If 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.