Fleshy with a Bad Attitude: Metaphor and Wine Tasting Notes

by Dwight Furrow

The wine community is often accused of being snobby and elitist. The language used to describe wine is one source of this innuendo. Although most people have become accustomed to the fruit descriptors used in wine reviews, when wine writers wax poetic by describing wines as “graphite mixed with pâte de fruit”, even some wine professionals get up in arms.

The general complaint is that metaphorical attributions are too subjective and ambiguous. When a wine is described as “a streetwalker” or “sinewy” it’s unclear to some readers what features of the wine are being described.  The further inference drawn is that these are just attempts to make wine descriptions less monotonous or call attention to the writer’s talent for verbal calisthenics without getting at something important about the wine.

There are several things to say about these objections.

One is that the problem is not unique to wine. Unless metaphors have become dead metaphors there will always be ambiguities about how to interpret them in any field. Poetic metaphors are obviously complex and difficult to parse but even conversational metaphors such as “Bill is a bulldozer” or “Jane is a block of ice” may raise questions about which features of Bill or Jane the metaphor is highlighting. You would have to know something about Bill or Jane before being confident about what the metaphor means. All living metaphors require interpretation.

In order to interpret metaphors, context is essential. To grasp what a “sinewy” wine might be, one must know something about the range of textural and tactile differences in wine and have tasted enough to sense the differences between them. To know what iconic wine critic Robert Parker Jr. meant when he referred to the 2001 Batard-Montrachet as a “streetwalker” you must know that some wines are flamboyant and expressive, but unrefined, superficial and lacking substance.

The complaint about ambiguity is often made from the perspective of a wine novice. But, of course, wine metaphors will be opaque to a novice. Understanding a metaphor will often require refined capacities to taste. It would be a peculiar writing practice if its most excellent examples were aimed only at novices. We don’t have such an expectation regarding the language of art appreciation, baseball, or bird watching. Some of the vocabulary of any domain of expertise will be opaque to novices.

As to more experienced tasters, many metaphors have become so common they require only a bit of thought to figure out what they mean. Wines are routinely described as “generous”, “brooding” or “shy”. Surely, these pose no special interpretive difficulties for someone with some tasting experience, and there is no reason to think these are more subjective than fruit aroma notes. Thus, it’s only new metaphors with no established history of conventional use that might be troublesome.

However, before assessing how to interpret novel metaphors we must get clear on what the primary job of a metaphor is in a wine tasting note. That job is to describe the holistic properties of a wine. Too often, wine writers use a divide and conquer strategy to describe a wine. A wine is broken down to its elements—individual aromas, flavors, textures and tactile impressions—from which we are supposed to gain an overall sense of the wine. Here is a typical tasting note:

The 2016 Monterey Pinot Noir has bright cherry aromas that are layered with notes of wild strawberries and black tea. On the palate, you get juicy black cherry flavors and notes of cola with hints of vanilla, toasted oak, and well- balanced tannins. A silky texture leads to a long finish.

But such a list of individual elements will not reveal how these elements interact to form a whole. It is the whole wine we taste, not individual elements only. When we get pleasure from a wine it is because the elements form complex relations that we taste as a unity. Thus, a review based on analytic tasting requires that the reader guess the overall impression of the wine or more likely to simply rely on a numerical score as an indicator of quality. A proper review, by contrast, must describe that unity, that overall impression that explains one’s response. It is often a well-placed metaphor that pulls those elements together making the wine as a whole intelligible. Describing a wine as boisterous and assertive, or voluptuous and sexy goes a long way in describing the kind of appeal a wine might have.

Thus, metaphor is essential because there is no off-the-shelf vocabulary for describing holistic properties that also identify a wine’s individuality without employing metaphor. Fruit and flower descriptors will only get you so far. While the standard tasting model in use today includes references to non-metaphorical, holistic properties such as intensity, power, elegance, finesse, etc., these characterize most high-quality wines. Most premium Cabernet Sauvignon from Pessac-Leognan or Napa Valley will have intensity and power. Most quality Pinot Noir will be elegant. Language that distinguishes between them will have to be more precise about what kind of power, intensity or elegance a particular wine exhibits. Metaphor is one way to accomplish this. To call a wine “fleshy” suggests one kind of intensity, “broad-shouldered” another, and “sinewy”, yet another.

“Fleshy”, “broad-shouldered” and “sinewy” are common metaphors in wine writing. The metaphors that receive the most criticism from frustrated readers are novel metaphors, new ways of describing wine that will seem unfamiliar even to experienced wine enthusiasts. To describe a wine as “anxious, kinetic, feverishly rebelling against its pretty face” or “praying for joy at a scene of decay” might indeed leave readers wondering what is being said about the wine. But such seemingly poetic language is not to be dismissed, for there is a good reason for it. Wine aesthetics is to a significant degree about variation and distinctiveness. We prize the unique character of a particular vineyard or style of winemaking and get enjoyment from tracking these variations across parcels, regions and vintages. Wine writing must therefore try to capture such variation and distinctiveness. This is a challenge because no conventional vocabulary will suffice in enabling wine writers to describe flavors that are not conventional. Linguistic innovation is as necessary corollary to flavor and texture distinctiveness. You cannot successfully describe new impressions by using old expressions.Thus, while we might object to particular metaphors and find some difficult to understand, there is no obvious alternative linguistic strategy.

However, innovative wine metaphors nevertheless depend on an underlying system of sense making and it is important to see how that system works. The Department of Modern Languages at University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain has underwritten extensive research into wine tasting notes and their foundation in metaphor. Entitled “Translating the Senses: Figurative Language in Wine Discourse”, Drs. Ernesto Suarez-Toste, Rosario Caballero and Raquel Segovia collected a data set of 12,000 tasting notes from a variety of wine trade publications and have made extensive use of one influential theoretical paradigm, conceptual metaphor theory, to analyze them.

As Toste and caballeros show in their articles based on this research, there are standard source domains that wine writers use in order to make sense of what they are tasting.  Referring to descriptors that aim to capture a wine’s texture and mouthfeel such as “iron wall of tannin,” “extremely long,” “caressing and round,” “assertive and sexy,” Suarez-Toste writes:

These schemas point to the existence of asymmetrical mappings across two domains, and in our case include among others A WINE IS A BUILDING, A WINE IS A PIECE OF CLOTH, and conspicuously the one I shall claim is ubiquitous A WINE IS A PERSON (which is but a part of the much more comprehensive primary schema WINES ARE DISCRETE LIVING ORGANISMS).

These schemas are systematically related to features of the wine being described. Thus, this research shows that wine metaphors are neither flights of fancy, mere pretty words nor “bullshit”. They are systematically related to a few source domains that provide conceptual anchors for describing a wines’ holistic properties. However, as noted, it is when the “wine is a person” domain is used to refer to personality characteristics that the controversy about metaphor most often arises. Suarez-Toste explains:

…the wine’s personality is evaluated by means of adjectives prototypically used in the qualification of human beings (e.g., brooding, friendly, sexy, voluptuous, boisterous, assertive, sensitive, demure, shy, or expressive). The diversity of terms used to express (attributed) personality traits of wine is impossible to predict by the layman, and much of the farfetchedness of the genre lies precisely here.

Yet even Suarez-Toste laments the ambiguities associated with wine language that relies on personification. “Most people consider most of these attributes extremely subjective ones, and it is both curious and frustrating that anyone should resort precisely to this grey area in the vicinity of morality in order to transmit anything with precision”.

Despite this useful research demonstrating the underlying systematic connections that govern metaphorical attributions, the charge of subjectivity and ambiguity persists. Furthermore, there are limitations to analyzing metaphor as a system. Caballeros and Suarez-Toste are linguists trying to demonstrate the logical categories that can systematize wine language. That is a worthy theoretical aim. However, if wine language is to do its practical job of tracking novel variation and individuality, it cannot ultimately be systematized. New expressions will require new categories, and the need to describe this novelty and individuality will eventually outrun any account that relies on a conventional vocabulary. Wine writers are continually coming up with new ways of describing wine because wine itself is subject to variation and these variations and the surprises they engender are the key to wines’ allure.

Although this research using cognitive metaphor theory shows that most metaphors used in wine language are systematically related to features of the wine, we need to add to that analysis that metaphor is also capturing an elusive dimension of wine that isn’t reducible to a list of features and may rest on “objectively identifiable trait” since the holistic properties of wine are not always analyzable into discrete elements. As I noted above, no list of primary, secondary, or conventional tertiary properties like finesse, power, or elegance will ever capture the individuality of a wine. And no list of individual elements can show complex inter-relationships between these elements. If emergent properties are irreducible then a metaphor may have to stand on its own without paraphrase into some collection of clearly identifiable underlying properties.

Thus, when describing the individuality of a wine, an appeal to wine as a living person is precisely the right vocabulary. Our interest in persons as individuals provides a rich vocabulary for describing wines as individuals. It is no accident that this domain in particular is ubiquitous in tasting notes despite the fact that comparing wine to a person seems farfetched. A wine really can have complexity and vitality just like your Uncle Bob—fleshy but tough and tenacious with loads of flavor and a bad attitude.

For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.