How to Talk About Wine



wine talkThe question of what language we should be using to describe wine is important not only for wine appreciation but to enable wineries to sell their wine and expand their customer base. So I read Hannah Fuellenkemper’s recent post with some skepticism. Entitled “Why You Don’t Need to Learn to Talk About Wine”, she writes:

Lock me up for thoughtcrime, but winespeak often creates more distance then [sic] it connects. And like any glossary, it has its limitations. Take ‘varietal typicity’ – whether a wine shows it can only be answered yes/no. How far does that go? Or the sling all your things in that old duffel-bag descriptors of ‘black fruit’ and ‘herbaceous’. To hear it is like listening to opera through a stethoscope – a scientists’ tool not suited to translating art.

Well I agree with that. In fact, the only two things in the post I disagree with are the title and her implication that she doesn’t know how to talk about wine.

When I drink, I drink to savour, not for the right terminology or the specs. I drink for associations and memories, joy and energy, for colour, to contemplate but also to refresh. I drink for kaleidoscope glitter, shapes, unexpected turns and twists. Sometimes there’s mystery, other times it’s more about fluidity than a sense of individuality. Best of all is when I feel that pulse of liquid electricity.

Hannah, that is exactly how to talk about wine. There is a time and place for standard winespeak but no one ever captured the essence of a wine by listing fruit notes or reporting how much oak was used. Describing the individuality of a wine—if in fact it is distinctive, many wines aren’t—is something we are not very good at because people like Hannah have been browbeaten into thinking highly descriptive or metaphorical language is too subjective.

But there is no standardized language for describing uniqueness—if there were it would not be uniqueness you’re describing. This is why I find musical metaphors to be useful.

So, Hannah, please keep talking about wine; you do it better than most.


Wine Review: Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2014


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upchurchChris Upchurch co-founded DeLille Cellars in 1992, and as Executive Winemaker, has built it into one of the top wineries in Washington State. This wine is from his family winery in the Red Mountain AVA which he runs with his wife and daughter. Red Mountain AVA is a hot, barren hill, about 1400 feet in elevation at its highest point, located in the larger Columbia Valley AVA. It’s a desert with only about 5 inches of rainfall per year. Yet it is the fastest growing region in Washington and home to many dense, concentrated wines made from Bordeaux varietals.

With great concentration up front, this wine promises power and depth but then turns on the charm with striking tenderness and elegance, its dark tranquility a respite for a burdened soul.

Soothing aromas of black currant with a soft vanilla penumbra, gentle wood notes more like balsa than cedar, and sage, shaded by pepper and a clove note.

On the palate there is a significant drop in fruit intensity as the finish launches a slow, concise crescendo but the fruit power is sustained at a lower volume with a relaxed, tender core framed by ebullient acidity that seems to rush along the periphery as the fruit softens. The lengthy finish is absolutely mouthwatering. There is plenty of breadth from the advanced tannins but they are gracious and supple willing to share the spotlight with the bright acidity.

A big wine with a heart of gold, with oak and tannins now well-integrated, it’s adorned for a superior grace for the next 5-15 years.

Quietly centered, gently flowing but with latent power like Massive Attack’s Teardrop

Technical Notes: 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 100% new French oak.

Score: 93

Price: $70

Alc: 14.6%

Coming Soon to a Future Near You


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mosa meat

Mosa Meat Burger

The last time I checked into the progress of lab-grown meat, it was still expensive and didn’t taste so good. But times are a-changin’. Mosa Meats, makers of fine lab-grown meat, estimates the current cost to be just over $10 for a hamburger and expect it to be commercially available in 3 to 4 years.

Why lab-grown meat?

Farm-raised meat is a major contributor to climate change, resource depletion and other environmental ills. And it requires an enormous amount of land and is cruel to animals. Lab grown meat avoids all those moral and environmental harms which are increasingly a threat to the planet. We’ve been trying to make plant-based burgers that taste like meat for decades with no success so that doesn’t seem to be a viable option. Demand for meat is expected to grow exponentially, to unsustainable levels, and since it doesn’t appear we are inclined to give up meat, the only option is to make it via a process that won’t harm the environment.

Of course the big question about lab grown meat is does it taste good. According to Mosa Meats, thanks to refinements in their technology, cultured meat now tastes like ordinary meat. Of course, they might be a wee bit biased so some independent tastes would be welcome. But they are right that the molecular structure of cultured meat is the same as meat from cows. There is no reason why it should not taste like meat, since it is indeed meat. Muscle-specific stem cells are taken from a cow and are encouraged to self-organize into muscle tissue, which is then grown in the lab, eventually finding its way to your plate. It is biologically identical to meat that comes from a cow, pig or chicken.

The biggest hurdle will undoubtedly be the “yuk” factor. A room full of oozing, bulging “flesh plants” is anything but appetizing. But have you been to a slaughterhouse recently? The “Yuk” factor objection is not really a serious obstacle. Test-tube babies are real persons, cars manufactured by robots are real cars, seedless fruits are propagated using a culturing process, so why the “yuk” factor with manufactured beef? If it’s affordable and tasty plenty of people will buy it cutting the demand for livestock generated meat and eventually sending commodity livestock farming into a death spiral.

Predictions about the timing of technological advances are always dicey. But if I were looking for long-tern investment opportunities, it wouldn’t be looking at livestock.

Budget Wine Review: La Garenne Blaye-Cote de Bordeaux Red Blend 2016



la garenneWhen you can find no information about a wine online that tells you it is probably a private label wine, made specifically for a retail operation and sold there exclusively. These are usually bulk wines made by large companies and branded by a marketing team. The producers like the guaranteed sales channel with no marketing costs. The retailers like them because they have higher margins and no price competition. They can be decent or dreadful but there is no way to know except to try them.

This wine (not to be confused with Domaine de La Gareene) is probably a private label wine made for Trader Joe’s. The grapes are sourced from the large appellation, Blaye—Cote de Bordeaux, a bulk wine region across the Gironde River from Medoc. The blend is likely Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.

For $8 this is good value. It tastes a bit like Bordeaux except softer with less acidity than is typical.

Red current, coffee, and graphite with a licorice hint are the dominant aromas. The juice is soft and lean but sports a mineral layer that gives the wine some firmness and heft. The finish features soft tannins and medium acidity with a note of bitter burnt wood that is distracting. A very dry wine with no hint of sweetness,  it feels compressed and lacks expression, with very little movement on the palate. But it’s not trying to be something it’s not. An ordinary, rustic table wine from Bordeaux at a good price. What’s not to like?

Reserved, remote maybe cynical–or just a wry sense of humor, it played well with the Merle Haggard/Ray Price/Willie Nelson collaboration “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”

Score: 83

Price: $8 (Purchase at Trader Joe’s)

Alc: 12.5%

The Wine Critic’s Job (#5 in a series on wine criticism)



wine criticIn this series of posts I’ve been arguing that the primary purpose of wine criticism is to aid in appreciation. Thus, to provide an account of how wine criticism performs that function we need an account of wine appreciation.

In order to appreciate a wine two conditions must obtain:

(1) Tasting the wine or accurately imagining it based on reliable perceptions of a component or stage of the wine; (for more detail see this post)

and (2) Responding appropriately to the wine. (See this post  and this post for more details on appropriate response)

Given this account of appreciation, we can now say what wine criticism is.

One necessary condition of wine criticism is that the critic must have tasted the wine. Regardless of how much a critic may know about the wine, readers have a legitimate expectation that the critic has tasted the wine and developed her view of the wine based on that tasting.

The second condition of wine criticism is that the critic seek to communicate the properties and appropriate responses to those properties that a wine makes available, as well as reasons for why those responses are appropriate. The critic’s aim is not just to describe the wine but to enable the reader to understand that these properties are worthy of their attention and invite a response, whether positive or negative.

The critic is responding to what is good or bad in a wine and is reporting that the wine moves her in some way and is letting the reader know how she is moved and to what degree, often by interpreting or elucidating features of the wine. Thus, the critic doesn’t simply inform us about facts but about facts that matter and explaining why they matter. For instance, making readers aware that a winery ages in amphora might make the wine’s minerality more evident and important or highlighting the herbal notes in a Syrah may get drinkers to recognize the wine’s complexity or relationship to other wines.

As Terry Theise writes in his recent book What Makes a Wine Worth Drinking,”If a wine doesn’t cause us to notice it why are we drinking it?” The critic must convey what’s noticeable about a wine that calls us to respond to it.

Thus, the wine critic’s job is to make readers aware of a wine’s features,  communicate the kinds of responses available because of those features, and what the reasons are for those responses. A critic could make readers aware of a wine’s features but fail to get them to respond appropriately because having the appropriate response is often up to the reader. The critic’s job is to explain what responses are available.

Because the critic’s job is to report what responses are available including her own response, there is an inherent subjectivity involved in wine criticism. The ultimate goal of the critic is not objectivity but to enable a reader’s responsiveness by using the critic’s  own response as a reference point.

Wine Review: Succés Vinícola Trepat Cuca de Llum Conca de Barberà 2016


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succes trepatTrepat is a relatively obscure grape grown primarily in Northeastern Spain and used in blends and for making  rosado and Cava sparkling wine. But in D.O Conca de Barberà, a tiny appellation in northern Tarragona,  some producers are making it as a stand alone grape and it shows considerable potential, especially as a lighter, red wine that would pair nicely with meatier species of fish.

This is a natural wine from winemakers Mariona Vendrell and Albert Canela who started Succés Vinícola in 2011 when they were only 20 yrs. old. Stand-alone Trepat has always been in their lineup.

Red raspberry with darker hints and a pleasing pungent aroma, not quite barnyard but in that direction, held in check by prominent floral notes, against a background of baking spice.

Acid heads will like this wine. Slender, fresh and tart, the acidity is pronounced  but is neither aggressive nor hard and the overall impression is of a vibrantly active wine that darts and flutters like an acrobatic butterfly. The introduction is fleeting and quickly develops an ascending line hitting very high citric and floral notes anchored by a tender mouthfeel at midpalate. The finish is mouthwatering with a squirt of lemon, the tannins yielding a soft, fine-grained sandy character but narrowly focused and shy.

Pretty, coltish and, carefree like a young girl at play, the virtues of this wine are well highlighted by Katy Perry’s California Gurls.

Technical Notes: Organic. 20-47 year-old bush-trained vines. Native yeasts with 30-day maceration aged 5 months on the lees in stainless steel and bottled with minimal SO2.

Score: 89

Price: $20 (Purchasing information here)

Alc: 12%

Is Wine a Superior Cultural Product?


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wine vs beerLast week I published a highly critical response to Oliver Style’s post on Wine Searcher entitled “The Noble Art of Wine Pretension”. He was generous to continue the conversation in the comment section of my post. His comment provides important insight into the thought behind his post and flags several issues that are worth thinking about. The first has to do with the question of wine’s cultural status.

My point was that – as you rightly point out above – if one accepts the “wine as cultural product” position, this means all wine. The French are mirroring the approach the Spanish took to this issue. But that, necessarily, means one has to lump Grands Chais de France with Ganevat or Gruaud Larose. To state that all wine is deserving of this high cultural status is contentious, but I’d say this position is snobbish because, by inference, all other alcoholic beverages are undeserving of this protection. Why should wine be special? What about the farmhouse brewers, cidermakers, cider distillers (and thus beer, cider, spirits)? There is a whiff of elitism here if we want to protect wine as a cultural product, but not admit that one cannot do that without denigrating every other alcoholic artisanal endeavour. And it is a position accepted and advocated by a lot of people.

This raises a question I don’t think we devote sufficient attention to and I agree with Oliver that an answer to it is often just assumed. Most wine lovers think there is something special about wine. That is why we’re wine lovers. But is this just personal preference or are there some justifiable reasons why wine has this status? I’m working on a book on just this question but I won’t burden you (or me) with the twists and turns of that argument in a short blog post. But I do want to look at the question using the conceptual framework that Oliver is using.

I haven’t lived in France or Spain so I have no deep understanding of their culture. But if they do think that all wine is a superior cultural product compared to other alcoholic beverages, I suspect it’s because wine has been so deeply woven into their history and has long been a source of international prestige. It’s part of their identity as French. But that of course would not give those of us who are not French a reason to give wine that exalted status.

I think one factor that makes wine an important cultural product is that it expresses something distinctive about the particular culture in which it is made. It’s the distinctive combination of geography and unique historical choices on the part of the people of Burgundy (or Barolo or the Mosel) that produce those wines. They cannot be made any place else. The same can be said of the peat bogs of Scotland for Scotch or the agave fields of Oaxaca for Mezcal. The same may be true of apples for cider although I’m not sure that apples are particularly sensitive to terroir. Maybe they are I simply don’t know enough about cider. The same cannot be said about beer although some hops growers are doggedly trying to make the case.

All artisan beverages are a product of culture in a general sense. They are made by people who live within cultures. The question is whether they express something distinctive about the culture they come from. I live in San Diego which is ground zero for the hoppy style of IPA that has become the hot item in the craft beer world. Is there something distinctive about San Diego that makes it prime territory for hoppy IPA’s? I doubt it. Most likely the early successful brewers of this style just happened to be in San Diego and attracted lots of local mimics who created a critical mass of brewers making that style of beer. And in fact good IPA’s are made throughout the U.S.

That said, it is nevertheless the case that artisanal products, wine, beer, spirits or ciders, can express the distinctive point of view of the people making them (if they have a distinctive point of view). That is why they can be interesting. So despite my love of wine I’m very reluctant to claim artisanal wines are  somehow inherently superior to other artisanal products. (Industrial wine seldom counts in this discussion)

The issue really comes down to distinctiveness. What is distinctive (as long as it is of sufficient quality) is worthy of special treatment and I don’t think it snobbish to say so. (The question of what counts as snobbish will have to wait for another day).

Budget Wine Review: Ruggero Di Bardo Susumaniello Puglia 2017


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ruggero di bardoSusumaniello (pronounced su su man yell oo) is a relatively unknown grape in the U.S. It’s origins are uncertain but today It is found primarily in Puglia, in the heel of Italy’s boot, where it has long been used as a blending grape, although some producers are now making it as a stand alone varietal.  That you can find it for $10 on a supermarket shelf but search for it in vain at good wine shops is a testimony to some weird gravitational quantum functions in the wormhole that distributes wine to us.

It is in fact an interesting wine for the price and worth a trip to Trader Joe’s to secure a bottle before the wormhole closes.

Inky in the glass, the stewed black and red berry aromas mix with smoky chocolate, herbal notes, and a background burnt rubber note for a odd but complex nose.

Soft, slightly viscous, and medium-bodied in the mouth it has good acidity and broad, mellow tannins introducing a short finish, with a sour note from exposed acidity giving the wine a rustic edge.

Although ripe and rich it is not excessively sweet. As far as I can tell, this is a Trader Joe’s exclusive owned by the big Italian import company D’Aquino.

A mellow personality with a somber bearing pairing well with Please Read the Letter by Allison Krause and Robert Plant

Score: 86

Price: $10 at Trader Joe’s

Alc.: 14.5%

Appreciating Wine for the Right Reasons (Part 4 in a Series)


wine with question markIn my recent post on the nature of wine appreciation, I argued that to appreciate a wine is to respond appropriately to it. For appreciation,it is not sufficient to identify features of the wine. One must respond to those features by becoming aware of their significance. I then listed four ways of responding appropriately—via perception, cognition, emotion or desire.

However, I should probably say something about what a inappropriate response would be. These would be examples in which an appropriate response is blocked by errors of judgment. Thus, part of appreciation is responding to a wine for the right reasons.

Some inappropriate responses are rather obvious although common. If one’s response to a wine is solely based on its price, snob appeal or marketing materials rather than the wine itself, then these responses are inappropriate. One’s focus on the wine is impeded by failing  to properly judge what is relevant.

If your appreciation of a wine is based solely on the fact it reminds you of long lost weekends at the beach then your focus is on your own responses rather than features of the wine–again, a misjudgment about relevance.

Failure to consider the type of wine you’re drinking or facts about the origin of a wine is also inappropriate. Treating the daily porch pounder as if it were a work of art, or vice versa, is inappropriate as is complaining that a rosé lacks tannins or a German Auslese is sweet. Both are intended to be that way. Complaining that Amarone is high in alcohol without noting whether the alcohol is well handled or not is inappropriate. Because of the way it is made, Amarone will always be relatively high in alcohol. What matters is whether the alcohol is too obvious.

These are all cognitive mistakes that inhibit appreciation of a wine. There are also failures of attention.

Because the aim of aesthetic attention is to experience as many aesthetically-relevant properties of a wine as possible, if our attention to a wine is so one-dimensional that it blocks our attention to other dimensions, our response is likely to be inappropriate. For instance, if we’re attracted only to the superficial, easily accessible aspects of a wine, its power, softness, alcohol content, or ability to refresh, without considering the full range of its properties you haven’t really appreciated the wine.

Although we often think of wine appreciation as primarily involving perception, reasoning correctly about a wine is also central to its appreciation.

Earlier posts in this series on wine appreciation are as follows.

Wine Criticism and Appreciation (Part 1 in a series)

A Definition of Wine Appreciation: The first condition (part 2 in a series)

How To Respond to a Wine: Part 3 of a series on Appreciation.