flying fruitPeople who write about wine, especially people who write wine reviews, are often derided for their flowery, elaborate flavor and texture descriptors. Some of the complainants are consumers baffled by what descriptors such as “big-boned” or “flamboyant” might mean. Other complainants are experts of some sort who wish wine language had the precision of scientific discourse. The Journal of Wine Economists went so far as to call wine writers “bullshit artists”. (Since I call economists bullshit artists rather often, I’ll take that as a compliment)

The problem with all these complaints is that they are tilting at windmills. Although we have a rich and highly developed vocabulary for talking about wine it is thoroughly metaphorical. That is because there is no literal vocabulary for describing wine. Even the fruit, vegetal and earth aromas that have become commonplace in wine descriptions are metaphors. A Cabernet Sauvignon is not literally a black cherry. It may smell vaguely like a black cherry but the word “like” there is the tell. “Black cherry” is a likeness, a metaphor useful for approximating the aroma of some Cabernets. No fruit descriptor we use to describe wine is close enough to its source, i.e. the actual fruits, to count as a literal description.

We compare wine aromas to fruits and other edible substances because we have no alternative.

And, no, a scientific vocabulary will not come close to usefully describing a wine outside the laboratory or winery where technical discussions need such a vocabulary. It’s fine to point out that a wine has a distinct odor of pyrazines laced with hints of thiols if you like. But pyrazines can smell like bell pepper or olive, thiols like grapefruit or gooseberry. And those differences matter.To claim that a Sauvignon Blanc contains pyrazines is almost tautological. Of course it does; that aroma is part of what defines Sauvignon Blanc. That is far too generic a description to be useful to readers of wine reviews.

What the reader needs to know is how the aroma and flavor notes are working together to create an overall impression of the wine. No list of chemical compounds or esters will give you that. Chemical compounds don’t exist in isolation; they interact with other compounds to form emergent properties such as harmony, explosiveness, finesse and flamboyance, that are not reducible to the underlying chemical properties. It is those emergent properties that we enjoy and any description that leaves them out will be misleading.

What we do need to investigate is how well metaphors serve the goals of wine criticism. To answer that we need an account of what the goals of wine criticism are, a topic I’ve been covering recently in several posts, as well as an account of how metaphor works to advance those goals. Are some metaphors better than others? What makes them so? How do readers know what wine metaphors mean? And how best can we teach them what they mean.

That sounds like the start of another series of posts.