Tower Of Babel

Sometimes I get the distinct impression that most wine producers don’t want the public to buy their wines. Maybe they love their wines so much that the very thought of their precious bottles falling into the hands of strangers makes them think that Prohibition might have been a good idea. How else to explain some of the language they use to ostensibly promote their products.

Last week I took the time to read a number of the talking points posted above the wines at Hell’s Half Acre, the big box store where I showcase wines. The vast majority of them are written, you’d swear, by people bent on confusing shoppers, or at least hiding something from them. The first clue to this came from a tasting note that listed “Shenandoah spice” as one of the wine’s flavors. Hmmm… I guess I don’t know as much about food and cooking as I thought. Maybe this is a common flavor but I’d never heard of it. Am I the only wine shopper not to know Shenandoah spice? Is it from Virginia? Does it taste like an old folk melody? Perhaps it has hints of the Appalachian mountain chain. I don’t know. But I have to believe that it tells the average drinker next to nothing about the wine it refers to.

From there things just got worse. The next wine was described as “dense, tactile, and juicy.” I knew wine had legs. Now it has fingers, too? Great. At least some wines are confident and have good manners, like this one that had “very well-integrated oak, with poise.” But some wines, I found out, are a bit too mannered, like one wine that was described as having “aloof flavors of lemon, lime, and oak.” Maybe this producer was also responsible for the bottling that “has a pinched bouquet that takes some coaxing.” Shouldn’t wine be more outgoing than that? Ideally, with a gathering of wines like this, you’d want one that had “suave vanilla, toast, and mineral notes.” After all, manners really do matter, even for your basic bottle of wine.

This is all a bit silly, but if you’ve done a lot of drinking and read your share of tasting notes, you have a sense, sometimes, of what these descriptors are pointing at, what their writers are trying to convey. But, if you’ve  just begun to learn about wine it all sounds like gobbledygook. How these sorts of phrases teach people about wine, and encourage them to buy, is beyond me. Some wine promoters think they can reach you on a subliminal level. Like the beer commercials that sell sex as much as they do canned rice water, i.e., American light beer, some wine descriptions pretend to talk about wine, but they are really talking about something else, something almost as important. One flyer explained that “upon entry, the wine is round and creamy.” Come again? This was followed by a well-known white wine whose “lemon blossom and tart quince flavors keep pumping out the intensity through the finish.” It was also described as “clean and racy.” Who doesn’t like a night out with someone like that? Maybe some of these marketing types need to get out more often. This phenomenon of exaggerated, cliché-filled writing knows no bounds. One wine was described as “heart stopping.” Maybe the FDA needs to look into that. I always thought wine was good for your health. Conversely, there are those wines that “just go on and on,” fortunately “without being overly astringent.” I used to work with folks like that. Not the best company.

What becomes fairly obvious rather quickly, after reading this sort of writing, is that marketers try to say something, anything, about their wines, even if they really don’t have anything effective to say. They either get caught up in the mystery of wine, using lines like “lifted black currant” and “ripe flavors of sandalwood” or think they are being helpful by offering a variety of flavors, like “fragrant aromas of honeysuckle, blackberry cobbler, and loam.” Nice, a wine that has flowers,  dessert, and dirt in it. What’s not to like? Ever eat a tomato leaf? No? Then you have no idea what one wine described that way tastes like. Sometimes writers just run out of things to say, and offer hollow lines like “rich, full-bodied, opulent, luscious.” Somebody needs to run into the Wine Writers’ Office of Redundancy Office and grab that thesaurus immediately. One of the last notes I looked at said, simply, “This wine is pleasure-bent.” After rereading all this nonsense, so am I. And I know just what I want to drink, too. Something that is “the real deal, with flavors of incense and crushed rock.” Or maybe something that “offers generous aromas of fresh citrus, star fruit, kumquat and flint, with flavors of ripe melon and white peach that dance on the palate.” Dance on my head is more like it.

Next time somebody near you starts tossing around language like this, stop them. Ask them if they like the wine they’re drinking, and tell them they have to tell you why in ten words or less. They can’t say what they think the wine tastes like, just what makes it fun to drink. Because I, too, can be guilty of this at times, I’ll try to do the same. Enjoying wine shouldn’t require advanced degrees in botany, horticulture, interior design, landscaping, or geology. I think it’s time for all wine lovers to start making sense.

5 thoughts on “Tower Of Babel

  1. Do Bianchi

    amen, brother, amen! Sometimes I think the cryptic winewriting is a trace/remnant of the ivory tower era of wine. Long live democratization of wine!

    Psyched to know your blog… 🙂

  2. kpohagan01

    Hear, hear! I’m still wondering if I need to chew on some wood to finally find out what “oak” in wine tastes like. At least I haven’t heard a wine described as having hints of “pine” . How about “maple” as in syrup? Pretty sweet!

    1. Tom Riley

      No hints of pine? You haven’t tried enough of Greece’s iconic libation, retsina. So much to learn. 🙂 As for oak, no chewing necessary. We can drink our way to enlightenment. See you in July!!

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