The policing of wine language - when it's necessary, and when it's not

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I've spent the better part of my adult life justifying the "systematic approach to tasting", learned from my days acquiring WSET certification. Verbiage overheard at tastings along the lines of "medium plus acidity" or something of the like. You've likely encountered the acceptable vernacular on the feed of myriad wine-stagram darlings, too.

The issue with the WSET tasting note guide - it's limited. For too long, I felt trapped in a box, not permitted to engage in the more whimsical language I'd always been drawn to. Founder and owner of UK import agency Les Caves de Pyrenes, Doug Wregg, agrees, "The WSET system focuses too much on the “right” way of tasting (and describing wine) and associates cleanliness with godliness. Wines must conform to a template of rigorous correctness. Funk is excluded; it is a BAD thing. So where are living, mutating wines; where are the intuitive responses to wines? Learning method is one thing, but it is a partial, scientifically-pinched truth."

Accreditations serve their purpose - providing wine neophytes a foundation on which to build their knowledge. I often recommend eager enthusiasts to try their hand at a WSET beginner course, various wine scholar programs (Fine Vintage now offers a Canadian Wine Scholar program), or locally offered classes to fuel their burgeoning curiosity.

Yet, we must be careful to not fall too far down any one rabbit hole - lest we be subject to indoctrination. Where classically trained sommeliers smugly turn their nose at *gasp* incorrectly poured wine (the types who entertain themselves by tracing wine maps in their spare time), natural wine advocates won't so much as sniff a wine made with any S02 in sight.

Admittedly, natural wine defenders are just as guilty as their conventional counterparts - though few ever bother to notice the dogma that hangs like a stench. While the movement moonlighted as a momentary counter narrative to blind tastings, sommelier competitions and scoring - however well intentioned, it was inevitably doomed. Only a matter of time had to pass before exploitation crept in - vendettas cannibalizing the mainstream, dictating and policing language of anyone who'd listen.

Funk is now a no go in describing natural wine, as this recent article argues, in addition to glou glou being "over".

What might present as "funk" to one person, may come across as "dandelion" to someone else. Funk doesn't necessarily mean "flawed" - especially to the vast majority of consumers who use it. When I'm approached by customers asking for "funky" wine, I know they just mean a flutter of VA, or a hint of brett. I know they're not looking for a faulted bottle of wine.

Smugly correcting patrons is a surefire tactic to alienate oneself. There is no justification for policing the language of consumers - it should always be treated as an opportunity to connect and engage. When I've been policed myself, it's the feeling of shame I recall, not the wine.

“Tasting notes are supposed to lure and entice. As a sommelier, you bring imagination to the guest, weaving a tale and taking the guest on a mind-ride of sorts. You propel them into visualizing the wine before they taste it. The usual grocery-list-tasting-note is fine to some degree, however, wine is complex and sometimes a standard shopping list item needs further clarification." muses Brad Royale, sommelier and owner of Kitten Swish wines.

Though I'm a staunch defender of freedom of expression (especially wine language), sometimes, it does cross the line.

Whiskey writer Jim Murray recently came under fire, with claims of misogyny in his book, The Whisky Bible, for romancing certain bottles under inappropriate contexts. Articles appeared in Forbes, New York Times and CBC accusing Murray of sexism.

For example, Murray likened a single-malt Scotch to “a 40-year-old woman who has kept her figure and looks, and now only satin stands in the way between you and so much beauty and experience … and believe me: she’s spicy.

I read the tasting note to my 68 year old Mother, to gauge her reaction. She laughed politely, in a failed attempt to mask her discomfort.

Offensive - without a doubt. I've spent the bulk of my career fending off unwanted advances from slimy men, and certainly, calling out the cringey prose of an aging writer was necessary - perhaps Jim Murray needs to learn to read the room.

When researching this piece, I took to various Facebook groups, asking for the most outrageous from its members.

The most striking note shared has been lingering in my head for weeks - it, too, goes too far:

"Stuart Yaniger wrote about a 1993 Overnoy Ploussard; it reads: 'Someone pulls out an odd-looking bottle, the infamous '93 Overnoy Arbois Pupillin. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, but at the same time, no need to stick your face in its butt. Lightish color, showing plenty of signs of oxidation, despite the huge sulfur content, both free and bound, not to mention an interesting mix of mercaptans. Imagine, if you will, shoving an M-80 up the hind parts of a skunk, shoving the skunk up the hind parts of a sweaty shepherdess with a yeast infection and on her period. Now the explosion ensues- catch her week-old thong as it flies by. Give it a good hard sniff and contemplate the layers of aroma. Voila! You have the Overnoy. It was all I could do to actually taste it. And I'm (gag!) pleased to report that (gag!) the flavor was consistent with the aroma. Well, at least if you mix in some battery acid. A wine too dirty for me to enjoy -- contemplate that and be very, very afraid."

Beyond being rooted in shock value, it's just gross, and does not entice the reader to seek out the wine. I've racked my brain to think of tasting notes that have ever described men in such a vulgar manner.

Not surprisingly, a member of the Facebook group chimed in, "Impossible to get away with that these days, and rightly so". Hear, hear.

Of course we evolve, and offensive language the likes of Jim Murray and Stuart Yaniger are no longer tolerated. Wine writer Josh Dunning shares a necessary caution, "I think it’s also worth noting that we have to be particularly careful in who we allow to police language. Careful consideration is required. I’d say we treat language as though it’s a brittle glass - we can clean it gently but wash it too rigorously and you’ll break things."

Wregg feels the culture of wine language needs to be refocused on self expression and respect for wine, "For me, it comes back to having a certain humility when describing wine, not putting your ego above, engaging in the desire to show off, or feeling the need to box off the wine. The wine world and the people therein love the sound of their own voices."

I've certainly been guilty of holding back on outlandish wine speak. Milquetoast just doesn't hit quite right, though.

There seems to be a sea of typical, modern, short quip, overly critical meandering wine prose that I think a lot of us are tired of. It's too safe. We tend to accept the structures of whatever we have been working in, especially if they were given to us top-down.

Ultimately, it's not really up to anyone to decide what description is "appropriate" - unless we're veering in sexism territory.

While I might roll my eyes at overly verbose tasting notes the likes of 2018 era Marissa Ross, "tart cranberry power chords, a ripe cherry bass line, orange peel drums and a keyboard of rose petals. Upbeat with heart-racing acidity, it is so flirtatious it verges on straight seduction, but is just too fun not to laugh with. One of those “make-out with once & now have to marry” wines. ALL THE EMOJIS.", I'll take it over grocery store technical notes any day.

Flowery wine language be free!


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