One of the challenges in promoting wine as a lovely compliment to food is the apparent pretentiousness of wine in general. There is a long, illustrious, fanciful history of wine-speak that has been tweaked by marketers and writers for centuries which makes many people feel somehow inadequate around the “juice” (to use a common phrase around our house). I’ve always felt that it’s unfortunate that there’s such a mystique around the subject when it’s as easy (?) as pulling a cork, pouring a glass, taking in the aroma and, tipping back the glass. “Mmm, that’s good. Yum.” No mystique there!
While I think the fancy words can be a barrier to simple pleasure, I’m actually here to defend those same fancy words and get them a little bit into perspective. The thing about fancy words – and now I’m indicating “wine descriptors” – is that they are the only real tool we have to characterize a wine, compare them to other wines, and essentially, catalogue the wines appropriately. While a student at UC Davis, an enologist can’t graduate without a class called “Sensory Analysis.” When I was there, Dr. Ann Noble drummed on us about the importance of a scientific basis for describing wines. For a good long time, wine and vineyard researchers would perform an experiment on some very defined aspect of study, say, a trial where they compared different trellising methods, and then sum up the differences that they perceived. So often, the summary would read something like “It was determined that the vertical trellis improved color, texture and flavor of Cabernet Sauvignon. The End.” Ann Noble bristled at this. “Who were the judges? How many were there? How did they conduct the tasting trial? Were they trained to taste wine?”
The Sensory Analyst’s version goes something like this: Six judges are selected on the basis of familiarity with the resulting wines. Then, they sit down and taste the sample blind (meaning they don’t know which is which). They hash out a list of suitable wine descriptors that pertain to this flight of wines, maybe 6 -10 words like “fresh strawberry” and “canned green beans” (yuck). They taste the wines blind again and assign a value from 0 to 9 on how much each wine displays that wine descriptor. THEN, they take the rankings, do some fancy statistical number crunching and see if: A) the judges have agreement between them on their rankings and; B) see if the wine or vineyard treatment actually created a statistically significant result based on a standard model. All they have at this point is that a treatment, say, “increase fresh strawberry character and lessened canned green bean character significantly.” Notice that there are no qualitative words like “improved” or “preferred.”
Now, back to my point. While the sensory analyst’s job is rather dry, if you add up all the experiments and quantifiable results, one can definitely infer from the data how to make improved wine – at least one that might sell better (with apologies to all the lovers of canned green beans). But really, the words that are used to describe wines are the bottom line tools that we have. They might sound pretentious and solely for marketing or selling a high-brow lifestyle, but it’s all we have.
With that background, I would like to encourage the use of these fancy-shmancy words. The fun is to find those descriptors in wine, one by one, like learning a new language. Each word you can associate in a wine helps build a vocabulary, the vocabulary becomes a language, the language becomes… a perfectly pretentious wine snob! I joke. I do think it’s fun. It’s really more like exploring and seeing new things, cultures, artifacts, piece by piece, one by one. I would suggest going slowly, take it in, don’t hurry. If you want to fast-track the process, there are some great classes on the subject where they ameliorate samples of relatively “neutral” wines with bits of peach or strawberry – or canned green beans (ditto yuck). The ameliorated samples simply get people comfortable with the process. Remember when you were afraid to turn on your first computer because something bad might happen? Same thing. Many people are afraid of pulling the cork because they don’t feel like they know enough about wine to appreciate it. One thing is absolutely for certain: you don’t have to know ANYTHING about wine to enjoy it, fancy words or delicious silence.