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wine and languageEsther Mobley’s thoughtful article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Wine’s diversity issue starts with the way we talk about wine” raises important questions about ethnocentrism and sexism embedded in wine language, although I’m not sure she offers a clear solution to the problem. It is behind a paywall so I will summarize:

But now, it’s becoming clearer than ever that the conventional language used to describe wine isn’t merely intimidating and opaque. It’s also inextricable from racism and sexism, excluding dimensions of flavor that are unfamiliar to the white, Western cultures that dominate the world of fine wine and reinforcing retrograde notions of gender.

She points out that many of the taste references used in wine reviews are flavors and aromas specific to France. Words such as brioche, cassis, garrique, coulis, and pate de fruit mean nothing to someone unfamiliar with French or haute cuisine. Such language is a barrier to anyone trying to learn about wine or get ahead in the wine world if they lack the cultural background from which these terms are drawn.

She is certainly right about this. There is a diversity problem and an accessibility problem. The narrow focus on white Western cultural references makes wine inaccessible to people unfamiliar with those references.

However, her solution is a bit puzzling. She writes:

It’s not that western European flavors should be vilified, or use of French restricted; it’s that the dictionary should be expanded. And as new pathways are created to usher in a more diverse new generation of wine professionals, the resources to do that expansion will grow.

Expanding the vocabulary to use a more diverse set of references is laudable but I don’t see how that solves the accessibility problem; it makes it worse.  Trying to incorporate taste references from, for instance, Chinese cuisine or Peruvian food may be more inclusive, but it re-inscribes the problem of accessibility since these terms would be just as unfamiliar as the French terms to many people.

Yet she doubles down on this as the solution:

Part of the work, certainly, has to do with deliberately exposing oneself to new flavors, something that happens to be very feasible when you live in the Bay Area. Another part of it is really, truly paying attention to those flavors, whether it’s the pungent saltiness of XO sauce or the mouthwatering tang of umeboshi.

Again. How does this make wine language more accessible? Are we to replace French cultural references with those available to residents of the Bay area in California? Expanding our wine vocabulary to include references familiar to non-Westerners is a worthy goal in itself, especially if it improves our ability to describe wine accurately. But it’s wishful thinking to assume that it will make wine more accessible.

But at the end of her essay, she makes a useful suggestion:

Then again, talking about wine isn’t just about fruits and flowers and sauces. Sometimes, the exercise of conveying what a wine tastes like may require a little more imagination.

She praises use of the term “petrichor”, which refers to the smell in the air after a rain, because it is “universally intelligible”. I think there is an important clue here for how we might solve this problem of accessibility.

To my mind, personality traits and emotions are, for the most part, universal, despite some cultural variability in how we experience them. Metaphorical descriptions of wines as angry, joyful or dour can capture the holistic character and individuality of a wine in a way that a list of fruit descriptors cannot. It does require an imaginative leap to view wine as a person. But once that leap is made, it opens up a rich vocabulary for describing wine.

Finally, her discussion of gendered terms is much more straightforward.

For example, it’s commonplace to describe wines as “masculine” or “feminine.” A masculine wine, we’re meant to understand, is aggressive and muscular; a feminine one, delicate and floral. I’ve used these terms myself in the past, but I won’t in the future — not only because this wine-gender binary feels like it adheres to an outdated, irrelevant set of gender norms, but also because it happens to be vague and unhelpful. Sexism aside, these terms fall into the same obnoxious camp as “wet river stone.”

There is simply no excuse for using “masculine” or “feminine” to describe wine. If a wine is aggressive and muscular then call it aggressive and muscular. The gender term adds nothing to the description; it’s just lazy.