In defense of the metaphor.

Snooth recently published an article called “Annoying Wine Words,” penned by frequent contributor Gregory Dal Piaz, and I had to sit up and pay attention. I have a feeling we each know a few wine skeptics (I used to be one myself), and are well acquainted with the arched eyebrows and eye-rolling they’ll do whenever tasters wax poetical. “Peppery? Grassy? Buttery? Come on!” Of course, thanks to the work of many patient wine educators, we now know there’s a solid scientific basis to many of these terms, that buttery notes suggest malolactic fermentation, that aromas of vanilla bean and clove probably indicate oak influence, and so on. In fact, if we examine wine with the eye of a chemist, we find there are lots of things to say about a glassful that are both accurate and eloquent – and then, of course, there’s the rest. This why I find Mr. Dal Piaz’s project so important: if we can separate the useful terms from the meaningless or silly ones, then we’ll all understand and enjoy wine a bit more – and we’ll do less to confuse and intimidate the would-be wine-lover in the process. As I read, though, I had to take issue with his examples.

He starts with “unctuous,” and points out that the word is often used to describe wines positively, even though its connotations suggest things we wouldn’t want in our glasses. I think the point is well taken, even though the strict meaning of the term does convey quite a bit about a wine’s weight, body, and mouth-feel. Several of his other pet peeves resonate with me as well. Right about the time he starts railing against “cacophony” though, it begins to dawn on me: Mr. Dal Piaz is a literalist! Now I’m all for clarity in communication, but if we limit ourselves to the purely literal, there’s simply not a lot we can say. Or rather, there’s a great deal we can say, most of which does little to convey sensation. Sure, I can quote a wine’s pH, its chemical makeup, its degrees Brix and its density, but this won’t let anyone know what it’s like to actually drink a glass of the stuff. It won’t just lack for poetry, it will be useless information.

The fine art of describing sensation is metaphorical by necessity. Is there really orange peel in the wine? Or cherry pie? Or vanilla bean? Unlikely. But something about the wine’s composition evokes the sensation of these things, which makes them useful currency for sharing an otherwise unique (and therefore indescribable) sensation. And the more we talk about any one sense, the more we rely on metaphors from the other four. If I were writing about sound, reviewing an album or a piece of stereo equipment, I might talk about brightness or darkness to convey the richness of high or low frequency. We might also call a wine bright to describe its acidity. Our culture is image-centered, and relies heavily on visual metaphors, so this kind of synesthesia often gets a pass. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” after all. But in describing the elusive nuances of taste, we can accomplish far more if we allow ourselves metaphors from each of the senses. I know what a cacophony sounds like, and how it makes me feel – startled, overwhelmed, and stunned by excess – so it expresses volumes to me about a wine whenever I read it in a review. I can expect a glass jam-packed with diverse and perhaps even ill-fitting flavors. In one word, I have learned something truly valuable about this wine.

Wine is metaphor.

Sooner or later, anyone who studies the vocabulary of wine-tasting needs to confront another, broader question. Why is the stuff so important, and what does it matter how we describe it? Is wine just another case of the emperor’s new clothes? Why is it practically revered, its enjoyment elevated nearly to the level of sacred ritual? Why does a well-stocked cellar earn you more social cred than a yacht club membership or a collection of classic cars? Is this just a class thing, or a classist thing, for that matter? It’s hard to deny that any group of social climbers will instantly establish an arbitrary vetting system (if none is in place already) out of whatever supplies are handy. And despite the long-standing American mythos of blue-collar pride, gumption, and bootstrap-hiking, social ascendancy remains a nigh irresistible golden carrot. But is that all there is to wine, as so many skeptics seem convinced? And if so, then what a massive hoax. What a smokescreen! How many trillions of gallons of hot air wasted over nothing, just another excuse for a few bucks to lock antlers.

Now it’s a sad truth that nothing beautiful can escape the taint of human ambition. But fortunately, there’s so much more to wine than climbers climbing and poseurs posing. And beyond the delightful tingle on the tongue of a sauvignon blanc, or the magical synergy of well-structured cab with a well-marbled steak, there’s something quite a bit deeper to wine, something that goes to the very heart of human culture. In a phrase, wine is liquid metaphor. It’s a glassful of nostalgia, the ultimate Proustian Biscuit. Wish they could bottle your lost childhood? Well, they have, and it’s available in full-bodied, earthy, fruit-driven, demi-sec, madeirized, rosé, and frizzante, to name just a few.

Here’s what I’m getting at: wine has been found to contain hundreds of esters which, in combination, produce thousands of distinct scents. In other words, wine can “offer hints of” (i.e., smell like) just about anything. The sense of smell, in turn, has been found to be the sense most closely tied to memory. Each distinct aroma has the power to return us to long forgotten places and times, bringing back vivid fragments of days gone by, the countryside of our youth, piles of moldering leaves, the wafting aroma of honeysuckle on the front porch, trips to see old friends, loved-ones, and so on. So many memories which we carry remain hidden, traveling with us but lost to our conscious minds, until the right sensation returns them to us, all in a rush of startling intensity. And wine is just such a master key, capable of opening so many secret doors within the mind, ready to open up old connections, or to create new ones. It really takes you back, as the expression flippantly goes. It may not happen every time you open a bottle of Valpolicella on the back porch to go with the burgers – but then again, it may. And the more attention we pay to the full experience of a wine, or to wax synesthetic again, the more we listen – whether we try to describe it or not – the more likely we are to be drawn into startling discovery.

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