Mark Liberman has a most interesting series of posts at Language Log, taking off from a querulous comment of mine on a Semantic Compositions entry (“I was disappointed in Mark’s post; I hate to see him joining the bandwagon of people making easy jokes about winetalk”). Anyone at all interested in the topic should read Apologia pro risu suo, Grand Cru Smackdown, and More on winetalk culture. I should say that I did not mean to imply that the exotic descriptions used by so many wine writers are all exact and scientific, or that I do not myself often find them funny as hell. In the immortal words of Theodore Sturgeon, “90% of everything is crud,” and that certainly applies to wine babble. I merely resent the fact that the noble art and science of wine appreciation is so frequently the target of free-floating populist resentment and suffers indignities not often heaped on, say, art historians (who are at least equally given to unverifiable specifications and unsuitable metaphors). I just wish Americans drank wine as routinely as soft drinks so they wouldn’t see it as some sort of Old World boondoggle.

Oh, and as to the ruckus over the 2003 Chateau Pavie: no one in their right mind would try to judge a Bordeaux that soon; it’s not going to be drinkable by normal people for several years, and it’s a waste to drink a good Bordeaux before a decade has elapsed. I’m not surprised the experts differ.


  1. Full disclosure: I’m not a winedrinker and once wrote a know-nothing parody comparing Night Train Express, Yukon Jack, Red Rocket, and Mad Dog 20/20.
    What you say about chemical components is valid, I think. Charles Sanders Peirce was a wine-taster, IIRC, so winetasting made its contribution to pragmaticism (Peirce’s word) and operationalism. I’m sure, knowing a moderate amount about Peirce, that he regarded winetasting as a valid science. It’s exactly the kind of thing a pragmaticist would accept that a metaphysician of Scientific Truth would not accept.
    Up until not too long ago, anyway, there was an environmental pollutant which was routinely detected by tasters. Ability to taste it is hereditary — not everyone has the ability.
    Barnyard flavors: I had some very fresh top-quality Carambola cheese awhile back and thought I could taste a slight whiff of urine + straw cowbarn flavor. It added to the experience for me, though maybe it was imaginary.

  2. The example of a single wine in Mark’s post doesn’t really do it for me. Pipe smokers use a lot of the same vocabulary to describe tobacco, and while there is sometimes wild disagreement over a particularly complex or confusing blend, most of the time we agree on what exactly is going on. So finding an example of a single wine that the experts disagree on is no proof that winetalk is nonsense, as you demonstrate with your explanation.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    Who says we don’t heap indignities at the art crowd? See

  4. thought I could taste a slight whiff of urine + straw cowbarn flavor
    Ammonia, my good fellow.

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