I have been arguing recently that complaints about the use of metaphor in describing wine are misguided. Most metaphors used in wine writing are no more subjective or ambiguous than metaphors used in any other field.
But the most important reason why metaphor is essential in wine writing is that there is no off-the-shelf vocabulary for describing holistic properties that also get at a wine’s individuality without employing metaphor.
Too often, wine writers use a divide and conquer strategy to describe a wine. A wine is broken down to its elements—individual aromas, flavors, textures and tactile impressions—from which we are supposed to gain an overall sense of the wine. But a list of individual elements will not reveal how these elements interact to form a whole. And of course it is the whole wine we taste, not individual elements only. When we get pleasure from a wine it is because the elements form complex relations that we taste as a unity. Thus, a review based on analytic tasting requires that the reader guess what overall impression the wine leaves, or more likely they simply rely on a numerical score as an indicator of quality. A proper review, by contrast, must describe that unity, that overall impression that explains one’s response. It is often a well-placed metaphor that pulls those elements together making the wine as a whole intelligible. Thus, describing a wine as boisterous and assertive, or voluptuous and sexy goes a long way in describing the kind of appeal a wine might have.
While the standard tasting model in use today includes references to non-metaphorical, holistic properties such as intensity, power, elegance, finesse, etc., these characterize most high-quality wines. Most premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Pessac Leognan or Napa Valley will have intensity and power. Most quality Pinot Noir will be elegant. Language that distinguishes between them will have to be more precise about what kind of power, intensity or elegance a particular wine exhibits. Metaphor is one way to accomplish this. To call a wine fleshy suggests one kind of intensity, broad-shouldered, another and sinewy, yet another.
But the metaphors that typically receive the most criticism from frustrated readers are novel metaphors, new ways of describing wine that will seem unfamiliar even to experienced wine enthusiasts. To describe a wine as “anxious, kinetic, feverishly rebelling against its pretty face” or “praying for joy at the scene of decay” might indeed leave readers wondering what is being said about the wine. But such seemingly poetic language is not to be dismissed, for there is a good reason for it. Wine aesthetics is to a significant degree about variation and distinctiveness. We prize the unique character of a particular vineyard or style of winemaking and get enjoyment from tracking these variations across parcels, regions and vintages. Wine writing must therefore try to capture such variation and distinctiveness. This is a challenge because no conventional vocabulary will suffice in enabling wine writers to describe flavors that are not conventional. Linguistic innovation is as necessary corollary to flavor and texture distinctiveness. You cannot describe new impressions by using old expressions.
So while we might object to particular metaphors and find some of them difficult to understand, there is no obvious alternative linguistic strategy for making wine descriptions meaningful.