I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The hallowed ritual begins as the sommelier pours the precious liquid into a glass. The wine snob holds it up to the light and swirls it around declaring it to have good legs, or some such rubbish. It must be swirled—the connoisseur declares—so the wine can "breathe."
Next comes the bouquet (smell to the rest of us). There are ancient sacraments to be honoured. The glass is not to be grabbed by the bowl as we among the great unwashed might do. No, the goblet must be picked up by the base and held between the thumb and two forefingers.
The more theatrical aficionados of the fermented grape juice will waft the delicate scents towards the nostrils and announce something like “Ah, new-mown hay with a hint of almond. There may be something of a Bach fugue in the background.”
Then comes the really serious stuff. A sip is taken and the eyes close. The mouth and cheeks move in a chewing motion as the wine is sucked through the teeth.
The assembled company hangs on the pronouncement: “Very complex. I’m getting notes of gooseberry, lavender, and caramel. The mid-palate is amused by the wine’s insouciance and there’s a slightly impertinent corrugated iron finish.”
Skeptics might be excused for wondering if they have just witnessed the setting of a new world long-distance record in BS.
Pompous Wine Quotes
Justin Howard-Sneyd, a wine expert, dishes out a little perspective: “Describing wine is not an exact science; wine and taste are very personal, very subjective things. We have probably been guilty ourselves of using overblown language in the past.” No kidding.
Herewith, the black belts in flowery descriptions:
- "The 2005 Brunello di Montalcino is a model of weightless finesse (tasting of) dark wild cherries, minerals, menthol, and spices." —Antonio Galloni
- It is like ". . . a girl of fifteen, with laughing blue eyes." —André Simon
In 2013, The Broward Palm Beach New Times held a contest for over-the-top wine descriptions. The winner was: "Yo . . . did you check that Boonesfarm vintage Y2K? That was dope! It was big and bright with the complexity of Kool-Aid! It was jammy like a PBJ without those earthy tannins! You hear what I’m saying?"
And, The Economist offers some pithy commentary on the typical vocabulary of oenophiles: ". . . self-styled connoisseurs begin spouting attributes like 'graphite' (which does not smell or—if nibbling pencil ends is any guide—taste of anything), 'zesty mineral' (how it differs from plain mineral is anyone’s guess), 'angular' (huh?), or 'dumb' (indeed)."
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Is It Peasant Plonk or Something Special?
Professional wine experts don’t usually submit to blind taste tests. They know they are trading in a rich line of malarkey and would rather keep the secret tightly held within the confines of the priesthood to which they belong.
However, between 2005 and 2013, California winemaker Robert Hodgson caught several of them out. He organized a series of tastings at the California State Fair. The Observer describes the judges as a "who’s who of the American wine industry from winemakers, sommeliers, critics and buyers to wine consultants and academics."
And, how did they do? "Over the years, he (Robert Hodgson) has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine."
Price Doesn’t Equal Quality
We don’t just have to take Robert Hodgson’s word for it. A group of academics at the University of Minnesota held more than 6,000 blind tastings. They found that "the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less."
But, here’s the bit the wine snobs will cling to with eager hands: "For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment." And, now for the summing up: "Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers."
Hardly a ringing endorsement of the dark arts of wine snobbery.
Frédéric Brochet of the University of Bordeaux did a test in 2001. He presented the same wine to 57 volunteers a week apart. In one test, the wine was labeled as a basic table wine; in the second go, it carried the label of an expensive, superior vintage. The critics were fooled into describing the same wine positively when it came out of a high-end bottle and negatively when they thought it was a vin ordinaire.
Similarly, M. Brochet pranked 54 experts. None of them were able to tell that the one red and one white they were tasting was, in fact, the same wine. The white had been coloured by a flavourless and odourless dye. Numerous other tests have turned up similar results; professionals and amateurs are equally bad at identifying and classifying wine.
- In the 2004 movie Sideways, the Paul Giamatti character (Miles) announces with vehemence, and an expletive, "If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving, I am NOT drinking any Merlot!" In the same movie, Miles heaps praise on the complexity of Pinot Noir. It may only be coincidence, but after the release of the very popular film, sales of Merlot dropped and sales of Pinot Noir rose.
- "Velvet and satin in a bottle" is how the Archbishop of Paris described Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits, a Burgundy, in 1780. Today, this particular plonk goes for a little over $11,000 a bottle.
- In related news, the residents of the Vatican City consume more wine per capita than any other country—ninety-nine bottles each annually.
- Overheard in a back alley: "This wine tastes like runoff from a barnyard. I’ll be glad when I’ve had enough of it."
- “Velvety Chocolate With a Silky Ruby Finish. Pair With Shellfish.” Coco Krumme, Slate, February 23, 2011.
- “Don’t Let’s Whine.” J.P., The Economist, March 3, 2011.
- “Why I Hate Wine Snobs.” Peter Mayle, The Observer, November 19, 2006.
- “Wine-tasting: it’s Junk Science.” David Derbyshire, The Observer, June 23, 2013.
- “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? …” Robin Goldstein, et al, University of Minnesota Department of Applied Economics, April 2008.
- “The Color of Odors.” Gil Morrot, University of Bordeaux, 2001.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor