Drinking Liquid Poetry

pouring wine into glassI recently argued that wine writers face a daunting task. Their main job is to describe the individuality and distinctiveness of a wine. These dimensions of a wine are not easily captured using conventional categories or generalities referring to what’s typical of a region or varietal. If a wine is distinctive it can’t be typical, by definition. Yet the writer must provide that description of distinctiveness using a conventional, familiar vocabulary that readers will understand. That is the wine writer’s dilemma.

Given this daunting task and the need to describe the kinds of experiences a wine makes available, what is a wine critic to do?

What do human beings do when confronted with something that needs description and characterization for which there is no conventional category? We turn to metaphor. Wines are commonly described as brooding, assertive, playful or sexy—all are metaphors. Although it is seldom mentioned, the aromas standardly attributed to wine are usually metaphors. A Cabernet Sauvignon contains no black cherry. It may smell vaguely like a black cherry but the word “like” there is important. “Black cherry” is a likeness, a metaphor that approximates the aroma of some Cabernets. But these descriptions have become so commonplace that they are no longer treated as figurative just as “that is a deep problem” or “a road runs through my property” are considered literal even though they started out as metaphors.

It is with regard to the texture and mouthfeel of wine where metaphorical references become explicit although these too are so familiar they have become conventional elements of our wine vocabulary. We routinely speak of wines as having length, as caressing and round, as assertive or having an acid kick, as languid or soft as if these were literal descriptions. Without metaphor there would be very little to say about a wine. Of course, we are in full- blown figurative territory when tasting notes include reference to a wine’s personality as sexy, brooding, reserved or exuberant. “Wine is a person” is perhaps the most ubiquitous source of metaphor to describe the distinctiveness of a wine. It is also the sort of metaphor that is the source of the vociferous objections to contemporary winespeak that have become a staple in the press and in some academic papers.

These complaints seem to add up to the claim that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous. When a wine is described as “a streetwalker” or “sinewy” it’s unclear to some readers what features of the wine are being described. The further inference drawn is that these are just attempts to make wine descriptions less monotonous or to call attention to the writer’s talent for verbal calisthenics without getting at something important about the wine.

I think these objections are misguided. Beginning next week in a series of posts I will show why.

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