The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

This is Your Wine on Metaphors:

Posted on | November 19, 2010 | Written by Janice Cable | 1 Comment

Just about three years ago, I got an email from IWM founder Sergio Esposito. He was looking for a new writer, and after searching the Internet far and wide, he found some of my writing, liked it, and asked me in for an interview. I started freelancing for IWM, and in October, I began writing here fulltime.

I was not a wine writer. I was a writer who liked wine, but what I knew about it you could fit into a shot glass. Which, actually, kind of worked for Sergio because he didn’t want his wine writing to resemble other people’s wine writing. He sent me an example of the kind of writing he liked by showing me a piece of writing, known around the office as “84 Points,” that discussed the kind of wine writing he doesn’t like. Not being versed in standard wine discourse, the piece didn’t mean much to me. What did mean a lot to me was the way that Sergio talked about wine, and the way that he talked about wine is metaphorically.

Sergio has quite the figurative lexicon when he’s talking wine. A wine can be a rocket ship, a jazz singer, a soccer move, a film, or the feeling you get when you’re sitting on the beach watching a sailboat disappear on the horizon. When Sergio talks about a wine he loves, he makes it a person, a place, a thing, an action or an abstract idea. It’s a type of synesthesia, the crossing of sensory input, and it makes a lot of sense to me, for I suffer from the same figurative affliction.

For example, in this week’s e-letter, he talks about the wines of Tua Rita being the embodiment of the Italian matriarch—strong, nourishing, uplifting, and a force of nature. When I write for IWM, I, of course, take my cue from him. For example, in describing our Cellar Management Selection offer for Querciabella, I called one vintage Marcello Mastroianni and the other Claudia Cardinale—the former had this suave masculinity that seemed so black-and-white Fellini; the latter a curvy femininity of the same era. It just seemed right.

There’s a lot of good to be had in describing wine in the typical lexicon of analogy. To say that a wine tastes of lychee, pear, cut grass and a fleck of nutmeg provides us with sensory concepts that we can hang our hat on. However, to say that a wine seems like a farmer dressed in a business suit, as one of my colleagues said of the Camartina, gives us more information, complementing information, information that speaks equally to the imagination and to the magic of wine.

This past week, Robert Sapolsky, a biologist, neurologist and neurosurgeon, wrote a NY Times piece, “This is Your Brain on Metaphors,” that perhaps explains why. Sapolsky says this of metaphor:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood…

We get metaphors, he argues, because they feel real. Pointing to a number of studies that show how the brain confuses the metaphoric with the literal—we feel real disgust when we talk about someone being a rat; we feel actual heat when we think of a person as warm; and more importantly, we perceive a person’s personality as warmer, more serious, or more flighty after we get sensory input that suggest heat, weight or light—Sapolsky suggests that this confusion is hard-wired. We human beings have visceral responses to figurative sense clues.

Which as a writer, and especially a wine writer, I find interesting.  And as IWM’s resident Wine Fabulist (my self-appointed title, a moniker that feels even more appropriate in the wake of Sapolsky’s article), I also find this synaptic conversion heartening. Wine is so much more than a bunch of descriptors (inky, unctuous, savory, full-bodied or bright) or a flock of nouns (blackberry, leather, tar, roses, or BBQ). It’s an experience. It’s hard to make human experience intelligible in the written word, but that’s something I do every day.

What we do, and what I think sets us apart, is follow Sergio’s lead. Sure, we give the descriptors and the nouns because they’re helpful. But we also endeavor to evoke the feeling that the wine gives you, be it eating strawberries in a field on a summer afternoon with the love or your life, being hugged by an Italian grandmother, or listening to Ella Fitzgerald.

Sapolsky quotes Nelson Mandela at the end of his article to suggest the power of metaphor: “Don’t talk to their minds; talk to their hearts,” Mandela said in trying to effect political change. It’s also the principle we have here, the way that we think about wine, and the way that we talk about it. Wine isn’t a head thing; it’s a heart thing. And that’s just the way we like it.

(Here’s where we found the very cool rocket photo.)


One Response to “This is Your Wine on Metaphors:”

  1. IWM - Wine writing through metaphors | Les Vimpressionnistes
    November 20th, 2010 @ 6:01 am

    […] is a very vimpressionnistic post about metaphorical wine writing, from the Italian Wine Merchants blog. “Sure, we give the descriptors and the nouns because they’re helpful. But we also endeavor […]

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