Friday, June 25, 2010


My friend Scott Turnbull, sommelier at the excellent Fountain Restaurant at The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, is a wine lover, pure and simple. And despite the prestige and high profile of his job--he manages, and pairs food with, one of the top wine cellars in the region--he is, at base, the kind of person who is in this line of work because he truly enjoys wine, and loves sharing that passion with others.

As a result, Scott, like so many wine professionals and others with a deep knowledge of all things grape-related, is often frustrated by unnecessarily baroque descriptions and formal tasting notes.

He recently posted an example of this on my Facebook wall, and it seems like something that all of us should read and rebel against.

Here it is, a description of the Pinot Noirs from Marcassin that appeared on page 42 of the July 31, 2010 issue of Wine Spectator:

“The Pinots deliver a beam of complex flavors with olallieberry, wild raspberry, porcini, and red and black licorice...”


To which Scott editorialized: “My guess is that they may also smell like dreams, wishes, and rainbows, as long as we’re being hyper-specific.”

I could not agree more with Scott and what I think he was implicitly getting at: That specificity in wine writing is laudable and, yes, necessary. But when it is done in such a way that the language itself becomes exclusionary--when the references are so esoteric that none but an uber-select few members of some sort of gustatory inner-circle understand them--then their utility is diminished, if not completely undermined and destroyed.

Luckily, you could make the argument that this type of “purple wine prose” is on the wane, and represents the last gasps of a dying wine culture in which knowledge of, and comfort with, grape juice was used as some sort of stand-in for social status or cultural currency. Indeed, the democratization of wine--the fact that consumers from a beautifully wide range of professions, income levels, backgrounds, and education are, in varying degrees, exploring all that wine has to offer--has rendered this sort of language, and the exclusionary worldview behind it, so antiquated as to be practically irrelevant these days (thank goodness).

Now, I don’t want this to come off as an attack on Wine Spectator, which is still one of the best wine magazines being published, and a fantastic way for consumers and professionals at all levels of knowledge and interest to grow their understanding and stay current with the news that shapes the wine industry. It is, however, time that all wine writers (myself included), and the outlets that publish them, consider the ramifications of the words printed on their pages and web sites. A good tasting note is descriptive, evocative, and, in many cases, challenging to the reader--this is a good thing. But when it perplexes more than it enlightens, its entire raison d’ĂȘtre is rendered moot.

To be sure, wine writing should not cater to some sort of lowest common linguistic and experiential denominator, using only the most basic words and references. Indeed, I tell clients all the time that one of the best ways to increase enjoyment of wine, and to grow the range of words one uses to describe it, is to maximize the size and depth of the so-called flavor spreadsheet in their minds: Learn the difference between the aromas of a chanterelle and a porcini mushroom, or the similarities in flavor between a peach and a nectarine; become familiar with the unique and easily differentiated nature of the meat of an orange, its pith, and the oil of the skin.

And while there will always be flavor and aroma references that are unfamiliar to some (this is ultimately beneficial, as it forces consumers and professionals alike to familiarize themselves with them and, in the long term, likely increases their enjoyment and understanding of wine), they should at least be “learnable." I wander through farmers markets several times a week when the season permits, and am always on the lookout for new foods that I’ve never tasted before. But never once have I come across an olallieberry--and I taste things for a living!

It makes my skin crawl to think of the damage that a reference that impenetrably obscure does to the confidence of the budding (or expert) wine lover who reads it. Enough is enough--the woefully obscure olallieberry is one exclusionary reference too far.

NB: Wikipedia defines the olallieberry as “a cross between the loganberry and the youngberry, each of which is itself a cross between blackberry and another berry (raspberry and dewberry, respectively).”



Tony Ambrosini said...

Brian, I always prefer to discuss wine in terms others can relate to and agree with what you are saying. It is like describing a Pouilly-Fume with "gooseberry" or "elderflower" aromas...I have never seen, smelled, or tasted any of those things! Being a somewhat regular guy, I will guess 80% of the population is like me in that respect.

Being specific, however (in your mushroom example) is a good thing when the aromas/flavors are there. "strawberry jam" or "watermelon Jolly Rancher" is far more helpful to a newbie or colleague than "olallieberry"

Well done, Sir! By the way, the St. Emilion Grand Cru I picked up from you was wonderful. I have a write-up coming this week (with descriptors people can understand, of course).

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