Friday, January 20, 2012

The Language of Wine

My brother recently forwarded me this article, Tip of the Tongue (California Magazine, link here). The author W. Blake Gray is a wine writer who authors a blog, along with writing about wine for several publications. Gray makes some great points about how language and culture affect wine perception; it's a very interesting read.

Gray makes a good point about linguistic relativity; "the structure and syntax of a language affect the way its speakers experience the world". Gender plays a major role in wine language; wine is masculine in Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) and though it's not as obvious in English, gender preferences are heavily prevalent in American wine culture as documented in various consumer opinion polls. Many wine companies aim marketing towards specific genders in advertising, whether its word choice in description or labeling (think of R Winery's Bitch label).
I am constantly asked my opinion on wines, and always try to think about who is asking the question. Is this person knowledgeable about wine? Does this person even drink wine? I do take into account a person's cultural background, but I must admit that I don't always think about my word choice. For instance, Gray talks about the connotation of the term "acidity" when referring to wine. As he mentions, American consumers often think of this as a negative while European consumers may take this as a positive; as a winemaker, I regard this as one of the most important aspects of a wine.

The importance of the wine aroma wheel is something he touches on as well. I have always suggested this to people who ask, "why do people use the term _________ to describe a wine? That sounds weird." I don't think people necessarily need to use these terms to discuss wines, but I think they help people identify what they are tasting more easily; as Gray says, it helps people "zero in on more exact sensations...". I also think it's important to understand these terms if one is reading a lot of reviews about wine or taking tasting classes.
The author also makes a reference to wine scoring and its importance to consumers. This is a hot topic in the wine industry at the moment as some think numbers are the "end all, be all" of wine reviews (you can see Tom Wark's recent take on it here, or some of Steve Heimoff's comments here). While I think numerical scores have their place, this is a topic for another day.

Wine drinking is such a different experience for different people. Whether it's experienced tasters comparing wine quality or inexperienced tasters trying to pair a wine with their dinner, cultural and linguistic differences are a major part of these experiences. At the end of the day, everyone wants to identify wines they will enjoy and need to use their own background to discuss this with others. This doesn't mean that finding the right words is easy.

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