Sip, and shut up
When wine drinkers tell me they taste notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals, usually all I can detect is a whole lot of jackass. The language of sommeliers, winemakers, sellers and writers has devolved into nothing besides a long list of obscure smells that tells me nothing. I get a lot of cherry and cassis from Manischewitz too, but it would help a lot more if you told me it was cough-syrup-goopy sugar-water.
I miss the days when we made fun of wine snobs for saying that a wine was “ingratiating without being obsequious.” Now wine snobs are too boring to make fun of. Ever since UC Davis professor Ann Noble created the Wine Aroma Wheel more than 20 years ago, people have become obsessed with seeing how many memories they can inhale out of a glass.
In 1988, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl, who apparently drank exactly as much as you would have guessed the creator of Willie Wonka would drink, wrote a letter to Decanter magazine in which he said that wine “tastes primarily of wine -- grape-juice, tannin, and so on. If I am wrong about this, and the great wine-writers are right, then there is only one conclusion. The chateaux in Bordeaux have begun to lace their grape-juice with all manner of other exotic fruit juices, as well as slinging in a bale or two of straw and a few packets of ginger biscuits for extra flavouring.” I like to imagine what Shel Silverstein wrote in the following week.
Admittedly, part of my problem is that I have a weak sense of smell. But it’s also that something I enjoy has been reduced to a game of faux scientific analysis. Gary Vaynerchuk, my favorite wine reviewer and the author of “101 Wines Guaranteed to Inspire, Delight, and Bring Thunder to Your World,” includes tasting notes -- he ate his own sweaty sock on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” to train his palate -- but mostly he discusses wine more holistically. “I speak about wines like they’re people,” he says. “How heavy is it and is it bitter and does it have a personality? Does this wine have chaos? I referred to wine as the movie ‘Platoon’: awesome beginning; terrible finish. I think it embarks different senses than if I said it was leather with a little bit of cranberry.”
Personally, I want to know if a wine is rough, balanced, acidic, sweet, simple, tannic, soft, hot with alcohol, mineraly, watery or has a long finish. I want to know that a Zinfandel, our greatest native grape, tastes like America: big, bold, unsubtle and ready to fight.
Vaynerchuk referred to one big American Pinot Noir as a “Roger Clemens” because it’s overly pumped up. My wife’s brother, Ian Barry, a winemaker in upstate New York, similarly once described a California Sea Smoke as a “female bodybuilder -- something that’s supposed to be delicate and elegant, but has been enhanced in ways that aren’t really attractive to most of us. When I drink wines like that, I picture guys in gold jewelry and slicked-back hair bragging about how expensive it is.” I e-mailed him back that I knew exactly what that wine was like thanks to him -- and carefully avoided any mention of the fact that I’m on Sea Smoke Cellars’ allocation list or that, as a teenager, I occasionally watched female bodybuilders on ESPN2.
“The reason there’s a problem is that there’s a lot of people who suck at communicating,” Vaynerchuk says. “And it’s lack of self-esteem and pretension. Nobody has guts. Jancis Robinson and Wine Spectator and Robert Parker write that way, so everyone else does. It’s classic sheep mentality.”
And it’s not just wine -- or chocolate, tea, coffee and olive oil -- where the language is now exactly the same. Movie critics, book reviewers and television writers have all become 6-year-olds telling me everything that happened on an episode of “SpongeBob” -- wasting paragraph after paragraph impersonally recounting plot, as if my sole goal as a reader is to glean just enough to get into arguments at wine-tasting parties.
So from now on, wine drinkers, you get to mention three things you smell in a wine, max. Then you have to tell me something more interesting. If that seems too hard, I suggest drinking more wine until it isn’t.