I Say Potato, You say Interesting Earthy Aroma

The following is an article which appeared in Harpers (UK wine trade magazine) last year.  It is the piece which my previous post “Wine Option” partly concerned itself with.  It deals with the language gap between those working within the industry and consumers at large.   

Working as a full-time sales assistant in a wine shop and part-time wine tutor I spend most of my working life discussing all things vinous with members of the public rather than with other wine professionals.  Yet, it often takes some conscious effort not to bombard the unfortunate customer with terminology that is at best confusing and at worst off-putting.  While my face is lighting up singing the rancio, engine oiled, high acid, mushroomy, and thoroughly nobly rotten praises of a particular wine my interlocutor’s is no doubt clouding over.  They then politely wait for the appropriate moment to ask for an alternative and slightly more palatable recommendation.  It is easy to take for granted the language we use and not realize that certain terms to the uninitiated can appear pejorative even when intended as the highest praise.   

Sometimes suitable alternatives can be found. Acidity, a word more commonly associated with heart burn, may be conveyed in terms of the wine’s freshness or zippiness for instance.  Yet, some aspects are never going to be immediately palatable to novice – there is no point in dressing up Vin Jaune in any other clothes than the ones it comes in.   

As far confusing the customer is concerned it is occasionally brought to my attention that a particular word or phrase I use to describe wine has little meaning to the wine buying public.  Last week a diner at a wine dinner I was hosting boldly enquired “but what do you actually mean by structure?”  Given a few more years in the wine industry, habitually bandying the word about without recourse to any real thought perhaps I would not have been able to answer.  What may seem obvious is not always that way to others and sometimes not even to yourself.   

The language we used is not only a way of communicating it can also act as a barrier, excluding those who are not privy to its rules.  It can make the world which it attempts to describe appear esoteric, archaic or pretentious. 

But maybe we should not be too harsh on words; after all it is really not their fault.  Words don’t really carry with them any inherent meaning and so can’t be blamed if they are taken the wrong way.  In short – they are nothing without context.  

I was lucky enough to be taught my Intermediate WSET by two different Masters of Wine.  The first during a tasting session asked us all to take a sniff of a particular wine (a Gewürztraminer or something or similar rich fragrance) and asked us “does it smell sweet?” to which we all replied an emphatic “yes!”.  He then let loose a semi-smoking “WRONG” and went on to tell us that sugar was a non-volatile comp pound and was therefore odourless etc.  The next day our second tutor to our surprise and delight picked up a glass smelt it and said “wow what a nose! nobody’s telling me that this doesn’t smell sweet.”  He then proceeded to get us to sip the wine and see for ourselves how “sweetness on the nose does not necessarily equate to sweetness on the palate”.

The first tutor succeeded in making us all feel stupid and increased the chance of us following his lead and likewise attempting to make others feel similarly stupid in the future.  The second, while providing the same information gave us the confidence to use our own language as long as it conveys the spirit of the intended message.    

The reason why critics such as Oz Clarke work on television is not due to any kind of ‘dumbing down’ of the language but rather it is thanks to the openness and sincerity of the delivery – that is words and attitude together.  This is what breaks down the old barrier between those who know and those who don’t. 

However, the bottom line is that the majority of people will never have more than a passing interest in many ins and outs of the world of wine, just as I take only marginal interest in which washing powder I buy.  Yet the advantage that we in the wine industry have over Daz is our great resource of people who came into it due their fundamental fascination in the object of their business.  This is potentially a great antidote the mock-enthusiasm that predominates much advertising and which can alienate the cynical consumer from the very industries which seek to court them.       

So even if I forget myself and start telling the potentially bemused customer about the importance of clonal selection as long I am doing it in a sincere and animated way (conveying the idea that the wine in question is worthy of such frantic babbling) I know however imperfectly that I am doing my job.

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