis Aroma wheel, or the even more extensive Laithwaite's Taste Prompter show the range of unlikely and improbable words used to describe fermented grape juice because the last thing it usually tastes or smells of is grape. But as unlikely or improbable as these descriptions are those of us who have tasted wine seriously know that the apparently bizarre words actually do give the most accurate description of the experience, and the vocabulary tends towards fruit and green vegetables because these are the aroma/taste cues that crop up most often when tasting wine.
His statement

Banished are parsnips, onions, carrots, potatoes, and other roots with lowly ties. Wine writing recoils from vegetables that make gas or blight the breath, like beans and garlic. Naturally, it shuns brussels sprouts, broccoli, and other vegetables forced upon us as children.

is merely playing to the gallery, basically because those aromas/tastes do not normally occur in well-made wine, although I have heard broccoli mentioned in tastings.
Overall I fail to see his point, to describe wine accurately you have to draw upon a superficially strange vocabulary, and some words are now out of favour. So big deal. Would he have us limit our descriptions to the merely mundane, or put our faith in some "expert's" scoring system? I think not.

#5 Nick

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Posted 16 March 2003 - 07:01 PM

Robert, This may be a bit too off topic to post, but I thought I'd pass it along.

Jim Hightower, the Texas populist, has short commentaries which we hear each day on our community radio station (WERU) and last week he commented on the military research going into using bad odors ("malodors") as weapons. In his commentary he included the following which, when I heard it, reminded me so much of some of the descriptions of wines that we hear and read today.

..... Courageous journalists at the Los Angeles Times sniffed out this story and filed this first hand report: "Bathroom Malodor had a strongly fecal smell, with sharp notes of spoiled eggs and an undertone of rotting rodent." :blink:

The full story can be found here .

On a more serious note, an old family friend, Creighton Churchill, for many years selected and wrote on French wines - this back in the fifties and sixties. I have a copy of his "A notebook for the Wines of France" put away somewhere. I'll see if I can dig it out and post some of his descriptions here.

#6 robert brown

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Posted 17 March 2003 - 10:11 AM

Professor Shesgreen sent me the following e-mail because, as he explains, problems he is experiencing with his server does not allow him to post directly into the Symposium forum. I am grateful that (without any prodding) he has taken the time to discuss some of the matters raised by participants in this thread.


Dear Robert Brown:

You can post some or all of this to Forum, which I cannot post to
myself because of technical difficulties with our server this morning
via remote--I'm away from home.

Regarding the London correspondent who asks about the Wine Wheel: I
looked fleetingly at that and noted that, for example, it featured
"sweat." That word raises the same kind of problem I address in the
essay: my sweat and yours are very different, in aroma or taste.

Regarding the correspondent who alludes to aromas occurring in
"well-made wine": a longer version of this piece glances at that issue,
at least obliquely, by pointing out that most current wine criticism is
only positive, seldom negative (and then timidly), as if no bad wines
were made. Here are a few examples from the longer piece, which was
edited to fit the Chronicle's space requirements:

What wine writers shun are captious terms and words of disparagement.
Wine "criticism" in the hands of men (wine writing and collecting are
male preserves, my wife claims, and Forum's correspondents confirm that)
from Saintsbury to Parker proceeds by acclaim, and that in the
superlative degree. In Parker's Wine Advocate for 28 February 2002, the
following adjectives appear on a single page: "superb," "spectacular,"
"blockbuster," "extraordinary," "exceptional," "fabulous," "huge,"
"immense," "enormous," "thrilling," "phenomenal," "superlative,"
"thrilling" "gorgeous," "amazingly accessible," "sumptuous," "immense,"
"perfect," and, not surprisingly, "intoxicating." This operatic language
might be pardoned because it alludes to wines sampled at two special
tastings, but such poetic license is the rule in the Wine Advocate. It
surfaces in headlines like "Bordeaux's Hallelujah…2000 is the greatest
vintage ever," an anti-historic banner underlining the extent to which
wine reporting is crying and hawking, like literary criticism and art
appreciation. His clientele, of course, are alumni of elite colleges
were grade inflation is also the norm.

With thanks

Sean Shesgreen

#7 britcook

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Posted 18 March 2003 - 03:47 AM

Like Professor Shesgreen I deplore the excessive use of superlatives, the example from Parker is typical of the pointless talking up of wine. In the UK there is less of this over-praising of any product, particularly wine, our view tends to be more realistic, although not always lacking in hyperbole. One must remember though that positive thought is deeply embedded in the American psyche, to be anything less than 100% in favour is considered to be negative or counter productive, the British, with their rather more objective (some would say cynical) approach are often considered to be too negative by our friends across the pond. It may be that Mr Parker and his ilk only get to taste good wines, if not then the charitable might offer the view that he only reports on the better ones and simply ignores the rest. Only if he reports on everything and still finds no serious fault might we become suspicious of grade inflation.
On a simpler note there may be another cause for the explosion of pastoral descriptions and that is the changing styles of winemaking. The traditional wines of Europe were often surprisingly dull and certainly were not immediately accessible to the uneducated palate and, in spite of high prices and a certain cachet, were not at all well made. The vocabulary needed to describe these was indeed limited, how many ways can you say closed, overextracted, over-tannic, poor (as ever with honourable exceptions). The arrival of the Australians (and some Californians) in a big way in the late 60s and early 70s with their clean, fruit-driven wines meant that the traditional vocabulary was no longer adequate. Through the alchemy of new methods of viticulture and vinification wines started to display all manner of characteristics that had not been widely present before. My view, although I'm prepared to discuss the point, is that this, more than anything else widened the lexicon of wine tasting.
As for the definition of tastes and aromas, well that is always going to be personal, like the enjoyment of a piece of music or art work. "Sweat" to me has certain connotations of smell, whether mine or somebody else's. Now that particular aroma to somebody else may be redolent of "wet dog" or "saddle". What matters to me (and others serious about wine) is a consistency of approach so that all other things being equal I (or the wine writer) will describe that wine in the same way each time it is approached. Thus one gets to match ones personal language with that of the writer. I think (over-use of superlatives aside) Robert Parker is a model in this respect in that once you have learnt his style it is a very reliable guide to the wine he is writing about. As it happens my preferences differ from his, so if he really likes it I probably won't, but if I study his descriptions in advance I will have a pretty good idea of what I will be tasting which, in the end, is what it is all about.

#8 Nick

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Posted 26 March 2003 - 05:10 PM

On a more serious note, an old family friend, Creighton Churchill, for many years selected and wrote on French wines - this back in the fifties and sixties. I have a copy of his "A notebook for the Wines of France" put away somewhere. I'll see if I can dig it out and post some of his descriptions here.

Robert, Sorry to take so long to get back to this. Today I went looking for Creighton's book - thought I knew just where it was - but, alas, it wasn't where I thought it was. I think Creighton was fairly well respected for his views on French wines and it would have been interesting to post his way of describing them here.

#9 macrosan

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 06:15 AM

Professor Shesgreen's piece is, quite apart from it's scholarly intent, a great piece of debunking :laugh: I really enjoy drinking wine, but I don't purport to know anything more about it than "I know what I like". I certainly do not decry those who take pleasure out of learning about wine, and I do acknowledge that there is indeed much to learn which can increase one's enjoyment. Nevertheless even the most ardent oenologist must recognise that wine is one of the last bastions of class and financial snobbery, and the language invented for it is designed more to protect the clique in its arcane practices than to inform those outside the clique.

I accept britcook's argument that the elementary flavours within wine are most likely to resemble vegetable and fruit flavours. Wet dogs or sweat ? Well maybe at a stretch. But "almond, cocoa, marsh flowers, irises and undergrowth" or "oranges, golden raisins, brandied cherries, licorice, mint, and maple sugar" ? I think not.Those are the descriptions one might expect from someone with avery confused palate, or from someone who simply wished to confuse and mystify the reader.

Britcook also said "Wine tasting is difficult because wine IS notoriously difficult to describe" and I'm not sure I follow that line of argument. Tasting is tasting --- you drink the wine and you taste it, it is what it is, you like it or don't like it, you think A is better or nicer than B, you can identify A or B, and so on. None of that process requires description. So in what way does the difficulty of describing make tasting difficult ?

I agree that the process of description is difficult, but that equally applies to food or music or a host of other entities which depend for their assessment upon subjective preference. The interesting question is why oenologists attempt to insist upon a pseudo-scientific analysis of wine, given that it is so difficult. As a committed cycnic, I suggest that that has something to do with protection of the mystique. Incidentally, as someone said earlier, my cynicism equally extends to those musicologists and gourmands who try to apply these descriptive processes to their own spheres.

I am reminded of one of my old mathematics lecturers, who was the man who had "written the text book". Having mastered the proof of Gauss' Divergence Theorem, I then asked him what it was about ? He replied something like "It is used to calculate flux integrals across a surface, by transforming to a volume integral". Now I'm not saying that there is any better way to explain what Gauss' Divergence Theorem is about, but I will suggest that that's an answer designed by an expert for an expert, it's not any way to help the wider masses .

#10 oraklet

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 07:30 AM

""almond, cocoa, marsh flowers, irises and undergrowth" or "oranges, golden raisins, brandied cherries, licorice, mint, and maple sugar" ? I think not."

sorry to contradict you: though i'm not so accomplished as to be able to recognize all these notes, at least some of them i certainly have tasted; like cocoa, mint, licorice, cherries (may coincide with almond). smae with sweat (which can be quite pleasant, depending on whose)
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#11 JAZ

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Posted 27 March 2003 - 10:43 AM

I accept britcook's argument that the elementary flavours within wine are most likely to resemble vegetable and fruit flavours. Wet dogs or sweat ? Well maybe at a stretch. But "almond, cocoa, marsh flowers, irises and undergrowth" or "oranges, golden raisins, brandied cherries, licorice, mint, and maple sugar" ? I think not.Those are the descriptions one might expect from someone with avery confused palate, or from someone who simply wished to confuse and mystify the reader.

Britcook also said "Wine tasting is difficult because wine IS notoriously difficult to describe" and I'm not sure I follow that line of argument. Tasting is tasting --- you drink the wine and you taste it, it is what it is, you like it or don't like it, you think A is better or nicer than B, you can identify A or B, and so on. None of that process requires description. So in what way does the difficulty of describing make tasting difficult ?

I agree that the process of description is difficult, but that equally applies to food or music or a host of other entities which depend for their assessment upon subjective preference. The interesting question is why oenologists attempt to insist upon a pseudo-scientific analysis of wine, given that it is so difficult. As a committed cycnic, I suggest that that has something to do with protection of the mystique.

Describing the way wine or food tastes is not difficult because of the subjectivity of the experience. Describing any sensory experience is virtually impossible because the senses are so basic. We don't learn about sensory experiences the way we learn about mathematics. They exist outside of language, in a sense, and that is why anyone who wants to describe a sensory experience has to resort to analogy.

For instance, if I'm trying to describe the taste of a lemon, or the sound of an oboe, I'm pretty much forced to say things like "a lemon tastes sort of like a lime" or "an oboe sounds sort of like a cross between a clarinet and a bassoon." None of this would be any problem if we didn't want to talk about our sensory experiences, but of course we do (or eGullet wouldn't exist, would it?) Eating and drinking are most often social activities, and what's a social acitivity worth if you can't talk about it with other people?

So if you wish to talk about the wines you drink, you have to speak in analogies, and the most you can hope for is that your analogies are accurate yet universal enough that other people understand what you mean by your description. The best traits (I think) in a wine or food critic are a very wide experience tasting things; a very good memory, so when she tastes something new, she can cast back to previous experiences and pull out some similar taste memories; and an ability to accurately describe the taste memory.

And I'm with Britcook on this one -- at least fruit and vegetable terms are more accurate than psychological and anthropomorphic terms. It's very true that some wine writers and many wine lovers purposely make their descriptions arcane to make themselves feel superior, but I think most people are really just trying to describe something that's hard to describe. A lot of people (including some "professional" writers) are not very good at it, but I don't think most of them are malicious.