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A nose for purple prose

Times Staff Writer

Robert PARKER is the best and most influential wine critic in the world -- the most influential critic of any kind, in any field, anywhere, for that matter. And he usually communicates his judgments in clear and strong, if not necessarily poetic, prose.

Several months ago, though, I received an e-mail from an Orange County wine store quoting Parker’s lavish praise (96 points!) for an Australian Shiraz. Included in this wine’s “peppery” aroma profile, Parker wrote, were hints of “melted asphalt” and “Band-Aid.”

Obviously Parker’s description was intended to inspire readers to call their local wine store and order a case of what Parker called a “tour de force” in winemaking.

But who wants to drink a wine that smells like a bad car accident on a hot day?

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Not long ago I came across another Parker review that described a 98-point wine from southern Italy as having “a gorgeous bouquet of scorched earth” (among other scents). Again, do you want to drink -- or serve your dinner guests -- a wine that smells like a cross between a forest fire and a war zone?

To be fair, these wine descriptions are not typical of Parker -- and he was properly embarrassed when I called him about them. There are far worse offenders than he -- many of them -- in the desperate search for colorful but appropriate wine terminology. Indeed, with the possible exception of the passages about sex in those romance-cum-ravage novels known as “bodice-rippers,” there are few writings in the English language filled with more unintentionally laughable prose than wine reviews.

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Mystifying myths

When I say this, I don’t mean to sound like the journalistic-oenophilic equivalent of Lynne Truss, the woman whose book on the misuses of punctuation (“Eats, Shoots & Leaves”) has become a surprise bestseller in England. My real concern about the language used in so many wine reviews is not so much that they offend my prose sensibility; it’s that they intimidate and turn off many new and potential wine drinkers. They contribute to the mystification and mythification of wine, to the layman’s sense that the enjoyment of wine requires a certain amount of ritual and the decoding of impenetrable mysteries.

This comes at a time when wine itself is actually more accessible, to more people, than ever before. Sure, the top, big-name wines are increasingly expensive. But today, right now, a wide range of eminently drinkable, moderately priced wines from -- among other countries -- Spain, Italy, Australia, Chile, Argentina, even France makes it possible for more people to try wine, fall in love with wine and begin to drink wine regularly, if they’re not turned off or intimidated by those already in “the club.”

Unfortunately, too many wine writers often seem to think they’re writing about other human beings, not about a beverage. I remember one wine, for example, being described as “a rather seedy aristocrat,” another as “sort of a blowsy blond,” a third as “suave and easygoing.” Just last month, I heard Anthony Dias Blue speak on the radio of Petite Syrahs that are “downright cantankerous.”

I still have in my file from several years ago my all-time favorite such wine description, a wine that the critic said had “tried to summon a bit more seriousness but its supple femininity gave way quickly to shimmering fruitiness.”

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I read that three times but was never able to figure out if the critic liked the wine (because it was fruity and supple) or didn’t like it (because it wasn’t serious enough).

Roald Dahl built an entire short story, “Taste,” around a man who had the “rather droll habit of referring to [wine] as though it were a living being. “A prudent wine,” he would say, “rather diffident and evasive but quite prudent.” Or “a good-humoured wine, benevolent and cheerful -- slightly obscene, perhaps, but nonetheless good-humoured.”

In this context, “lissome,” “assertive,” “suave” and “reticent” seem to be the adjectives of choice for many contemporary wine writers. I’ve never met Steve Tanzer, who writes and publishes the highly regarded International Wine Cellar, but when I saw “reticent” used to describe 30 wines in one issue and “suave” to describe 14 others, I found myself envisioning a dapper, middle-aged fellow wearing an ascot and surrounded by open wine bottles, whispering into each of them, cooing encouragement, trying to coax the liquid out of the bottle.

But anthropomorphic language isn’t all that amuses and appalls me.

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Last year I received a wine list from Saddle Peak Lodge in the mail. Each wine on the impressive 23-page list was described in a sentence; many of the sentences were filled with the names of various fruits and other foodstuffs. But I couldn’t help noticing that the description of one Pinot Noir included the notation that it “resembles silk pajamas.”

It wasn’t clear to me whether the resemblance was in the taste, the smell, the texture, the cost or the romantic possibilities.

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Subtleties that elude

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I’d be the first to admit that it’s difficult to describe how wine tastes and smells in simple, accurate language. Indeed, heretical though it is for someone who writes about wine and food to admit this, I often find that I can neither taste nor smell all the various fauna, flora and fruit (or animal, vegetable and mineral) components that serious wine critics consistently say are present in wine.

So maybe I’m just jealous of their astonishingly sensitive noses and palates. But I’d bet that many wine drinkers have the same problem I do. Maybe they can sense a bit of, oh, say, citrus in a wine’s bouquet, but “truffle, wet stone, spicy oak ... mineral bath

“Unlike literary critics and art historians, wine writers have failed to invent a dialect of their own,” says Sean Shesgreen, an English professor at Northern Illinois University, in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In Western Europe, this is not a problem. It’s not that wine writers there are better, more imaginative prose stylists -- though the Brits, who virtually created the wine-writing genre, are generally less prone to egregious phraseology than are America’s Johnny Walker-come-latelys. But most Western Europeans don’t need wine writers to tell them what to drink.

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People there grow up with local village wines as a beverage at the table, as much a part of dinner as chicken or vegetables or water. Western Europeans introduce their children to wine -- often watered wine, to be sure -- at an age that would prompt America’s neo-Prohibitionists and all those overprotective baby-boomer mothers to call the cops. So wine is no mystery there.

In this country, the obfuscatory gobbledygook of so many wine writers has added to the historic obstacles to wine consumption and appreciation that were created by the original Prohibitionists, the temperance movement and, more recently, the sprouts and soybean crowd.

Thus, even though red wine consumption in this country has increased since word began to spread that moderate wine drinking actually has health benefits, overall per capita wine consumption in this country is still only slightly more than two gallons a year, far behind France (15.6 gallons), Italy (14.1) and Portugal (13.2), among many others.

In fact, the U.S. ranks 34th among the nations of the world in per capita wine consumption -- behind even Croatia, Uruguay, Moldova, Norway, Lithuania and Slovakia -- despite being the world’s fourth-largest wine-producing country (behind only France, Italy and Spain).

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Hmm. Maybe if California wines were less assertive and more seductive, we’d drink more of them.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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