On Wine Tasting and the Limits of Winespeak–from Get Thee to a Bakery


“You taste wine the same way I do,” the guy pouring says.  “We all have the same equipment: nose, mouth, tongue, palate.

     Technically, yes.  And it’s very nice of him to say that.

     It’s my last day in Sonoma. I’ve had a head cold all week, so none of my “equipment” has been working very well.  Thus far I’ve had only a few sips of wine with lunches and dinners. This afternoon I’ve decided to visit some tasting rooms, to open my mouth and let the wine in. There are over 425 wineries in Sonoma County, 15 or so within a few miles of where I’m staying. This one is known for its chardonnays and pinots.

     I’ve just tasted the third of three pinot noirs the winery is pouring today, and listened, amazed, to the wine guy’s description of the wine, a brief disquisition on its body (medium), its structure (supple), acidity (tangy) fruit (cherry pie) spice (an allspice matrix!) barrel time (old French oak) tannins (pliable) and finish (persistent).

     “I don’t taste cherry,” I say.

     Nor do I detect structure. I understand tannin but I don’t get pliable. I tell him my mouth is dumb. I’m just not a very good taster.

     He asks, “Did you like it?”

     “Yes, I did,” I say, and empty my glass into the spittoon.  On a scale of 0-3, 0 being never again, 3 being bring it on, I’d give this wine a 2.

     These wines probably have Parker points and Wine Spectator ratings, both of which use a 100 point scale.  Suppose the third wine is a 92. I wonder: What would make it a 91? A little less pliability? Or a 93? A slightly larger slice of cherry pie?  This may be an example of effing in ineffable. How do you quantify a qualitative judgment?

     Eons ago, as an undergraduate in a survey of 20th century British literature, I wrote a midterm essay in response to this assignment:

     “Referring to at least two of the authors we’ve read in the course thus far, analyze the nature of metaphor in modern literature.  What, specifically, are the metaphors in, say, Conrad and Yeats? If the metaphors are vehicles for their ideas, what are the limits of metaphoric expression?”

     Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, it was a take-home test.  Over the weekend I thought hard about “the nature of metaphor in modern literature,” thought about it until my head hurt.  I poured over a handful of Yeats poems, with helpful annotations I had made, like these– Cycle of time. A vision of hope.  Mutability of experience. The body. I re-read my marginal notes on Heart of Darkness– Knitters of fate. Categories of defense.  The failure of language. Existential challenge—all the while trying to figure out exactly what “the limits of metaphoric expression” might mean. I wrote, I returned to my notes and annotations, I revised and gradually stopped writing.  My essay had a long finish.

     Next class I handed in three closely written pages and waited a week for the professor to return my work.  When I got it back, I found a few phrases of my essay underlined, a few phrases double underlined, along with an occasional question mark and few trenchant exclamation marks in the margin.  Flipping to the last page, as we all do, I looked for the grade. It was an 87. I knew what that meant, a B. Okay, but 87? How had he arrived at that specific number, and not, let’s say, 86 or 88. Those underlines and double underlines, did they add to or subtract from 100? What could I have done, what exactly was he looking for that would have made my essay an 89 or 90? I suspect he might not have been able to explain how he arrived at 87 or what I could do to raise that number to 88 or 90, beyond telling me something like be smarter, make better connections.

     A few years later, as a young teacher, I filled a gradebook every semester with marks (I decided on A through E) for 22 students in each of the five classes I taught.  Homework, quizzes, exercises, essays, midterms, finals. At semester’s end, for each student, I would see something like this: C, A, B-, B+, B-, D, E, A-, A-, C+, C+, C, B+, A-, E, E, B, B, B.  To arrive at a final grade, I laid a ruler across each row of marks, tracking student performance left to right, across fifteen weeks, and on the far right rendered my final judgment: B. Sometimes upon further reflection, I affixed a minus or a plus to that letter.  Never quite sure, except in my bones or in my heart or vaguely (very vaguely) in my head, if that grade with its plus or minus was a true value summarizing those letter grades.

     This was long before the advent of spreadsheets and grading technologies, before primary trait analysis.  And I’m pretty sure this grading practice was widespread: impressionistic, holistic, supported mainly by the authority the individual who rendered the judgment. It was an 87 or a B+ because a full professor said it was. Nuff said. Much like a pinot is a 92 because Robert Parker or Wine Spectator say it is.

     Words help. They name qualities, characteristics.  Words and categories enable dissection, which enables analysis and evaluation. The problem is, some things are easier to dissect than others.

     I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Thanks to Isaacson’s helpful descriptions of the great artist’s paintings, I now look for Leonardo’s use of shadow and “sfumatura,” for the characteristic depictions of water and hair and landscapes in his paintings. I imagine I see left-handed brushstrokes. Knowing something about Leonardo’s work helps me see the painting of other artists at the time differently. Huh, I might think, look at that pile of rocksDid the artist even bother looking at nature the way Leonardo did?

     As an undergraduate, even farther back than “the limits of metaphor,” I took a music appreciation class. I must have listened to Mozart’s Symphony #40 a hundred times. That symphony and that recording, by Sir Georg Solti directing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, established my frame of reference. I’ve been startled by other recordings of that symphony I’ve heard since, by how fast the first movement runs, by the chug and lurch of another director’s minuet movement.  I’ve listened to other symphonies with, well, enhanced appreciation, noticing how the second movement in #40 compares to the second movement in Mozart’s #41 or, because of repeated, careful listening, how it compares to the amazing, mournful second movement in Beethoven’s 7th.

     But seeing, listening, and tasting are not equal.

     Seeing and listening lend themselves more readily to dissection and appreciation than tasting.  A Leonardo just sits there, on the wall or on a page or a screen. Pull back from the artwork, or move in close, or alter the angle of your viewpoint. You can take a very long look. It’s a freeze-frame experience.  Likewise, in music: rewind, replay, revisit the same performance, the same shift to a major key, the swelling of sound, the crescendo. Listen, take it in. Looking carefully, listening intently, you can make the experience last as long as you like.

     A taste, on the other hand, is brief, intense, and evanescent; a couple sips and it’s finished.  When you look and listen, you may get tired, but you don’t get full. Or drunk. And what about memory? Are memories of what you see (a sunset, a face, a painting) and what you hear (a bird call, a child’s laugh, a piece of music) more retraceable and detailed and vivid than memories of a gustatory experience?

     There are super tasters, I know, sipping savants in the wine world, people endowed with if not supernatural equipment then with highly discriminating taste and deep stores of palate memory.  I bow to them. To communicate with us, they deploy a special language. They say things like this about wine:

     “Already revealing some pink and amber at the edge, the color is surprisingly evolved for a wine from this vintage. However, that’s deceptive–as the aromatics offer incredible aromas of dried flowers, beef blood, spice, figs, sweet black currants and kirsch, smoked game, lavender, and sweaty but attractive saddle leather-like notes. Full-bodied and massively endowed, with abundant silky tannins, it possesses the balance to age for 30+ years” (Robert Parker, on a 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape).

     This is a pronouncement handed down from on high. It makes me want to taste the wine, but only after I’ve whiffed some beef blood and licked a sweaty saddle.

     What sets the apprentice taster apart from the journeyman is years of experience and control of the language. Years ago a friend took me to his wine club dinner.  A dozen men descended upon a restaurant (oh, yes, all men). Serious guys, they each brought their own box of Riedel glasses. It was an evening of blind tasting, eight wines chosen to accompany a nice dinner.

     For 2-3 hours, we tasted wines in pairs and talked about them. Two Amarone, for example, one a 2003, the other a 1999. I was given a notepad and pencil. After the pours we swirled and sniffed, we sipped and deliberated. Then we went around the table and described the wines and our tasting experiences.  Compared to these guys, I was still in short pants. “Full bodied,” I could say. “Nice color.” But they would have at it, making little speeches, practicing the lingo, somming it up. I went to three of these dinners. Every night I finished at the bottom of my class. And every night, the same two guys identified all the wines correctly. When they talked, I took notes. The older wines were tight. Some wines’ tannins were grippy. They talked, but they didn’t revel in winespeak.

     Those nights I was reminded of graduate seminars I attended in which students, me for example, practiced speaking litcrit, making statements like this: “Deconstructionists have to be aware of the text’s shifts or breaks that may eventually create instabilities in attitude and meaning. At the verbal level, a close reading of the text will highlight its paradoxes and contradictions, a reading against the grain, in order to reveal how the ‘signifiers’ may clash with the ‘signifieds.’”

     Right. I am not ashamed to say I have no idea what that means. To me it’s a black hole.

     Words help, in wine tasting, in the consumption of literature. They can explain the 87 and 92. They also can get in the way. The cabernet, the novel, did you like it? Yes. Do you want to more? Yes.

     To most consumers, that’s enough.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Agreed, for any of the forms there has to be a passion to what to taste, look, hear or read. Thankfully we are not always asked to know/or care of all of them! Cheers!

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