June 02, 2004

Apologia pro risu suo

Back on May 11, in response to a post of mine about winetalk, Semantic Compositions added some observations in a similar vein about flowery and evocative language among audiophiles. However, Steve (aka Language Hat) wrote in a a comment "I was disappointed in Mark's post; I hate to see him joining the bandwagon of people making easy jokes about winetalk." I've been meaning to get back to this ever since.

I think that Steve is right to defend the oenophiles, but wrong to feel that they need defending. We can wonder -- and even laugh -- at the spectacular profusion of new linguistic species in some subcultural ecology, without concluding that these flocks, herds and groves lack value. On the contrary, the urge to catalog and describe sublanguages accurately implies a certain amount of respect. And if some of the specimens are striking, even preposterous, well, so much the better.

Here's Steve's comment in full:

I was disappointed in Mark's post; I hate to see him joining the bandwagon of people making easy jokes about winetalk. Yes, it sounds silly to outsiders (as any form of jargon does); yes, it can be overdone. But it's absurd to pretend that it's nothing but pretentiousness and pulling the wool over people's eyes -- it's a specialized set of descriptions for very particular taste/smell sensations. I am by no means a wine expert, but I've taken courses, and I assure you there is a great deal of chemical information about the components of taste that can be learned by sniffing tubes with essence of chocolate, herbs, &c, and learning to discern them as components of the sensory impact of wine. To snicker at connoisseurs for their "barnyard flavors" is as much know-nothingism as to sneer at literature critics for analyzing the symbolism in Donne's poetry. The fact is that there is such a thing as a barnyard flavor (or as the French more directly put it, "merde"), and it's an excellent thing in Burgundies, and I've tasted it myself. So there.

(Really, you'd think linguists would know better than to make fun of peculiar subcultures!)

I agree that the ritual tasting descriptions are usually a serious attempt to describe real experiences. The narrative structure of most such descriptions also arises naturally. An example emerged at our dining room table a few weeks ago. I had made myself a cup of camomile tea, and as our 8-year-old son smelled the aroma, he said "Mmm, vanilla! that smells good!" So I offered him a spoonful. He tasted it, looked surprised, and said "Hmm, bland. Not much taste. Just a little flowery." Then after a few seconds he wrinkled up his face and said "Ooh, bitter." I asked him if he wanted any more, and he said "No, definitely not." So this little experience involved three stages: the aroma, the flavor, and the aftertaste; followed by a rating.

Serious tasters break the time series down into more stages, and they use a larger and more elaborate vocabulary to try to convey their experience, but the idea is the same. However, the language of the wine-tasting subculture has developed in specific ways that are, let's say, underdetermined by the linguistic and physiological background; and therein lies the interest for a linguist, an anthropologist, or just a student of the human condition.

In David Shaw's May 12 Matters of Taste column in the LA Times (registration required), he complains about some of the ways in which this language sometimes develops. Shaw is a serious foodie himself, as you can see in his wine descriptions in this April 7 column:

"Sugar Daddy" is a big, dark, brooding wine with a long finish. I drank it with a charred rare New York steak and thought they stood up to each other like two superb heavyweight fighters.

My favorite Red Car wine so far, though, is "The Stranger," which reminded me of a pudding made with ripe blackberries, boysenberries and a hint of blueberry.

However, in his May 12 column, Shaw observes that some of the descriptions that are intended to be attractive are actually off-putting:

...an e-mail from an Orange County wine store quoting Parker's lavish praise (96 points!) for an Australian Shiraz. Included in this wine's "peppery" aroma profile, Parker wrote, were hints of "melted asphalt" and "Band-Aid."

...another Parker review that described a 98-point wine from southern Italy as having "a gorgeous bouquet of scorched earth"...

Shaw is also skeptical about the degree of detail and the obscure flavor categories in some descriptions:

Indeed, heretical though it is for someone who writes about wine and food to admit this, I often find that I can neither taste nor smell all the various fauna, flora and fruit (or animal, vegetable and mineral) components that serious wine critics consistently say are present in wine.

So maybe I'm just jealous of their astonishingly sensitive noses and palates. But I'd bet that many wine drinkers have the same problem I do. Maybe they can sense a bit of, oh, say, citrus in a wine's bouquet, but "truffle, wet stone, spicy oak ... mineral bath ... ripe apple ... and white tobacco" (whatever that is) all in one wine?

And he also recognizes that over-the-top winetalk can be funny:

with the possible exception of the passages about sex in those romance-cum-ravage novels known as "bodice-rippers," there are few writings in the English language filled with more unintentionally laughable prose than wine reviews.

In particular, he sees humor in the anthropomorphizing kind of winetalk (which I haven't written about yet):

Unfortunately, too many wine writers often seem to think they're writing about other human beings, not about a beverage. I remember one wine, for example, being described as "a rather seedy aristocrat," another as "sort of a blowsy blond," a third as "suave and easygoing." Just last month, I heard Anthony Dias Blue speak on the radio of Petite Syrahs that are "downright cantankerous."

I still have in my file from several years ago my all-time favorite such wine description, a wine that the critic said had "tried to summon a bit more seriousness but its supple femininity gave way quickly to shimmering fruitiness."

This is a bit unfair, coming from someone who just a few weeks before wrote about "a big, dark, brooding wine" squaring off against a charred steak "like two suberb heavyweight fighters". But in the end, Shaw's complaint is not so much that winetalk is silly as that it's exclusionary:

My real concern about the language used in so many wine reviews is not so much that they offend my prose sensibility; it's that they intimidate and turn off many new and potential wine drinkers. They contribute to the mystification and mythification of wine, to the layman's sense that the enjoyment of wine requires a certain amount of ritual and the decoding of impenetrable mysteries.

My own perspective is different. It doesn't bother me that winetalk is often exclusionary -- that comes with the subcultural territory, whether the niche is pinot noir, motorcycle racing, or phonetics. And as for mystification, mythification and ritual, those are the bubbles that culture gives off as it ferments -- harmless as long as no one gets hurt, and even interesting and fun, as long as no one takes fizz for fact. And if a mystery or two gets decoded along the way, so much the better.

I hope that Steve will accept this long-winded apology for having seemed to make fun of a peculiar but serious subculture. Because I have some really hilarious stuff on coffeetalk to lay out, before long, and I'd hate to disappoint him again.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 2, 2004 12:11 AM