As The Economist stated, “the language of wine is easy to mock“. Particularly when oenophiles and vinologists move beyond “oaky” and start using “gravel”, “tennis balls” or “mélisse” (French for lemon balm) to describe wine.
According to Punch, it’s something that humans have been struggling with since they began drinking wine in 6000 BC—how to describe the different odors, fragrances, tastes, and undertones. In Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine—a 900-page, 1-million-word encyclopedia of wine-talk, the first page begins with “wine-talk is a problem”.
In the past, wine connoisseurs would have sounded pretentious, but now the problem is much more about inclusivity—the wine world is seen as “pretentious, classist and Eurocentrist at best, racist and sexist at worst.”
The San Francisco Chronicle recently highlighted how old-fashioned notions of wine descriptions are usually centered around whiteness, meaning that the language isn’t “merely intimidating and opaque,” wrote author Esther Mobley but “also excludes dimensions of flavor that are unfamiliar to the white, Western cultures that dominate the world of fine wine and reinforcing retrograde notions of gender.”
Many wine reviewers often attribute wines to female celebrities—one example is comparing a wine to Pamela Anderson instead of Kate Moss, implying the taste is voluptuous rather than lean. Wine can sometimes be referred to as “slutty” when it has mass appeal, for instance. And as the article points out, this might backfire when Wine Market Council data shows that 54% of U.S. wine drinkers are female.
There is often an over-reliance on French flavors and palates, which aren’t evocative to the majority of the population, using words such as cassis (blackcurrants), brioche and garrigue (the scrubland found near the Mediterranean coast, perfect for wine growing). Much of whether anyone has heard these terms may be class dependent and might rely on having experience of Michelin starred cooking.
Clearly, the point is made that with less than 1% of U.S. wineries having a Black owner or winemaker, it’s clear that “exclusionary language is a part of that larger exclusion”.
A problem is that wine makers and tasters struggle to define different types of wine with only slight differences in tastes, so the lexicon becomes more precise, thus alienating more people.
So, what’s the answer?
One way forward would be to start using descriptions from lots of languages, to make the words more universal in appeal.
Wine reviewers could also move away from using male/female references, which in 2020 can seem alienating and offensive.
Punch stated that many wine gatekeepers have stopped using old-fashioned wine terms like “mouthfeel,” “bouquet” and “legs” and are now using simpler, more accessible words like “texture,” “smell” and “weight”.
And much more simply, the first step for anyone thinking they are intimidated by wine, might be to understand that maybe “they are simply intimidated by the language of wine”, rather than the wine itself.
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