Linguistics of pomposity
Meg Maker wrote “We need to talk about wine talk” (link here) an introduction to a panel on the language of wine. She writes that the ‘language of wine needs a reboot’. In this post I want to respond by saying two things. First, largely, the article is not about the language of wine. Second, if it were, Meg Maker’s writing would be part of the problem.
So, let’s focus first on the non-linguistic part. There are two main arguments. First, Ms Maker suggests Europe-centrism of the language of the wine industry, second, she talks about how wine is scored. Let me stress: neither is to do with language. Here is why.
The point about European reference points is quite well made. Yes, I continually read about pears and apples, recently, I even discussed the smells of a burned match and popcorn. I know these smells very well. But I actually don’t know papaya and guava and I read about them as often, even though they don’t come from anywhere near Europe. Additionally, I must admit that I have no idea what fennel smells like, but I do know the smell of eucalyptus even though it grows neither in the UK, where spent 30 years of my life, nor in Poland, where I live now.
My personal nemesis is quince. I read about quince ‘all the time’ and I still don’t know what the bloody thing smells like. At a tasting last month, I also had a discussion about people knowing what honeysuckle smells like. We all agreed it was unlikely. As unlikely, I’d add, as distinguishing between green, yellow and red apples, and distinguishing them from the smell of their peel…Come on!
But the point about smell familiarity is weakened even further with Maker’s reference to gooseberry. I happen to know what gooseberry tastes like, I had plenty of them when I was a child. But apparently, most people now don’t have the experience and, for Ms Maker, this is a problem. But is it? Well, I doubt it. Jancis Robinson, a renowned wine critic, made the point that she had never smelled gunpowder but she still recognises the smell. Probably, all those people who can say they smell gooseberry have learnt to recognise it.
But what about ‘hute’ that pinot noir apparently smells like, as Ms Maker reports. Well, the question whether a writer should or should not use such a comparison depends on the audience. Surely, if you write for people who will recognise ‘hute’, you will write about it, but if you write for people who will recognise the smell of apples, you will write about them. For the issue the author raises is nothing to do with language/talk/discourse (she does use the word).
It is about the audiences that are targeted and it is about the fact that wine has an aura of elitism. By selling good wine, you sell people a piece of luxury, and if you sell Burgundian grand crus, you sell them more than just a piece. And if those people want apples, you will give them apples because of the extortionate amount of money they fork out for a bottle of wine. Let’s just make it clear – I will probably never be able to afford to buy and taste a bottle of Montrachet (single or with ‘le’) because it’s so expensive.
Where’s the language in all this? Well, it’s a means to reflect (and probably reinforce) the reality in which wine is sold and bought. So, it serves to get people to buy something they ultimately don’t need. Cynical? Perhaps a tad. But you don’t understand language here, unless you acknowledge the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of wine. Similarly, if you sell perfume or watches, you show people George Clooney not me. And the way to change it is not about saying ‘show a different person’, but about changing the society and its keenness on celebrities.
So, what about numeric scoring. There is a lovely video by Julien Miquel who explains that wine scores are not what they seem.
In contrast to what you might think, wine scores are not so much designed to make you, the customer, happy and informed. Rather, they are more to do with making the producers happy. Just consider that the most famous scale by Robert Parker (link here), which goes up to 100 points but starts at….50. Why? Well, it’s simply nicer to drink an 80 and not a 30, isn’t it? Except it’s quite difficult to find a wine which is rated below 80. Just imagine – all the wines you drink are above average; funny, innit? Jancis Robinson’s scoring scale (link here) goes up to 20. Except it starts at….12 and an average wine is….15! An average wine is in the top quarter of the scale. The audacity of it is off the scale! Note also that 16 points means a distinguished wine. I must admit that I am in awe of a scale in which a step over average is distinguished. But hey ho….It’s all really not about language, as Ms Maker makes it to be.
But there is one point that Maker makes very well. Yes, the language of wine is full of certainty, with no hesitation, qualification, hedging and anything even vaguely resembling doubt. I have written about this here
Before I make my point, let me show you some tasting notes written by Ms Maker on her Terroir Review website (link here). I have taken them from the first page of the white wines.
It’s a solid gold color, darker than the Patelin de Tablas blanc of the same vintage, and the fragrance is more restrained, less fruit-forward. It has a high herbal note mingling with flowers and stone fruit. The texture is velvety, and the wine expands across the palate with flavors of apricot, sultana, and citrus peel. The acidity hits at the deep finish. It’s a lively, balanced wine with character and panache (link).
It’s a cloudy coppery amber color and smells like dried peaches, autumn leaves, sultana, and birch wood. The moderately grippy texture and lightly astringent finish accent the wine’s sense of stone fruit, both fresh and dried: peaches, apricot, peach nectar, apricot leather. The finish is long, almost unctuous, but some light volatility lifts up the wine. (link)
The wine is straw yellow with aromas yellow apple, tart pear, faint apple blossom, and wet rocks. The palate has that faint bitterness characteristic of many Italian whites (which I value). Firm acidity and a kind of chalkiness mingles with the bitterness to refresh and lift the wine. Terrific with fresh and young milky cheeses, fish and shellfish, risotto (link).
Where is the doubt? Where is the experience? Where is the process? And have I found bullshit words Ms Maker writes about? Hmmm, how about:
- Wine with character and panache?
- Finish is long, almost unctuous
- A kind of chalkiness mingles
to which I just want to say: oh, please. I’ll add that I had to look up the word ‘unctuous’. I am very well educated (5 advanced research degrees), I’d say quite well-spoken and with a fairly broad vocabulary. So, when I read ‘unctuous’ and then about ‘removing the gate’ in wine gatekeeping, my head spins. (Here there were a couple of sentences with a word starting with the letter h, but I deleted them.)
However, my negative comments about the pomposity of Meg Maker’s tasting notes must be offset with understanding. She writes the way wine professionals write tasting notes. Indeed, if you ever want to show students pomposity, go and read any wine tasting notes. They are the epitome thereof. Though there are gems, I must admit, I still can’t get over wine as an intellectual puzzle which I quote in my post linked above. That’s pomposity master-of-wine level. But this pomposity and certainty also helps wine writers to suggest to us, consumers, that they are experts, that they understand the way one writes tasting notes. And when you see the so-called ‘community’ tasting notes they’re much the same.
So, let me stress: this is what tasting notes are like. You can understand it via references to genre, or to a certain social practice, or to constructions of professional identities. But they are also designed to give us this semblance of luxury. They tell us that we are about to taste heaven on earth, and when you pay over 100 quid, it will be heaven on any planet you want. When you pay way more, you can even have in a galaxy far, far away. And the ‘unctuous’ in Meg Maker’s tasting note brings ever so closer to this very special elite group of people who not only understand it, but also will drink the very special wine (from her website).
And rather than argue for changing the ‘language of wine’, let’s accept that we, the consumers, are part of the deal we have with the reviewers. They pretend to describe the luxurious liquid (like Tokaji essencia – bafflingly expensive very sweet syrup) and we pretend that’s exactly what they do. And the more expensive the wine, the more idiotic the notes will be.
But there’s another deal we have. Mostly, the reviewers actually do know what they’re talking about. And I am happy to consider their advice. Mostly it’s good advice in that it leads me to buying wine I like, even though I understand all the vested interests in their recommendations. And I do admire all those umpteen fragrances that wine critics can smell (including Ms Maker) in a wine. I really do (even though I don’t really believe them). Very occasionally, I can do 3, unfortunately. Usually, the wine for me just smells of wine and I either like it or not. But, I remind myself, I can quickly go to a website and look the wine up and discover what I really really smell.
Do let’s make it clear, however, that I pay for access to the website but Ms Maker doesn’t talk about this as a ‘gate’ or exclusion because talking about language is easier. And if I wanted to pay for access only to the major websites, I’d spend way more money than I spend on wine and that’d be silly.
I do continue to love wine though. Tonight’s dinner will be with wine pairing (which will almost inevitably fail), but I still look forward to hearing all the wonderful information about the wines I’ll be tasting. And I will wonder whether you can actually taste wet stones….(stones is a thing in tasting notes).