What We Talk About When We Talk About Wine

Discerning the language of taste.

September 1, 2014

BuzzIssue 8: September/October 2014

A rivulet of red runs down the neck. It hangs a moment on the lip before the wine splashes into the inverted bell of Riedel stemware.

See it?

See the wine settling into the center of the glass? No sooner has it settled before some unseen hand swirls the stem, sending the wine sample racing around the inside of the glass like a motorcycle stuntman racing round the interior of the metal-mesh globe at a sideshow.

And then descends The Nose.

We all know This Nose. We’ve all been at some point, at some dinner, where The Nose descends. For example, the owner of The Nose, after taking a long sniff, might declare: “Soft and sensuous—quite an improvement over the ’67s, which were unstylish and flabby.”

Or perhaps the owner of The Nose says, “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy, without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its pretension.”

James Thurber wrote that last one in a 1936 cartoon—even then, the way we talk about wine was a source of humor. And still we have all met, in some form, The Nose.

But we are all not Adrienne Lehrer.

These are photographs of wine as seen under a microscope. The solids isolated in the images are yeast particles that are crystalizing sugar, eventually dissolving over the life of a wine. Wines that are beautiful on the palate are also beautiful to the eye. Form and taste are hand-in-hand. Sugar is smooth; lemon is jagged. This specimen is a 1984 Johannesburg Riesling that was two years old when photographed. It is similar to chardonnay, but is a bit more aggressive in both form and taste.

These are photographs of wine as seen under a microscope. The solids isolated in the images are yeast particles that are crystalizing sugar, eventually dissolving over the life of a wine. Wines that are beautiful on the palate are also beautiful to the eye. Form and taste are hand-in-hand. Sugar is smooth; lemon is jagged. This specimen is a 1984 Johannesburg Riesling that was two years old when photographed. It is similar to chardonnay, but is a bit more aggressive in both form and taste.

Lehrer happens to be a lauded linguist and professor emerita at the University of Arizona who has spent a fine part of her professional career studying just how we talk about wine. She first stumbled onto this path back in the ’60s when, as she describes in the opening of her book Wine & Conversation, she’d be at a dinner party where “some person, usually a man, would hold up a glass of wine to let the candlelight shine through, swirl it around, and make some pronouncement” as in the quote above: soft and sensuous; unstylish and flabby.

After she was offered a linguistics position in California, several friends asked what she might research. “I was just joking,” she told me, “but I told them: I’ll study wine language.”

And this is, eventually, exactly what she did. She learned what we talk about when we talk about wine.

Who cares what we talk about when we talk about wine? Well, I know one person: You! You care.

You are reading a food magazine, and as Lehrer points out in her book, we now use wine-ish language to talk about beer, coffee, food, even music. It turns out that we use the rich, metaphorical language of wine words whenever we have “the problems of finding appropriate language for experience in other sensory domains.”

Another person who cares what we talk about when we talk about wine? That’d be me. I stumbled across her book when I began writing about wine, beer, and liquor, and eventually I figured I’d better figure out what I was saying. I must admit, delving into Lehrer’s book feels alternately academic and revelatory; one wades through linguistics charts and then falls flush into unconsidered revelations.

One revelation: Most of the time when we talk about taste, we aren’t really talking about taste. We’re actually talking about a combination of scent, mouthfeel, and taste. Here’s the thing: scent is the sense with all the complexity. A tongue only discerns four basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty (and also, some think, a fifth, umami, which in Japanese means savory or pungent). The great Nose, however, can perceive “10,000 to 100,000 chemicals as having distinct odors, all of which are small volatile molecules,” writes Lehrer.

Indeed, when you taste your favorite food, you’re really only tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or savory, combined with many, far more subtle scents. If you love a particular steak, you really love the complexity of scent more than its taste, arguably. The Nose, alas, has a good reason for sniffing so ostentatiously. With food and drink, we’re far more beholden to scents than tastes

The next revelation hit me in the form of a classic philosophical question: “How do I know that what I see as ‘red’ is what you see as ‘red’?” Or, with wine: If what I always perceive as “bitter” is what you always perceive as “sweet” … how would we ever know?

And though Lehrer says, “we don’t have to worry about this problem” (called the “inverted spectrum” in philosophy-talk), she does note that we can test what people actually taste in comparison to others. As it turns out, we have very different thresholds for taste—which means that there are “supertasters” out there. “Some people can taste things others cannot. And even where everyone can taste a stimulus, like sugar, individual thresholds vary,” says Lehrer. “The supertasters can perceive tastes at a much lower level of intensity.”

The words we use in writing about food and wine are “interesting,” said Lehrer when I interviewed her in her home near the University of Arizona. “Because they’re not hopelessly complex like philosophy words, but not overly simple, like color words.

“If you’re talking about two people’s experiences of a painting,” she said, gesturing at one of the many pieces of art on the walls, “you can at least point to line and form. ‘See that shadow,’ you can say. But when you’re talking about taste, there’s nothing to point to. All you can use are words.” And I thought of the famous quote, variously attributed, that seems as true for wine as song: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Though touched on in her first book, her fascination with culinary language stuck with her long after—until she’d accepted a professorship in Tucson. In the 1970s, with no real funding, she cobbled together her own studies on the fly.

She got together 18 wine drinkers in Tucson—“one thing about this work,” she said “is that it’s always easy to find volunteers for studies”—and had them meet regularly to taste wine and talk about the wine and, crucially, to talk about how they talk about the wine.

Today, many linguists have followed her lead, confirming her results with much larger sample sizes and expensive equipment. For her studies, instead of lab equipment she was “buying stuff at the drugstore,” like test strips for diabetics which she used to try to detect, say, sugar levels in a wine.

Another question: When someone says a wine is “bold”… is it actually bold?

The answer is: no. I mean: yes.

I mean: it depends whom you talk to. If you are talking to a person with whom you’ve mutually tasted a lot of wine, you can sometimes determine what you two mean by your descriptions. But if someone came new to the group, it might not reflect their experience at all. Because much of what we say about wine has meaning to small, close-knit groups, but not necessarily to those outside those groups.

Of course, that’s only for amateurs. Lehrer also analyzed the elect—experts and wine writers.

It turns out the “experts”—many of whom are supertasters—can actually perform better than the rest of us at blind tests—but it’s unclear how much better, and even this success only occurs with wine types on which the experts are “well-trained.”

“For example,” she said, “my suspicion would be that Wine Spectator writers could all identify qualities that they could all, accurately, find in the same wines.”

Also, she notes that the best of these writers seem to have an extraordinary memory for taste; they can recall highly specific tastes from years ago. They’re highly attuned. “I occasionally play piano,” she said, “but I can’t tune a piano.”

And yet, they may know less than they think they know—or at least still have a hard time communicating it. In her book, Lehrer mentions that, in one study, it took six months to a year to train a panel of expert tasters to use a vocabulary where “all panel members know the exact connotation of each descriptive term applied to the product under study.” Perhaps the only truly accurate wine language is that used by wine scientists—scientists who are now using technologies like gas chromatography and fMRI to figure out the compounds related to specific tastes. For example, a certain vegetative aroma found in a Sauvignon Blanc contained “a specific compound also found in bell peppers.”

This both amazed and frightened me. “Do you think,” I asked, “we could ever get to the point where a scientist could test for certain compounds and tell us if a wine is actually ‘bold’?”

She smiled. “Like reading a score for music? I wouldn’t worry. We’re not there yet.”

With her wine words banging about my brain, I sought out the closest wine tasting I could find. I wanted to hear people talk about wine. Maynards Market, in downtown Tucson, was hosting a weekly around-the-world wine tour, and this week they were stopping in Germany. After I paid for my glass and sat down at the long wooden table in the market’s airy, moderne interior, Kathy and Ken sat down. Kathy, with white bob, introduced herself with a quick-draw laugh full of an odd blend of mischief and generosity. Ken, too, was a man more than happy to talk about wine talk, enjoying being part of Maynards wine club and laughing about wine clubs. And wine words:

“Listen, I read Wine Spectator, but they use these words for wines. Like ‘approachable.’ What does that even mean? All wines are approachable. I approach them and drink them,” he said, as he stood to get a second tasting.

And as he sat back down, he greeted three middle-aged women sitting down next to us; they’d all met previously at Maynards last wine dinner and greeted each other with the insta-conviviality these events seemed to confer.

These women loved to talk about talking about wine. Though they didn’t want to be attributed directly, the conversation blossomed into a free-flowing dialogue cribbed from some unreleased episode of Sex and the City.

“The nose on this one is generous,” one said. “I think it’s inviting,” said another.

“How inviting?”

“I think it’s a bit coquettish …”

“So we do talk about wines like women.”

“This one is smart for a blonde.”

“The difference between a wine and a woman,” said Ken, “is that I’ve never had a wine slap me.”

“I’ve woken up feeling like it has,” I said.

“This one is bitter,” one of the women said. “Doesn’t have proper body.”

“Are we talking about women again?”

“What’s the name of this Riesling?”

“Dr. Loosen,” she said, emphasis on the “loose.”

“Paging Dr. Loosen.”

“I want an appointment with Dr. Loosen …”

“See, talking about wine can be fun,” one said.

“Talking about wine is part of the fun of wine.”

One of the three, a librarian, was convinced she had a much worse palate than her friends and refrained from offering her opinion on any of the scents or tastes. Finally, when tasting our last Pinot Noir, her friends encouraged her to offer an opinion.

“The nose is … difficult,” she said. “Not easy.”

“See,” said her more palette-confident friend, “you’re getting it. Look what I wrote about this one. I didn’t like it.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” replied the librarian, “I said it wasn’t easy. Some really worthwhile things are not easy.”

We all considered that for a moment.

Shambling on home, I replayed various conversations in my mind, and thought: This is another thing we talk about when we talk about wine; it’s part of what we like about wine tastings. Talk jumps from Taste to Truth, from Decantation to Deception, from Sweetness to Sex, all in the time it takes to swirl a Gewürztraminer.

And we were making friends, too. Indeed, there’s a word for this: phatic communication. We use language to “test one’s experience of reality and to share an experience” and this often leads to phatic communication, which is “usually characterized as language used to establish social bonds,” writes Lehrer. A common example is “It’s a nice day” or, in Tucson, “It’s so hot.” We’re not trying to inform or learn—simply to bond, to agree. But Lehrer notes that phatic communication works best when we are trying to bond and actually can talk about something; where both the text and subtext mean something. As when tasting wine.

But perhaps I’m muddying the waters. After all, Lehrer also noted that wine writers themselves shape a lot of how we talk about wine. “They get bored using the same words,” she said, “and make up metaphors to amuse readers.” After our conversation, she sent me an email with this anecdote: After she gave a presentation on Wine & Conversation, a young wine writer approached and admitted that sometimes “wine writers just make up descriptions.” He said he once described a wine as having “the aroma of quince. He suspected that no one reading the article had ever tasted quince. And, in fact, neither had he!”

So if wine writers really do shape wine conversation itself, here’s my contribution: I’m intensely happy that neither scientists nor experts can, as of yet, tell us exactly what we’re tasting. I’m glad it’s still up to interpretation. It gives us all something to talk about in the moments after we raise our glasses and say, Cheers!

Dave Mondy is a freelance writer/imbiber and a college instructor.


A photomicrograph of a two-year-old Cabernet from Kendall-Jackson.

A photomicrograph of a two-year-old Cabernet from Kendall-Jackson.

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