Language of wine

I keep being fascinated by ongoing discussions on the language of wine. And even though the discussions are mostly not about language at all, they offer an interesting insight into the wine writing industry. In this post, I want to offer a bit more of my own view.

This blogpost is a reaction to an article by Robert Joseph “Can we Ever Develop a Universal Language of Wine?” which appeared on my Twitter timeline recently. The author asks the question of the possibility of a universal language of wine (do note the title to which I shall come back shortly). Very quickly, it is clear, however, he doesn’t really mean language but wants to focus on the vocabulary of wine communication.

He points to the following three issues, which are likely to be quite significant issues in wine writing. Should wine talk/writing be poetic/matter-of-fact, should it reference smells that many people are unlikely recognise (gooseberries are currently the wine writers’ nemesis, but Joseph mentions barberry, which grows in my garden, and I had no idea it smelled or tasted of anything), and finally should wine writers make references famous wine regions (like Bordeaux or Burgundy)?

The good points made in the article had been made before and have been made since. The problem is that most of them are not linguistic at all. For example, the fact that we talk about cars is not a linguistic issue – rather it has to do with the fact that cars are part of what we see around, alternatively I don’t see tuk-tuks around, so I don’t talk about them. References and metaphors related to snow in Polish are, again, not a linguistic issue, rather a reflection that Polish winters tend to be snowy. That’s also why I can’t think of a single Polish desert phrase – there are no deserts. This is indeed why we tend to speak of apples, gooseberries or peaches, and not of ‘exotic’ (from our perspective) fruit. While wine discourse is unlikely to have originated in Western Europe, it is Western Europe, for many political and economic reasons, that has dominated it.

So, if ‘we’ continue to use the Western imagery in, say, the Far East, it is, again, not so much a linguistic issue, but, rather, a social issue of various kinds of Bourdieu’s capital. In other words, people may well prefer to talk ‘Western’ about wine because they see some advantage in doing so. Change the advantage, language will follow and reinforce the new way of speaking.

Needless to say, such arguments should end any further discussion of a ‘universal’ wine vocabulary. Such a thing doesn’t and cannot exist.

So, let’s now explore the so-called language of wine some more. The first point I would like to make is that of whose language it is. I am intrigued by the assumption that ‘winese’ belongs to wine writers and it is for them to change it or not. Incidentally, the assumption is made both in the article I am commenting on and in other publications of the kind. Indeed, when Robert Joseph asks the question ‘can we ever develop…’, he is unlikely to refer of us, humanity, or even us, wine drinkers. He is likely to refer to you, elite wine writers.

The assumption is problematic to say the least. It’s hard to put it in numbers but it is commonsensical to say that wine writers, critics or otherwise, are a minute minority of people who talk and write about wine daily. If anything, elite wine writing is an outlier in the multitude of wine communities and there is no reason at all to think that it is for such writers to change the language of wine. In fact, the individual critic’s power in this respect boils down to choosing to use a particular word/phrase or not (e.g., ‘minerality’ or ‘wet stones’). Needless to say, language change is a complex process and it is unlikely to be initiated by a call to change the language of wine or anything else.

But, you might wonder, what exactly constitutes the ‘language of wine’. There is a number of issues here. First, as said above, ‘language of wine’ first and foremost is an unknown territory of how thousands and thousands of people talk (and write) about wine daily. It includes those, like me, who attend tasting sessions and those who drink wine once a year because the boss likes wine, or even more rarely, like my mother. Yet, I’d suggest my mother’s review of wines I very occasionally torment her with in the form of:

Oh, it’s so sour, does it have to be so sour?

as much belong to the ‘language of wine’ as, say, the following review from a seasoned wine critic:

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.

Linguistically and, I’d argue, socially, they are on a par, and, I actually suspect, more people would show affinity with my mother’s review than with the latter one. But somehow when wine writers talk about the language of wine, they mean the latter. Why?

Furthermore, second, linguistics has known for a long time that writing and talking are very different kinds of language, some even call them separate languages. This is because we use speaking and writing in different contexts, with different social and communicative goals, which require different linguistic forms. Wine writers commenting on language mostly focus on writing; indeed, they focus on a particular kind of writing, shall we call it ‘elite writing’. And yet, we speak of wine at various private and semi-public gatherings (parties or tastings), at restaurants, in shops (both specialist and supermarkets).

In my recent conversation between a waiter-sommelier in a local restaurant in Wroclaw, the sommelier described a Slovak pinot noir as:

It’s not Burgundy.

Even better, I once heard a server describe a wine a restaurant guest asked about as:

Well, it’s really, quite yuck.

I would argue that both conversations are fully authorised members of the language of wine, despite being somewhat unorthodox and in Polish.

The final point about what the language of wine is to do with the assumption that when we talk about the language of wine, we must focus of the lexis. This is a common assumption not only in wine writing, it’s also common in medicine or psychology which have also discovered that ‘language matters’.

So, let me stress that the ‘language of wine’ does not consist of words only. Quite unsurprisingly, it also consists of the various ways in which those words are put together. As wine writers want to focus on the contents of what’s written by their colleagues, in contrast, I think the form of what they say is by far more interesting.

That means, for example, that I am considerably less interested in the verb ‘express’ in phrases such as ‘wine expresses the terroir’. I think it is by far more interesting to focus on the clause in which it appears, which is in active voice, with the wine positioned as a communicating actor. And that people saying such things take the clause as literal rather than metaphorical. That’s what’s interesting in the ‘language of wine’.

Let me end with a number a couple of conclusions. The more wine writing industry will worry about its language, the more distant it will be. By constructing a ‘we-they’ opposition in communicating, wine writing makes wine even less accessible. Interestingly, when Sarah Heller (link here) wonders about how to speak to Asian consumers, her concerns are not about how people talk about wine. It’s again only about the unfamiliar fruit references as such like. All as if I couldn’t learn what the bloody quince (the bane of my wine life) smells like. Sarah Heller’s text continues to construct the ‘us’ speaking unto ‘them’ knowing better what they want.

Just like most of wine language discussions, her discussion is not anchored in the social context in which wine exists. And so, before you worry about ‘cassis’ (so posher than blackcurrant), start wondering what wine means in the social context. You might discover that it is precisely ‘cassis’ that is needed in some contexts and the very point of talking is to teach people how to recognise it.

So, my first unsolicited and unwanted advice to wine writers is to consider thinking about me, a dilettante, as part of ‘us’, as you move across various kinds of ‘we’. In fact, I suggest that many of you already do it, just commonsensically. And my advice means moving this common sense also to the level of reflecting on the language wine.

My second unsolicited and unwanted advice is not to worry about individual words in your writing. Rather, consider the communicative and social function they have in your text. In other words, if you say:

Wine expresses the terroir/soil.

what kind of message is behind such a statement. If you were to unpick it, what would you find? I think I know. Do you?

Loading ...