Thursday, March 19, 2015

Can We Make Wine Descriptions Useful?

Do you read flowery descriptions of wine anymore? Did you ever? Did you feel any closer to understanding the wine being described? Do descriptions like these help or hinder?
"...with honeyed overtones to the flavors of quince paste, tarte Tatin and juicy grapefruit...lots of anise, bergamot, floral, spiced almond and smoke notes."
"Shows the sweet and smoky character of burning vine clippings...Kirsch, grilled plum, sanguine and espresso notes mix with hints of lavender, marjoram and sage..."
The above are both from Wine Spectator but they are hardly the worst offenders of wine writers. [For more of these, and my take on them, check out my series. Simply search Preposterous Pundit Pontifications. If that sounds like work, some samples can be found here and here.]

It is not a new problem in the wine world. Or the music world. Can you know what an album sounds like without actually listening? No, but there are ways to communicate more effectively. 
I have long believed that describing wine in complicated, overly specific detail not only confuses many readers (including yours truly) but is actually a disservice. Implied snobbery with esoteric, even bizarre, terms can discourage would-be enthusiasts from learning about wine. 
My take was always to use general terms like: red or black fruit, tart citrus or juicier fruit, for example. If Bing cherry leaps to mind, great, feel free to share, but broader strokes will resonate with more people. Of course, that kind of reading can get repetitive, so publications with hundreds of reviews encourage different language to communicate a similar message.
Over the years I have employed myriad other ways to convey a wine's style. Comparing them to books, Hemingway vs. Faulkner, or music, Bob Dylan vs. Steve Winwood, or food or weather or get the idea.
Universal concepts like this might still confuse some people when presented in a three of four sentence description. However, with a little more space these descriptors can really make a wine come alive for a reader even without a glass in front of them. Dylan's voice is rough, and not for everyone, but can be very rewarding to those who like it. Steve Winwood's vocal take is smooth and pretty and much more universally appealing, but some say his music is a bit simple. 
Of course, if you write too much then you run the risk of no one reading it because it's more long this. 
Oh well, the wine world rarely presents us with perfect's all part of the fun.

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