Friday, June 19, 2009

Wine as a Second Language...

Everyone wants to be educated but nobody likes to be schooled. That said, nobody likes a know it all either. I find experiencing the pleasures of a good bottle amongst friends, family, and peers much more enjoyable than memorizing the 59 Wards within the 21 Districts of the 5 Major regions of South Africa and so on. Whatever your approach may be, it is an additional challenge to be able to verbalize what your experiences have been.

Over the course of my career as Sommelier, I have heard some really geeked out styles of taking what's in the glass and transcending that into words. While I respect most attacks, I often feel that people put wine on a pedestal so high that it becomes unapproachable and seemingly pretentious. I refer to this as the "Frasier Crane Method". After all, isn't it mere grape juice we are talking about?!? Please don't take that the wrong way.

Once your homework is done for the day, you can keep what information you feel enhances your level of enjoyment and leave the rest behind. My all time favorite way to learn about wine is through travel. There is so much you can learn about a wine by just surrounding yourself with the local culture, weather, history etc..

As far as speaking goes, there are no right and wrongs here. I just recently heard someone analyzing a wine and refer to its structure as being "Leona Helmsley in style". His point being that while the wine had a rough exterior, there was a touch of softness at its core. I have also heard one of Bordeaux's finest, Chateau Latour being referred to as "a silk glove over an iron fist". There is also the ever popular sexual innuendo ie: "I find this wine to be curvaceous yet resilient with long legs that complement its perfume of vanilla sweat". As they say, sex sells!

My approach to this is to be as honest with myself about what I find in a glass as I can be. For instance, have you ever heard someone go on about lingon berries with slight undertones of the obscure African wafer bean?!? While this person may very well have had the rare experience of plugging these items into their sense memory, I have not been so lucky. As a result, I prefer to keep it simple and sincere. If I smell fruit loops, then fruit loops it is!

My Advice would be to find out what works best for you through tasting, tasting, and more tasting. Not to be confused with drinking, drinking, and more drinking as the better the wine, the more you drink and the less information you retain.

PS: To my knowledge, there is no such thing as the African Wafer Bean, Ha ha!


jenn knowles said...

Awesome. It sums up all of our somm beliefs in one neatly wrapped package. It is very true that sense memory pays a huge role in wine speak, fruit loops for sure, and everyones memories are inherently different. I refuse to use the ubiquitous desriptor 'gooseberries' when describing sb cuz I've never had one, but green apple jolly rancher is something I find in chard all the time. Literally smell the roses, and all flowers, when u get the chance and eat as much fruit as u can. It'll keep u healthy and trigger a whole slew of descriptors as well. I am cajoled all the time for finding differing types of pork products in red wines, but how often do we use bacon? Huh!?! Candy and other childhood memories and always awesome for new comers and some type of pastry abounds in glass after glass. Just say what u smell, as brett said, if u've had the chance to smell fresh elephant dung then that may be ur brettanomyces trigger (seriously, no pun intended!) Great stuff brett, keep it coming!

tercero wines said...


Great post. Though I'm not a somm, as a winemaker, I'm asked to speak about my wines and wines in general, and so I am well aware of 'wine speak'.

To me, the most important thing is to realize that you are speaking to different people with different sensory and tasting experiences - and to be truly cognizant of that. One diner may really appreciate 'blousy' aromatic expressions whereas another may simply want the briefest, 'simplest' explanations about the wine.

Take care and keep up the great work!


David said...

funny coincidence about the Clinton story, I just enjoyed (and blogged about) the next year's Domaine Serene pinot.