June 02, 2004

More on winetalk culture

Ray Girvan has emailed links to two articles on the culture of winetalk, which in turn led me to some other links of equal interest. Ray's first link was to a piece on the Berry Bros. and Rudd site, quoting Hugh Johnson as "[accusing] Jilly Goolden and Oz Clarke of 'attracting ridicule' to the beloved subject of his expertise":

"I don't really want my favourite subject to be ridiculed. There is a problem when these people list all these flavours and aromas they think they have detected. It then gets on to the label of the bottle and what you are looking at appears to be a recipe for fruit salad."

Ray's other link is to a Guardian story by Tim Radford from 11/2001, which says that "[n]ew research by French scientists suggests that wine snobs may not always know their asti from their old beaune."

They analysed the language of wine sniffing, and found that the words selected to describe the bouquet were more likely to be linked to the wine's colour than to its scent.

When buyers and wine pundits hold a glass of chardonnay or gewürtztraminer to the nose, they tend to evoke yellow imagery such as straw, melons, honey or apricots.

When they sniff a glass of ripe merlot from the warm south, they reach for dark, rich words like raspberries, tobacco and tar. In other words, people see red, and gush purple prose.

New Scientist today reports that Gil Morot of the national institute for agronomic research in Montpellier and col leagues suspected a case of unconscious synaesthesia - the jumbling of scents, sounds and colours in the brain - when it came to words for wine.

The crux of the experiment was a procedure in which aroma descriptions for white bordeaux were compared with and without the addition of "an odourless red dye."

Dr Morot - who says the results show that "olfactory descriptions are completely subjective" and that smell cannot be divorced from other senses - is to publish his results in the journal Brain And Language. It is likely to join other classics of sip-and-spit literature.

The referenced article was a bit hard to find, since it seems that Radford (or his editor) spelled the author's name wrong. The correct citation appears to be Gil Morrot, Frédéric Brochet and Denis Dubourdieu, "The Color of Odors", Brain and Language
Volume 79, Issue 2 , November 2001, Pages 309-320.

Here is their abstract (emphasis added):

The interaction between the vision of colors and odor determination is investigated through lexical analysis of experts' wine tasting comments. The analysis shows that the odors of a wine are, for the most part, represented by objects that have the color of the wine. The assumption of the existence of a perceptual illusion between odor and color is confirmed by a psychophysical experiment. A white wine artificially colored red with an odorless dye was olfactory described as a red wine by a panel of 54 tasters. Hence, because of the visual information, the tasters discounted the olfactory information. Together with recent psychophysical and neuroimaging data, our results suggest that the above perceptual illusion occurs during the verbalization phase of odor determination.

More recent (?) research by Morrot and others is discussed in this article at pleinchamp.com ("le site expert des professionels agricoles" -- "the expert site of agricultural professionals"), which mentions (in French) that when ten "grands sommeliers" were asked to describe (their tasting perceptions of) a sample of red and white wines, the vocabulary overlapped by only 5%; but when they were blindfolded and asked to identify the same wines as white or red, their performance was only between 60% and 70% -- where flipping a coin would be expected to score 50%. There was no difference in this respect between the "grands sommeliers" and "simple students who were novices in the area". In another experiment, in which they were asked to classify 18 wines according to their "grande région française d'origine", the same sommeliers made an average of 13 errors. I get the impression that Dr. Morrot has a point of view on this subject, so one should look carefully at the experimental reports before accepting the conclusions; but there certainly seems to be a prima facie case here for the view that winetalk has a strong component of, shall we say, poetic imagination.

The Guardian article also says that

In February, an Arizona linguist reported that 20 years ago, wine buffs talked of vintages as clean or cloying, piquant or plump, or even transcendental or twiggy.

By last year, the latest bottlings had become, among many other things, dumb, precocious, harmonious, barnyard, reticent and even intellectual.

The Guardian does not give the "Arizona linguist" a name, even a misspelled one, or identify the publication. The linguist was probably Adrienne Lehrer, whose work on wine is discussed in this interesting article "Delirious Description" by Natalie MacLean:

Wine writing continues to evolve into ever-more esoteric language that seems far removed from the actual experience of smelling and tasting wine. ... What could be prompting this proliferation of purple prose? ...

Dr. Adrienne Lehrer, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of Arizona, has been studying this topic for twenty years. According to her recent report, Trends in Wine and Trendy Words, wine description is getting more precise and intense. A wine today isn't simply balanced, it's "integrated" or "focused." In contrast, an unbalanced wine is "muddled'" or "diffuse." A full-bodied wine is now "chunky" and "big-boned"; a light-bodied wine "svelte" and "sleek."

"I'm interested in this from a linguistic point of view, because wine writers are pushing the language and making up metaphors," Lehrer says. "When critics try to describe thirty Californian chardonnays, they often find that the wines are similar—but it would be boring to read the same thing all the time. So they jazz up the descriptions to keep readers engaged."

While compiling her glossary of frequently used wine adjectives, Lehrer discovered that the high-growth tasting terms include "barnyard funk," "transcendental," "intellectual" and "diplomatic." "Funky was used a lot," she says. "I don't know whether it has any specific meaning that's different from the way that it's used elsewhere."

MacLean also describes how

in Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, two young men mock social pretense when they describe the wine they're tasting:

"It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle."
"Like a leprechaun."
"Dappled, in a tapestry meadow."
"Like a flute by still water."
"And this is a wise old wine."
"A prophet in a cave."
"And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck."
"Like a swan."
"Like a unicorn."

MaxLean ends with a discussion of the "serious attempts ... to standardize wine tasting vocabulary", especially the Aroma Wheel, "developed in the early 1980s by Ann Noble, professor emerita of oenology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis. The inner circle of its concentric rings notes the most basic wine adjectives, such as 'fruity' and 'floral,' while the sub-divided middle and outer rings provide more descriptive terms such as 'grapefruit,' ' "strawberry jam' and 'asparagus.'" In addition to Noble's "Aroma Wheel", MacLean also provides a link for downloading a free .pdf of the Mouth Feel Tasting Wheel, developed by Richard Gawel and others at the University of Adelaide. Google tells me that Gawel is also the developer of the Recognose Wine Aroma Dictionary, which appears to be a collection of scratch-n-sniff cards providing reference smells. At only US $58, it's a bargain as a nerdly way to ease cultural anxieties! If only there were a digital version, perhaps with a little keypad for recording your tasting notes, and bluetooth for beaming them back to your server, of course along with metadata gleaned from a code on the bottle...

[Update: Jason Streed emailed to remind me of this Calvin Trillin New Yorker article from 2002, in which Trillin administers his own red/white taste test, and concludes that

"...experienced wine drinkers can tell red from white by taste about seventy per cent of the time, as long as the test is being administered by someone who isn't interested in trying to fool them."

Although Trillin only ran three subjects with eight trials each, this exactly coincides with the claim by Morrot et al., who (in the 2001 Brain & Language article) cite 70% as typical performance in distinguishing red wine from white by smell alone (though they add, unsurprisingly, that "we found that the rate of success varies significantly according to the wines used"). As the standard reference on this topic, they cite a paper I have not looked up, Sauvageot, F., & Chapon, M. (1983). "La couleur d'un vin (blanc ou rouge) peut-elle etre identifiée sans l'aide de l'oeil?" Les Cahiers de l'ENS. BANA, 4, 107-115. For some reason, no one told Trillin about this paper -- or about the work of Morrot et al. -- although he consulted with the expert oenologists at Davis, including Ann Noble. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 2, 2004 09:56 AM