Talking about wine

Most people get by without a developed language about wine.  ‘I know what I like’ is a fairly common response, with a laugh or smile, which probably means, ‘let’s face it, people drink for the pleasure, for the taste, for mild (or more) intoxication ’.  The further implication is that talking about wine is for wine buffs, sales talk or just sheer pretension.  Then there is the fear of being cheated.  ‘All wine is really the same’ – being asked to pay twice or ten times as much for some bottles is just a con, the fancy words being the cover of the cunning salesperson.  Wine is difficult to evaluate in an objective way and talking about it seems to require either extraordinary tasting skills or secret knowledge.   

Thus, the challenge is, can we talk about the smell and the taste of wine in a way that will mean something to others?   

This was part of the challenge that the academic linguist Adrienne Lehrer set herself back in the early 1970s.  Do ordinary wine drinkers have a vocabulary for wine and can they communicate with one another about the qualities of individual wines? What language do wine professionals use and are they any more successful at communicating than ordinary wine drinkers? 

Book cover Lehrer’s findings are fascinating.  She has now updated her book in a much-expanded edition, Wine and Conversation (Oxford, 2nd edition, 2009).  In her studies she found:

  • contrary to what was thought, ordinary people have a rich vocabulary to draw on when they speak about what wine tastes like.  Most of their vocabulary was drawn from comparison with other fields (‘spicy’, ‘green apples’)
  • professionals did better than ordinary drinkers in describing wines – whew, those wine exams were worth it!
  • professionals did no better than ordinary drinkers in talking about wines in a way that others (even other professionals) could use.  Professionals were not significantly better in experiments in which person A tasted a wine and described it, person B tried to identify that wine from a series of wines on the basis of person A’s description.  This outcome is more difficult to evaluate:  it’s a frustration that more knowledge and experience of wine does not necessarily lead to better communication … but, on the other hand, the more you know, the more you will understand and benefit from others who talk about wine knowledgeably.
  • The only exceptions to the previous finding were when a professional talked about a wine they had studied in real depth or if they were allowed to refer to colour and appearance.  Thus, real in depth knowledge and experience helps, and colour and appearance are much easier to communicate than aroma or taste.
  • There is great potential for confusion over terms such as ‘dry’ or ‘sweet’ because there is no agreed scale for these terms. The same wine can be described as sweet or dry as the speakers have different presuppositions.
  • Value judgements constantly affect drinkers’ descriptions of wine – after all, much of the time we talk about how much we do or don’t enjoy a particular wine, rather than trying to describe it.

Lehrer’s overall conclusion is heartening for those who are struggling to communicate about wine and think there is more to wine talk than sheer pretension or sales patter.  Her conclusion from her experiments was that communicating about wine via language is extremely difficult.  We have plenty of words for taste and smell, but each speaker and each hearer has a different set of educational and personal experiences against which they use and interpret those words. As a result, miscommunication is rife. 

Let’s illustrate this from Angelo Gaja’s Super Tuscan Ca’ Marcanda 2005, the subject of the next post (see Two types of wine talk).   If I describe this wine as ABC – say, (A) powerful aromas of black fruit (especially blackcurrant) and tobacco, (B) dense fruit, high acidity and young tannins in the mouth and (C ) great persistence – this will only convey something meaningful to if you and I are in broad agreement about what the sensations ABC are like.  And the likelihood of that is only quite high if we have both tasted Super Tuscans before and established some common terminology to talk about them.   The solution is obvious:  we need to taste plenty of bottles together and, while we still have our wits about us, agree on some terminology and its meaning. 

A few other comments on Lehrer’s book:

  • this is the second edition of a book which first appeared in 1983.  It’s a shame that the tasting experiments with ordinary drinkers and with professionals, which are at the heart of the book, were not rerun for this new edition.  This might have thrown some light on the general level of wine education among ordinary drinkers.  And the wines used in the experiments have mercifully passed into history under legal challenge about wine names: Californian Chablis is a blast from the past!
  • Lehrer is a linguist and the book is mainly a contribution to that subject.  That makes it a tough read for non-linguists. 
  • In this pioneering study, Lehrer does not comment on the effect of culture on all this but presupposes it. All her tasters were Americans living in three cities with the trials being conducted separately in the three places.   In effect, the subjects were presumed to share the same cultural experience.  We now know that tasters from different cultures use completely different comparators for describing wine, hardly surprisingly. 
  • The author’s surveys of more recent, mainly American studies, in this field are very useful.  The important point is that the more recent studies confirm or are consistent with Lehrer’s original findings.
  • The most important strand of the recent work reported is on the basic sense of taste and smell.  It is the case that some people can taste more than others and that some have a greater ability to taste or smell some substances but not others. 

Overall, Lehrer’s work repays attention. It’s not the easiest book in the world to read but it takes us forward in the tantalising business of trying to convey the smells and the tastes of wine in speech. 

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