And the wine is bottled poetry.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Silverado Squatters

Poetry is that which is worth translating.

Eliot Weinberger, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei

If wine is poetry, and poetry is worth translating, then wine is worth translating. This may explain our need to write about wine, a need dating back thousands of years.

But wine, like poetry, resists translation. We struggle to define the nature of a wine like we struggle to find meaning in a poem. Perhaps this is why, today, we reduce the understanding of a wine to a prescribed set of flavors, using comparisons to fruit, leather, pencil lead, and cedar. But this wasn’t always so; our use of ‘grocery store’ descriptors is only a recent development.

Millennia ago, consumers were more concerned with quality and safety of a wine than with taste. So though the Greeks and Romans described viticulture and winemaking in detail, and discussed the proper selection of a wine at great length, they never wrote about what a good wine actually should taste like. The ancients did, however, write about what made a bad wine bad, reserving words like ‘tart,’ ‘sharp,’ ‘harsh,’ ‘hard,’ ‘rough,’ and ‘unripe’ for inferior wines. For quality wines, they were likely to use descriptors like hot and cold (for the humors), or ‘good for digestion.’

Homer, in the Odyssey, never describes the taste of wine, but does speak to its effect on the mind, “the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.” Centuries later, Plato, concerned with the four humors, recommends wines for their medicinal qualities; older people, Plato felt, should drink high alcohol potions to replace the heat that is lost in aging, and the youth, he warned, should abstain,

Shall we not, then, lay down a law, in the first place, that boys shall abstain altogether from wine till their eighteenth year, thereby teaching that it is wrong to add fire to fire, as through a funnel, pouring it into their body and soul before they proceed to the labor of life, thus exercising a caution as to the maddening habits of youth.[*]

Wine was a global commodity by Roman times, and the critics job was to point out the best ‘appellations’ and varieties. For the most part, the wine commentary was concerned with the purity of the wines, since adulteration was common throughout the Empire. The best wines, of course, were reserved for Caesar, and it was these wines that received the most attention. While we still might not know how they tasted, we do know that the best of these wines posed few risks to the consumer. Pliny the Elder provides us an example of wine criticism in the first century,

The late Emperor Augustus preferred the Setinum to all others, and nearly all the emperors that have succeeded him have followed his example, having learnt from actual experience that there is no danger of indigestion and flatulence resulting from the use of this liquor….*

By the 19th Century, wines had improved to the point that, at least for the finest wines, adulteration was less common. Wine no longer posed threats of indigestion or flatulence. Critics, therefore, were forced to find a new language for wine, and this new language often took the form of literary images.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in Silverado Squatters (1883), described the wines of France as “bottled poetry.[†]” And George Saintsbury, in his still widely read Notes on a Cellar Book (1920), described the 1888 and 1889 vintages of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, “…they were charming. Browning’s ‘A Pretty Woman’ is the poem that reminds me most of them.”[‡] Those familiar with this poem will recognize this as Saintsbury’s polite way of saying that these Haut Lafittes were wines of little substance.

We enter the 20th Century at a time when the world was shrinking due to improvements in transportation and near instant communication. There was a vibrancy in these early years, and the critics’ lexicon captured this energy. It is now that we see wine described in terms of gender, temperament, and breeding. Words like masculine, feminine, broad shouldered, edgy, nervous, austere, unforgiving, aristocratic, and common were frequently used to describe a wine.  Evelyn Waugh creates, with only slight exaggeration, the picture of how the educated classes discussed wine:

…And this a wise old man.

A prophet in a cave.

…And this is a necklace of pearls on a white neck.

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

But this language wasn’t confined to fiction. Waverly Root, in his Foods of France (1958), describes a Tavel rosé thusly:  it was a “light but treacherous rosé.” This style of reviewing wines, of course, became irresistible to those seeking parody, as witness the famous Thurber cartoon in the New Yorker (March 27, 1937) where the host describes his wine, “It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

If there is one thread that holds these millennia together, it is that all of the writings of the day attempted to describe the total experience of drinking a wine, both physically and mentally. This way of writing about a wine reached its zenith in the mid 1970s with Salvador Dali, who’s epic Wines of Gala creates a visual metaphor for wine. An example:

The sovereign Burgundy is draped in all the fires, all the reflections, all the silkiness in the world. It must remind us of the sun, satins and precious stones. Any other comparison would seem unworthy of its fervor; we are no longer analyzing but dreaming.[§]

But, in the United States, we were trending away from visual and emotional metaphors, turning instead to deconstruction. Americans have always sought absolutes, and were building a language for how a wine might taste. There were fits and starts.[**] For example, New Yorker columnist A.J. Liebling, wrote of his favorite rosé,

Tavel has a rose-cerise robe, like a number of well known racing silks, but its taste is not thin or acidulous, as that of most of its mimics is. The taste is warm but dry, like an enthusiasm held under restraint, and there is a tantalizing suspicion of bitterness when the wine hits the top of the palate.[††]

A year after Dali’s masterpiece, Robert Parker (1978) brought out his first issues of The Baltimore – Washington Wine Advocate (today known as the Wine Advocate). Parker reframes the way wine is described. Disinterested in the way a wine feels, and with a legal mind attuned to specifics, it no longer was enough for a wine to be ‘enthusiasm held under restraint.’ With Parker it was necessary for it to be ‘powerful,’ and contain ‘oodles of fruit.’

Parker introduces us to a very American concept: quantification. He attempts to quantify a wine in terms of excellence (point scores) and what it tastes like (a specific list of ingredients). Irrespective of the scientific fact that the human nose is incapable of identifying more than a handful of smells at a time, Parker nevertheless packs his favorite wines with a smorgasbord of flavors. An example:

The nose offers up a plethora of celestial aromas, including plum liqueur, kirsch, spice box, coffee, prunes, and jammy cherries. As the wine sits in the glass, spicy oak, pepper, allspice, and clove scents emerge. Full-bodied, rich, and mouth-filling, this is velvety-textured, voluptuous, hedonistic wine…. 95 points.” Robert M. Parker, Jr., on the 1997 Martinelli Jackass Vineyard California Zinfandel.[‡‡]

For better or worse, the Parker style of wine criticism has been adopted universally. There are a few hold outs, notably Hugh Johnson, but it is difficult to find a review without a grade and brief flavor profile. This is how wine reviews appear today:

Mondavi 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: Weaves together a complex array of ripe, rich currant, anise, smoky oak and black cherry. Dense, concentrated and persistent, with great depth and focus. Ends with an amazingly long, richly flavored finish. Best from 2008 through 2018. 8,688 cases made.

96 points –JL (James Laube)

Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2004: Dark ruby-purple in color, with complex aromas of dark chocolate, cola, vanilla, cedar and currant. Full-bodied yet ultrarefined, with dense, seamless, caressing tannins. Everything is in the right proportion. Superb. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Best after 2009. 11,710 cases made.

97 points –JS (James Suckling)

Occasio Heritage Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: This big but elegant wine combines abundant fruit and oak flavors with a supple, multi-layered texture. It smells like dark and milk chocolate, mint and plums, and tastes concentrated, fruity and complex. Best after 2020.

93 points – JG (Jim Gordon)

Above we have three reviews of three different wines from three different reviewers. The common theme is that all of these wines are Cabernet-based. It is tempting to think, from the point scores, that the Bolgheri is the finest of the three. But in reality, these are three completely different wines. The Mondavi is the benchmark for the ‘new world’ style (we might call it Napa), while the Bogheri is trying to mimic this style in an old world setting (we used to call these Super Tuscans). It is telling that the principle ‘tastes’ of the Bolgheri are cola, vanilla, and cedar – a result of using new, small format French oak barrels with fruit perhaps to delicate to stand up to new oak. Both the Mondavi and Bolgheri are excellent wines of the style, I feel the Bolgheri falls short. The Napa style developed naturally from the terroir. It defies comparison.

One might also think that the Occasio (though 93 is an outstanding rating) is inferior to the other wines. Today’s grading system, however, emphasizes richness, power, and extraction over subtlety, a system supporting the ‘Napa,’ or ‘new world,’ style of wine. Livermore, however, has a cooler climate, and soils more comparable to the old world, than does Napa. Telling in the review of the Occasio Heritage Cabernet are words like, ‘elegant,’ ‘multi-layered,’ and ‘complex.’ These are unlikely descriptors for a new world wine, and define instead a Livermore style, a return to a foundational style of wine suited to our terroir and promoted by our Valley’s pioneering winemakers at the end of the 19th century. It is a style that is returning to favor, as more come to realize that wine is more than simple power and fruit, it is a story of terroir, and of the people and culture of a region.

Most wine today is mass produced, where attention is devoted to cutting costs rather than to defining terroir. Mass produced wines appeal to the majority of wine drinkers because they are simple, as they often have been chemically altered by expert tasting panels for mass consumption. Mass produced wines are the wines best suited to point score and grocery item criticism. But, I feel that, for quality crafted wines, the old school criticisms of visual and poetic imagery provide us with a better understanding of the wine.

I put this question of old-school versus new-school criticism before the students in my Introduction to Enology class that I teach at Las Positas College. As a bonus question to my final exam, I asked them to tell me which, of two descriptions better matched a wine.

In front of them was a small pour of a Grand Reserva (tempranillo-base wine from the Rioja). Because of the expense and rarity of the great Grand Reservas, the class had little familiarity with what to expect. They were asked, upon tasting the wine, to study two reviews, the first an actual review of the wine by Thomas Matthews in the Wine Spectator, and the other a review of Grand Reservas in general by philosopher Roger Scruton. Here are the two reviews:

firm and polished, with savory flavors of tobacco, licorice and mineral, yielding to a core of black cherry and spice. A bit austere, but focused and fresh. Drink now through 2028.

Thomas Matthews, Wine Spectator 2014.

A glass of old Gran Reserva is like a vision into a candlelit crypt, where gaudy archbishops doze among vessels of gold.

Roger Scruton, A philosopher’s Guide to Wine 2009.

I asked the students (there was no right answer) which of the reviews was the better description, and why. The answers were evenly split among the them, with half preferring Matthews’ modern format and the other half preferring Scruton’s visual metaphor. If there was a determining factor for preference, it was in the degree of wine training the students had prior to attending my class.[§§] Those who had taken ‘sensory analysis,’ wines of the world,’ or ‘wines of California,’ were overwhelmingly likely to prefer Matthew’s review. Others, who had come to my class with only an appreciation for wine, felt the visual metaphor presented by Scruton defined the spiritual essence of the wine better. I think this latter group more likely to have appreciated what makes a quality Grand Reserva so special.

The supporters of the new school of criticism felt strongly that Matthews’ tasting notes, ‘tobacco,’ ‘black cherry,’ ‘licorice,’ and ‘spice’ helped them to understand the taste of the wine. But because of their unfamiliarity with Tempranillo, they were unaware that these tasting elements are typical of the variety, and not the type of wine. There are many ways to craft a Tempranillo, but Grand Reservas stand apart. They are more than the sum of the grape’s intrinsic fruits and spices. Grand Reservas tell a story. Because of this, I am afraid my technically trained students may not have fully appreciated the grandeur of the wine I gave them.

So today, I find myself writing the tasting notes for my new Rosé. I begin to write, “subtle aroma of fresh peaches and a racy acidity that brightens the experience….’ But I stop short. I am guilty of new criticism, and find I am not describing the experience of drinking this wine.

Let me try again. Perhaps an amalgam of two thousand years of thought might work well,  ‘Our 2016 Rosé is unlikely to cause flatulence, and, while not as menacing as its Tavel counterpart, does have a timeless quality to it. Eliot’s Burnt Norton comes to mind.’

No, this isn’t any good, either. None of these notes does justice to the wine in my hand. Maybe Virginie Boone, writing for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, described it best – “a glass of spring….”[***]

I don’t think I can describe it any better.


[*] Translation by Craufurd Tait Ramage, Beautiful Thoughts, 1864.

* Pliny the Elder, The Natural History Chapter 8 – Fifty kinds of generous wines. Translation of John Bostock and H.T. Riley (1855). Students in my Enology might ask what became of the famous Falernian wines, the favorites of Julius Caesar only fifty years earlier? Pliny answers they are now ‘second rank,’ having “degenerated very considerably, in consequence of the growers being more solicitous about quantity than quality.” History has a way of repeating itself!

[†] Without reading the book, it is easy to believe Stevenson was referring to Napa Valley, but he wasn’t. Stevenson was bemoaning the loss of French wines do to Phylloxera [Read More].

[‡] In the 19th century, wines worth writing about were available only to the upper and educated classes, who would have been familiar with the Victorian poets.

[§] Salvador Dali, The Wines of Galla, 1977 (English Edition 1978). Dali paints visual images of the great wines of Europe at the dawn of the Robert Parker era, when wines would become categorized into grocery store items. If you don’t have this book – I am sorry.

[**]The early wines of Livermore had fruit descriptors associated with them, and Maynard Amerine at UC Davis developed a point scoring system, but these were for academic purposes and largely escaped media attention.

[††]A.J. Liebling, New Yorker 1959. Liebling was known for his prodigious appetite, whose typical meal, according to New Yorker editor David Remnick, would follow ‘the order of Darwinian evolution, beginning with the bivalves and halting only at the primates.’

[‡‡] Quote obtained from Steven Shapin in, The Tastes of Wine: Towards a Cultural History, Rivista di Estetica, Volume 51 (March, 2012).

[§§] Interestingly, my winemaker Dave, a technically trained Wine Spectator Scholar while at U.C. Davis, favored the visual metaphor, describing Matthews’ commentary as somewhat banal. Indeed, there is hope for our Valley.

[***] Virginie Boone, a senior editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, writing in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, chose a previous incarnation of our Rosé as one of her five favorite wines for summer.

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