Michael Wangbickler on February 12th, 2009

There was a very witty and astute article in Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences today written by industry veteran George Rose. It speaks about how often wine reviews are so far above the heads of the average consumer, it is silly. Here is the article:

Wine Into Words
by George Rose

Collecting dust in my library are 60 books on wine. They barely take up one row, and compared to my collection of books on photography, the number is small given my 18 years in the wine business. Of all the wine books I have, however, my favorite is the history and bibliography reference book, Wine Into Words, by James M. Gabler.

It contains listings for every book ever written on wine. There are 8,000 references of wine history, food and wine, art and poetry, wine travel, making wine, drinking wine and selling wine. The writings of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are listed as well. All the famous contemporary wine writers are in the book.

So many words have been written about wine since man began writing, one gets the impression that wine is important and should be taken seriously.

All this blathering is, unfortunately, what keeps great wine out of the reach of everyday consumers. The many… hundreds who make a living writing about imbibing are so steeped in their own self-importance that the novice wine consumer comes away confused and intimidated.

If wine is ever to become a fixture at the American dining table, it had better shed the overwhelming nonsensical jargon. This means we need a new language to describe something that, for all the attention paid to it, is pretty ordinary, grows in every climate, is easy to make, and is now found in virtually every corner of the world.

Wine to a writer is apparently a license to go off the creative deep end, often plunging into the murky depths where the average wine consumer simply does not want to go.

Much of what passes for wine writing seems more like a stuffy BBC period piece. I keep expecting Dame Judy Dench to pop out from behind the bushes and recite in proper English: “I like Viognier to show a green-straw color, peachy-dried apricot nose…”

The biggest obstacle for wine is the verbiage. Wine can be toasty, oaky, round, supple, minty, flinty, minerally, fruit-forward (as opposed to fruit backward) and, occasionally, delicious. But are there really “flavor notes that capture the soul of the soil” or flavors that “start out gently and proceed to embrace with a stronger grip?” Surely these are the words of a drunken wine maker or a hung over wine marketer.

With hundreds of confusing grape varieties that can exhibit thousands of flavors, it would seem the world of wine is ripe for simplification. If the silly descriptions don’t kill your warm feelings for wine, the silly marketing will. We will not sell a wine before its time. Our wines are worth $200 because our wine maker is special. The grapes from mountains and hillsides make our wines better than everyone else’s. Look at our hip, new label and heavy glass bottle. It’s all so precious, and unfortunately wine geekdom is the prevailing course for wine marketing.

Do you think any of the readers of the Wine Spectator or Decanter really care whether a Syrah has fruit tones of “deep purple plum?” Do arcane descriptions enhance or explain the wine’s score or rating? Will anyone come up with useful descriptions that real wine consumers can understand?

With more than a trillion gallons of the stuff produced worldwide, wine can no longer be considered special. It is a delightful beverage that can make a meal more enjoyable. It can be a simple quaff while watching a baseball game. It need not be brought out solely on special occasions. It is an everyday beverage, pure and simple.

The most overlooked fact when talking about wine is that its consumption tends to drop inhibitions and, enhance a romantic evening, or benefit a party with friends. Let’s see Jim Laube put that into words.

When my daughter was 10, she took a sip of wine from my glass and exclaimed, “it tastes like grape juice, Daddy!” Indeed, we are so preoccupied with the need to identify the thousands of exotic flavors found in wine that we tend to forget wine is simply an enjoyable beverage made from grapes.

Strip away the mumbo jumbo and you have a product that is as easy to procure as water, but is much more enjoyable. Enough with all the elliptical, archaic and flowery words to describe wine.

It’s ok to say, “This wine tastes great!”

George makes some very good points. Why do we as wine writers, bloggers, and wine marketers insist on talking over the heads of our customers? There is a lesson here: talk TO your customers and not AT them. Gauge your audience and use appropriate language. If you are talking to a bunch of WSET geeks, sure use the flowery verbiage. But if you are speaking to the consumer who doesn’t know jack s**t about wine, maybe you should reconsider.

By the way, if you don’t subscribe to Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences, you REALLY should. It is an excellent newsletter and relatively inexpensive for what you get.

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3 Responses to “Lose the Pretentious Language”

  1. I agree that wine descriptors should be accessible.

    But they should also be, well, descriptive. And the more descriptive you can be about what you like (and don’t like) about a wine (and *why*), the better you will enjoy it.

  2. I find Dan’s point kind of silly. Strip out flavor descriptors (like the oh so exotic “plum”) and use the oversimplified– “This tastes great”…

    Customer: Can you tell me about the Trimbach Riesling from Alsace?
    Merchant / Sommelier: Oh, that one tastes great
    Customer: How does that differ from the JJ Prum from GER?
    Merch: Oh, that one also tastes great…

    Yes- wine needs to be described in more simple language (“backwards” means nothing to most people)- but most people aren’t completely stupid. They know what a grapefruit smells like, what cat piss smells like, they know the smell of bacon, what sweet, dry, sour and salty mean…

  3. Thanks Dirty and Joe for commenting. George (not Dan) may be taking an extreme stance, but the fact remains that there are some (not all) critics who use overly flowery language for descriptors. Who but us wine geeks are going to know what blowsy, gutsy, nervy, tight, or vivid mean? These are all descriptors used to describe wine. One of the things I respect most about Gary Vaynerchuk is his use of simple, everyday descriptors for wine that anyone can get. People can understand what he is talking about.

    I’m not advocating doing away with all descriptors, just simplifying them so that the average consumer can understand them. I’d say “plum” is fairly safe. :)

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