Wine Metaphors and Interpretation

wine pouredLast week I linked to several examples of what has become a favorite theme in wine media—complaints about wine language, especially the use of metaphors that make use of the features of a person to describe a wine. (See here here  and here for examples of the complaints)

The complaint is almost always that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous and serve no purpose other than advertising the writer’s facility with words.

There are several things to say about these objections. One is that the problem is not unique to wine. Unless metaphors have become dead metaphors there will always be ambiguities about how to interpret them in any field. Poetic metaphors are obviously complex and difficult to parse, but even conversational metaphors such as “Bill is a bulldozer” or “Jane is a block of ice” may raise questions about which features of Bill or Jane the metaphor is highlighting. You would have to know something about Bill or Jane before being confident about what the metaphor means. All living metaphors require interpretation.

In interpreting metaphors, context is essential. To grasp what a “sinewy” wine might be, one must know something about the range of textural and tactile differences in wine and have tasted enough to sense the differences between them. To know what Robert Parker meant when he referred to the 2001 Batard-Montrachet as a “streetwalker”, you have to know that some wines are flamboyant and expressive, but unrefined, superficial and lacking substance. The complaint about ambiguity is often made from the perspective of a wine novice. But, of course, wine metaphors will be opaque to a novice. Understanding a metaphor will often require refined capacities to taste. It would be a peculiar writing practice if its most excellent examples were aimed only at novices. We don’t have such an expectation regarding the language used in art appreciation, baseball, or bird watching. Some of the vocabulary of any domain of expertise will be opaque to novices.

As to more experienced tasters, many metaphors have become so common they require only a bit of thought to figure out what they mean. Wines are routinely described as “generous”, “brooding” or “shy”. Surely, these pose no special interpretive difficulties for someone with some tasting experience and there is no reason to think these are more subjective than, for instance, aroma notes. Thus, it’s only new metaphors that have no established history of conventional use that might be troublesome. Which brings me to the most important reason why metaphor is essential. There is no off-the-shelf vocabulary for describing holistic properties that also get at a wine’s individuality without employing metaphor. Individual fruit and flower descriptors will only get you so far.

I will explain what I mean by this next week when I continue this series of posts on wine metaphors.

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