“It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”—James Thurber
Just the other day, at the local retail establishment where I work between Pulitzers, a customer told me she didn’t want to buy a particular wine because she didn’t like the taste of honey. “Well,” I said, “Gruner Veltliners are usually very crisp and dry and don’t taste like honey.” “But,” she protested, “the description says it has ‘notes of honey.’” “Ah,” I replied as I walked over to examine the source of the misunderstanding. It turned out she was referring to one of the store’s own ads, which did indeed mention honey. My eyes became painfully stuck in mid-roll and had to be pried loose by my co-workers using two corkscrews heated over an open flame.
Many of us misunderstand the nature of wine language. I constantly run into people who seem to actually expect to find various foods in wine. “Mmmm,” they will say, reading the back of the bottle, “I like chocolate. I’ll buy this one!” Indeed, when confronted with wines that are said to offer a “mouthful of silky-textured cherries, blueberries, plums, boysenberries, earth, minerals, and spiced oak,” people can hardly be blamed if they expect dessert. I tend to advise customers to ignore those descriptions. But why? Doesn’t wine taste like all that stuff? Isn’t that the point?
Yes and no. You see, wine language is poetic—a way of describing not what a wine objectively tastes like, but what it was like for the writer to taste the wine. Good wine writing presents an experience, not an analysis.
Granted, wine can taste and smell like all kinds of weird things, some of which I personally have tasted and smelled. Sauvignon Blanc does sometimes smell like cat pee. I used to have a cat that peed on my clothes, so I know that smell. But I have never smelled or tasted any of the following, taken from actual wine reviews: liquefied minerals, animal fur, beef blood, white flowers, or scorched earth. I’m sure that some people really do taste scorched earth in wine, and maybe I do too, but I just have a different phrase for it. I prefer “Pompeii-esque.”
Maybe you’ll taste all that stuff, maybe you won’t. We all have different palates, after all, and taste is subjective. But modern wine writing has become so fixated on isolating scents and smells that we’re led to believe there’s no other way to enjoy wine. The critics strain to conjure up ever more esoteric descriptions, and the drinker is left to strain for a small hint of “new saddle leather,” lest he be seen as a wine ignoramus.
People really want to know what wines taste like. They ask me all the time, but the only honest answer I can give is to tell them to taste it for themselves, and not to be afraid to wax poetic. Maybe I was wrong about the Gruner Veltliner. Maybe that grape does taste like honey. I usually say that it tastes like white pepper, which is true; all the wine experts say so. The weird part is, I’ve eaten lots of honey, but white pepper? Isn’t that an album by Ween?