If You Don’t Like Our Wine Vocabulary, Suggest an Alternative

wine descriptionsIf the wine critic’s job is to enable the reader to grasp the kinds of responses it is appropriate to have to a wine, then good wine writing must solve the problem of how to describe sensory experience. Thus, it is no accident that as wine grew in popularity and the culture of wine gained depth and maturity in the latter part of the 20th Century, wine writers began to expand the descriptive vocabulary they used in tasting notes. Finding a way to communicate about the flavors, aromas, and textures of a wine became essential to the health of the wine community. Robert Parker led the way with this trend toward a more expansive descriptive vocabulary. Some of his tasting notes have become legendary for their florid descriptions:

[T]he 2001 Batard-Montrachet offers a thick, dense aromatic profile of toasted white and yellow fruits. This rich, corpulent offering reveals lush layers of chewy buttered popcorn flavors. Medium-bodied and extroverted, this is a street-walker of a wine, making up for its lack of class and refinement with its well-rounded, sexually-charged assets. Projected maturity: now-2009

The reference to “street-walker” might strike one as over the top, although it seems to me its meaning is clear. However, this approach to wine writing has come under sharp attack. For example this essay by Richard Quandt seems to suggest that any use of metaphor to describe wine is “bullshit”.

Even the author of Cork Dork, Bianca Bosker, has reservations about the accuracy of such descriptors. After taking writers to task for using descriptors such as “sinewy” and “broad-shouldered” she writes: “It seems possible that what we “taste” in a fine wine isn’t so much its flavor as the qualities of good taste that we hope it will impart to us.” She seems to be suggesting that wine writers just make stuff up to sound impressive.

But what is the alternative? How can wine writers capture the uniqueness and individuality of wines without resorting to metaphor? When critics of our wine vocabulary complain about imaginative wine descriptions it would be nice if they suggested an alternative. But what we get is usually just crickets.


  1. As discussed earlier…metaphors are active like a streetwalker, but wine is not active in itself. “Simile” is a better term because it is a descriptive term, not a comparison of action. This wine is “like” some other sensory experience.

  2. Hi Jim,
    I’m not sure what you mean when you say wine is not active. It’s the wine’s activity on the palate that generates many metaphorical descriptions. Of course “activity” in this context might be metaphorical but what is meant is the changes our sensations in the mouth undergo as we drink the wine. And although there is some debate in the literature on whether metaphors always rely on likenesses, there is no doubt that most of them do. Most metaphors are similes with “like” removed.

    1. Wine does not act on its own in the bottle.  To say the wine is like a streetwalker, is to say it strikes me like a flamboyant street walker, commanding my attention. I stand corrected though.  A metaphor can apply to an object, but my sense is that it should be used with more active comparisons.  

      met·a·phor – 1.a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable:”her poetry depends on suggestion and metaphor”

      sim·i·le – 1.a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).

      This definition suggests it is an object to object comparison. Sensual wine like a sensual streetwalker, but a different kind of sensation. Since a wine is rarely thought of arousing a lust, other than for more of the wine. I know it’s splitting hairs.  What is harder to pin down, but more infuriating is when human character descriptors are usedto describe the impression of a wine: “A precocious merlot that is playing far above its ability and is merely pretentious.”  The worst kind of wine writing. Much of this comes from wine writers being poorly educated in art or literary criticism. They have not been exposed to precise methods of expressing emotions derived and stimulated by media or performance. Like a film critic who has never read a play or made a film.  They are merely reviewers. Jim Ruxin +01 310-471-7372 office +01 310-617-7372 mobile CallSend SMSAdd to SkypeYou’ll need Skype Credit

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