How daft do we think people are..?
There’s been much discussion lately about “de-mystifying” wine: does the traditional wine vocabulary still have any great relevance, or does it merely obfuscate; does it deter people from the specialist shops; did it ever make a ha’porth of sense, anyway? You know the sort of thing. But has nobody given any thought to the intelligence of the wine drinker, or to where “de-mystification” – especially by specialists – will leave them? The issue could raise lengthy debate, but for now I’ll address it by way of a tasting event I hosted recently…
A large group of good-natured people are quietly weighing up the first of eight or so wines on display, and I ask them what they think. There is a wide range of knowledge and experience in the room, but one or two people seem to think I’m expecting a “wine buff’s” response, and a few more simply look worried. Diffidently, one of them breaks the ice: “it’s quite nice, yes. Fruity.”
“Certainly is! Any advance on fruity?”
But of course. There always is. Not immediately, but the snowball is rolling. Throughout the evening, conventional wine terms garner differing responses, even from the shy ones, and it is clear that people are aware not only of what I’m talking about, but of what I might be talking about. Neither the meanings nor the ambiguities are getting past anybody!
“How would you describe the nose on this, Mike?”
“Well, I’d be inclined to agree with the producer’s note, and say it was quite elegant.”
Another voice: “Is that ‘elegant’ in the sense of ‘not smelling of much?'”
“Er, yes, elegant can imply pleasing restraint, but I take your point that in this case it might be used in its, ah, ‘unassuming’ sense…”
“Well it must have an elegant palate as well, because it doesn’t taste of much either!”
And we’re off. As the evening wears on, the language of wine is deconstructed. “Flinty” becomes “pungently smoky,” “steely” becomes “painful,” “velvety” comes to describe a merciful antidote to the steely and flinty wines. Terms like “volatile acidity” invite as piquant a variety of responses as can be imagined! “Cat’s pee,” however, remains cat’s pee, and we find much to agree on – acidity can make a fruity wine a little more interesting, if a little less fruity, and tannin, while reassuringly indicative of longevity, can make it even less fruity. It can also turn a “soft finish” (a pleasant lingering aftertaste) into a “dry finish” (a vicious, lingering afterburn).
As we approach the end of the evening, we spotlight a couple of mightily impressive showstoppers from an esteemed Australian winery. As luck would have it, I have the winery’s own rather florid blurbs to hand, which I suspect will elicit a colourful response…
“You realise, don’t you, that you are sampling the ‘serious side’ of Grenache?” The desired effect is instantaneous. “Is that the side that sits in the house all day listening to Pink Floyd albums and thinking all the other wines are a shower of big soft kids?”
“It is also, it says here, ‘a thought-provoking wine.'” Again, I didn’t have to wait. “They’re spot on there, Mike – it’s provoked me into thinking I’d be crackers if I paid thirty-five quid for it!”
And for a final shot, squinting theatrically at the small print: “you will already have noticed its – let’s see – ‘loud fruit,’ and I’m sure its ‘huge length’ will have you struck dumb for a moment…” No. Not even for a moment. “There’s a job going for a proofreader?”
Of course, the effort to describe wine will occasionally result in some misguidedly picturesque language, and anybody who claims he can taste caramelised lemon zest in a wine is no less deranged now than ever he was. But where will “de-mystification” take us? Away from the odd bizarre, if well-intentioned, attempt to describe and share some massive personal impact? To a place where rows of wine are graded from “fairly decent” to “doubleplusgood,” by way of “gerrit down yer neck?” The wine vocabulary is a part of the wine experience, and it will grow as the wine lover’s journey progresses. Without encouragement he will simply walk in circles. Did Charlie Parker muscle his way around chord progressions before leaping off the top note into a whirlwind of improvisation, or did he play dead fast and that, like? Over the years, I’ve considered him to have done both, and much more besides, and while in that time I’ve responded differently to various approaches to jazz criticism, they’ve all added to my understanding of the music. Have we really abdicated our equal responsibility to the wine lover?
Those of us in the wine trade owe it to ourselves to grace something we love with some effort to convey its delightful indefinables. But we surely owe the same to others. To the wine growers, who spend the whole year fussing over crops in the quest for perfection. To the winemaking teams, working indescribable hours throughout the harvest and beyond to bring a thoroughly enriching experience to our table. And to the customers, their intelligence, curiosity and humour abiding all of the trends of the trade. They really are quite nice!
(An edited version of this article was published in Harper’s Wine and Spirit Magazine’s online edition: http://www.harpers.co.uk/home/13011-mike-stoddart-how-daft-do-we-think-consumers-are-.html)