The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Less is More in Wine Speak

Posted on | February 23, 2011 | Written by Evan LaNouette | 3 Comments

The cliché in the wine world is to use almost acrobatic language to describe the profile of a wine. This process often fails to keep within practical general descriptions that could help novice consumers find their way, and pushes into the overly specific where sensory experiences seem too individual. Every person is so individual, and so is their own experience of wine, that lavish wine descriptions can seem egotistic and inefficient. On the New York Times blog The Pour, wine writer Eric Asimov points out the failure of this  approach to wine writing and advocates for the use of simplicity. In fact, he argues using two basic descriptors: savory or sweet. Asimov suggests that even an easy duality of sweet vs savory could be more effective as a starting ground for communicating, as he says, “the essence of any bottle [better] than the most florid, detailed analogies ever could.”

I find this approach refreshing. Although there is so much more to a glass of fine wine than any two descriptors could ever classify, the reality is that wine drinking is a learned process that no one can ever fully master. No one person will ever be able to detect every aromatic element within a glass of wine because of personal sensitivities, aromatic blindness, and emotional bias. The baseline remains: every wine drinker from Robert Parker to the entry millennial is bound to the fact that when they put their nose to a glass they are affixed to their individual perceptive limits and can only end up with a perception of the wine rather than a direct imprint. In my discussions with people about life and wine I always say, “Perception is the body’s inability to understand what is actually in front of them.” For example, when announcing my detection of the minerality in a Chablis, I am also stating that I am foregoing the perception of the more subtle notes of citrus or cedar that are present. It’s a choice, or it’s a failing. Either way, it’s incomplete, subjective, and inaccurate.

The lesson here is we should take time to reconsider the flamboyant nature of present wine communication and bring ourselves back to the bare bones of wine appreciation. Instead of trying to observe a collage of potential descriptors we should be asking ourselves very simple questions about our wine. Is this wine sweet or savory? Is this wine tannic? Does this wine make me smile? Does this wine make me think? Do I like this wine? And not does this wine shows strong notes of young pomegranate, supple wet cherries, pine tree sap on a spring morning, and salted sea stones. Using a more boiled-down method for evaluating wine gives your fellow drinkers more material to relate to their own experiences. Using a spare approach allows you to let your own emotional response be your guide, rather than a personal judgment or ranking of similar styles and merits. In such an approach I see not just efficient methodology but also the beauty of vino.

We’d love to know your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Or just want to take another angle to this fascinating–if polemic–topic? Feel free to comment below.


3 Responses to “Less is More in Wine Speak”

  1. ernie whalley
    February 24th, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    I gave up using florid, OTT descriptors in my wine column a good few years ago.
    In a Pauline conversion I suddenly realised that if I opined that a wine “evinced aromas of Morello cherries, nettles, gun flint, three year-old Nike trainers and attar of roses” and a single reader failed to detect even one of these elements my credibility was blown for ever.
    These days I prefer to talk about finesse, structure and, that most important component required of even the cheapest wine, balance and leave the reader to determine for him/herself as to what the wine smells or tastes of.

  2. Kerry-Jo
    February 24th, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    I love using descriptors to explain wine. Leaving the choices to merely “sweet” or “savory” seems a little uncreative. We need a happy medium between these simplistic classifications and ridiculous, complicated descriptors that do nothing but inflate the author’s ego. Does the average wine consumer really want to have to look up words in a dictionary just to find out what a wine tastes like??

  3. Evan LaNouette
    February 24th, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    Hello Erine,

    It’s interesting to hear your take as a past columnist. Even though the potential fallout of credibility of a journalist wasn’t necessarily my thought about the failures of such language it is nevertheless an appropriate point. I also feel there is an overlaps with another concern I have that flamboyant language creates. For people who are less experienced with wine and those who are just starting to get their cheeks wet are pushed away by the lack of familiarity such language creates. It makes wine too confusing and prevents people from occasionally buying higher quality wine, as they don’t feel like they are a part of the upper tier of drinkers who can identify such details. Thus it is miss-understood, and when something is miss-understood, and cheap alternatives exist, which creates the perfect storm for price to regulate the market. This find is highly dangerous. We don’t want wine to be a commodity, and have the success of wineries be based on pricing wars. I find this bad for the industry but also bad for the long term rise of the American market. Unless you’re comfortable drinking cheap white zinfandel, as a wine drinker you most likely want to me more knowledgeable about what is in your glass and it is for that reason I say keep things simple and approachable. When something can be put into simple approachable terms you remove emotional barriers and allow people to feel more knowledgeable about their experiences – regardless if they are or not – and will experiment more with different options. This I see as healthy for everyone.

    Let me know what you think,
    Evan LaNouette
    Associate Portfolio Manager

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