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Fervor versus Flavors

Many people don’t like wine writing which includes detailed descriptors, particularly long lists of flavors and aromas. I get that. Casual wine drinkers may be alienated because they’re not able to perceive as many things. And organoleptic notes about dry reds can be dry reads. Much more engrossing are anecdotes about having fun with wine and friends, or snapshots of enthusiastic fist-pumps triggered by an exciting wine.

2010 - A year plenty of Hopes
Photo: Jesus Solana

But writing that a particular wine makes the author feel a certain way and/or do a happy dance tells me more about the scribe than the wine. It may be very enjoyable reading. He or she may be a fascinating, engaging person. Such an article may help sell the wine but, if I’m trying to figure out which wine to buy based upon my own palate, it’s useless. A wine one writer finds “scintillating” may be only mildly interesting to me. They might groove to levels of tannin or acidity that set your teeth on edge.

Wine is almost infinitely complicated. [I read recently that the world of flavors includes at least 4,000 different molecules. Some experts suggest three-quarters of those can be found in wine.] That can be intimidating. But, in seeking to avoid the boring, confusing and overly technical, one needn’t run to the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing to eschew wine descriptors for emotional references. Human moods are even more changeable, inconsistent and inscrutable than wine. And our emotional response to wine is driven by much more than what’s in our mouth.

“Don’t think, feel
Ain’t no big deal
Just make it real and don’t think, feel.
It don’t take plans to clap your hands
When it feels nice just don’t think twice”
     –Robert Maxwell & Neil Diamond

Studies have shown our perception of a wine is affected substantially by our expectations, the attitude we bring to the tasting, the environment we’re in and the people with whom we share the experience. The odds of you smelling maraschino cherry in a particular wine as I do are much greater than the likelihood of that we’ll have an identical emotional reaction to that wine. A particular wine may bring joy to me but, as a descriptor, “joy” doesn’t bring a particular wine to mind.

Along with my wine writing, teaching and tour-leading, I judge wines. Part of that process is group conversation about individual wines. Judges often talk about the emotions and personal recollections a given wine evokes. There’s value in this. It helps me understand that judge and their frame of reference with respect to the wine. It sometimes broadens my view of the wine. But, in my experience, there’s less than a 50–50 chance the wine conjures the same feelings in me.

Wine, of course, is for drinking. Great bottles generate “in the moment,” emotional—and sometimes visceral—reactions. The ability to generate such responses separates wine from the ranks of other tasty beverages. We don’t want to diminish those feelings by thinking too much. Yet there’s also fun to be had in discussing wine with our friends, discovering additional nuances in the sharing. These conversations can also add greater depth to our sentiment, making it more memorable.

To have these discussions, or to simply give others a sense of what they might expect to taste in a wine, we need a common vocabulary. Without that there is no discussion. Descriptions of flavors and textures provide more concrete points of reference than emotional descriptors.

Drink wine. Enjoy it. Emote. Do your happy dance. But it’s okay to think about wine too, even to talk—and write—about it. When you do, don’t limit yourself. Embrace all the words of wine, whether they be emotional, experiential, textural or gustatory.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.