At Wine Enthusiast, Caroline Hatchett asks “Is it Time to Change How We Describe Wine?”
My answer to that question is of, course, yes, and for many reasons, the primary one being that our descriptive vocabulary doesn’t really capture the individuality of particular wines. Any number of wines might fit the description of a typical tasting note drawn from the tasting grids used by WSET or the Court of Master Sommeliers.
And that reason is related to several quotes from Hatchett’s article. Comparing the technical vocabulary of winespeak with writing about rock music, Hardy Wallace, winemaker at Napa’s Dirty and Rowdy points out:
“Nobody writes about guitar types and pickups,” he says. “They talk about how an album makes them feel. That it’s triumphant.”
Brett Heiar, Wine Director at Chicago’s Nico Osteria, an Italian restaurant, adds:
“When was the last time you bought a wine because someone said it tasted like cassis, black cherries and smoke?”…. “Medium-plus acid means nothing to the general public.”
Those aroma notes might help a blind taster identify the varietal. If you know the varietal ,those aroma notes might lead you to conclude the wine is typical or atypical. But they tell us nothing about whether the wine is enjoyable and why it is enjoyable.
As to what sort of vocabulary should replace the “basket of fruit” approach, as you might imagine, there was no consensus and a lot wild suggestions:
Grieco and his team employ aggressive hospitality when an unsuspecting guest opens the wine list and gets overwhelmed, intimidated and upset.
“I want you to close the list as quickly as possible so we can have a conversation,” says Grieco. “It’s done for the sole purpose of intimidating you, so you look at me and say, ‘Paul, just bring me a glass of wine.’ I want to have fun, and for you to have fun with me. I want to take you on a journey.”
Intimidation may not be the best approach to starting a conversation. But the common theme among all the contributors was that wine talk must tell a story and speak to wine’s ability to engage the emotions.
What these establishments offer is an education in wine through storytelling. It engages visitors when they step into a world they may not fully understand. The approach is meant to let people connect with wine emotionally and intellectually. In the process, they can find something new that fits a moment in time.
Not every delicious wine has an interesting story behind it. But every delicious wine will take you on a journey; it will have some kind of impact, and it’s time we learn to describe that impact.