Imagination and the Language of Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Research by linguists into wine metaphors have identified several source domains that help wine writers describe the faint and ephemeral features of poetry in a glass. “Wine is a building”, “wine is piece of cloth”, and especially “wine is a person” are a few of the rich diversity of potential likenesses that might uncover facets of a wine. There are after all many ways of being a body or a person with new variants continuously on offer. But how do writers identify, within these source domains, which likenesses will be compelling and how do readers come to understand what a metaphor means? Identifying source domains for wine metaphors must be supplemented by an account of how interpretation works.

Given the importance of variation and distinctiveness in wine appreciation and the need for linguistic innovation to capture these dimensions, theories of metaphor that explicitly link metaphor to the exercise of imagination will be most useful. The use of metaphor in wine language looks backward to conventional, entrenched descriptions while looking forward in order to capture the emergence of innovative taste profiles that require linguistic imagination.

To add more complexity to the mix, the use of metaphor in wine language serves two broad purposes that are sometimes opposed. On the one hand writers use metaphor to communicate an accurate description of the wine they’re tasting, especially by conveying the holistic properties such as elegance, intensity, or balance. On the other hand, metaphor expresses the remarkable experiences of a wine that wine importer Terry Theise calls “sublime”. “Some wines” he writes, “…are so haunting and stirring that they bypass our entire analytical faculty and fill us with image and feeling”.

These are experiences in which the wine seems to transcend any conventional linguistic categories and induces an experience of reverie and imaginative play. Wine writers are tasked with both describing a wine and describing the kinds of experiences a wine makes available. Confusion regarding which purpose is being served is the source of some of the consternation over the use of metaphors that sometime befuddle readers of wine reviews.

The general theory of metaphor most suited to this complex role of wine metaphor is advanced by the philosopher of aesthetics, Kendall Walton. Walton articulates the subtleties of how our imagination figures in our understanding of metaphor, which can be profitably applied to wine metaphors. Walton argues that metaphors are prop-oriented games of make-believe which he contrasts with content-oriented games of make believe. In content-oriented make believe, for instance children playing a game of cops and robbers, it’s the pretense, the fiction, that is of interest to the children. They may use props such as sticks to stand for guns to help in the imaginative game playing but they’re focused on the on-going game and its roles and activities, not the sticks. But when mom says “don’t poke someone’s eye out with that gun” she too is entering the game but only to say something about the props themselves—sticks are dangerous so be careful with them. Mom’s comment is prop-oriented rather than content-oriented.

Metaphors are games of “make-believe” because when using metaphor, we typically make a statement that is literally false. But the communicative goal is to provide a true characterization of something, the prop in Walton’s scheme. If I say “John is a tiger”, although my claim is literally false, I am letting you know John is relentlessly predatory and, depending on context, warrants defensive measures. I am pretending to claim John is a tiger while asserting an alleged truth that John is a fully human predator. The game is “prop-oriented”, because it’s the information about John that is important; the literally false claim is the means through which the truth about John’s character is conveyed. Our focus is on John, the prop, not on a game in which John and tigers would figure in some further imaginative activity. In other words, interest in the game is over once the information contained in the metaphor has been conveyed. Similarly, when a wine is described as assertive or generous, it doesn’t literally have a personality but the metaphor is designed to accurately characterize the wine, and it is that characterization that is the communicative goal. The wine is a prop in game of make believe that draws on human personality traits to describe the wine.

Metaphors thus involve taking things of one kind to prescribe imaginings about things of another kind. Importantly, however, they do not typically involve imagining things of one kind to be another. I understand John’s character as prescribing various ways of being tiger-like. I understand a wine as having features prescribing various ways of being person-like. I don’t have to imagine John as a tiger or a wine as a person. Metaphors don’t always require actual imagining, only the recognition that a game of make believe is invoked, to be aware of prescriptions to imagine in a certain way. Thus, it’s best to understand metaphors as potential exercises of imagination. The degree to which imagination must be active will depend on the metaphor and the experience of the metaphor’s receiver. To use one of Walton’s examples, if I point out the threat of a thundercloud by indicating “the big-angry face near the horizon is headed this way”, to understand what I’m pointing to, you may have to perceive a cloud as an angry face which involves some imaginative make-believe. However, once the cloud is recognized as angry, you need enter the game no further. On the other hand, you may know immediately what I mean when I say a wine is generous—robust and expressive, displaying its features in an obvious way—with no imaginative game playing at all. What matters in understanding a metaphor is that there is a potential game of make-believe being invoked. It’s worth noting that some metaphors are no longer treated as figurative language at all. When I assert “a road runs through my property” I doubt that any competent English language user assumes there is a game of make believe afoot. Similarly, the word “body” when applied to a wine has become so commonplace that its figurative nature is virtually cancelled.

More difficult wine metaphors, such as “brooding” when used to describe a Cabernet Sauvignon, may require more than a potential game of make-believe. Whether one must enter a game of make believe depends on how familiar one is with the metaphor and with the features of certain Cabernets. For experienced wine drinkers, it may require no imagination at all since “brooding” has become part of the standard wine lexicon. But the first time you encounter the description you might deploy extensive imaginative resources to determine exactly what the term is referring to. A brooding wine is darkly-fruited with depth and concentration, but not particularly dynamic or lively—the structural components suggest turmoil, but just below the surface.

However, it is crucial that we not be misled by Walton’s use of “make believe” to describe metaphors. In games of prop-oriented make believe we are not licensed to imagine anything we want of the object being characterized. If I claim that “John is a tiger” but John is mild-mannered, lazy, and shy, the claim would not only be literally false; it would be metaphorically false as well, i.e. false in the make-believe world of the metaphor.  The features of the prop determine which metaphors are apt and which are not. Walton argues that the game of make believe is governed by “principles of generation”—ground rules for how the game is to proceed. Just as children in the game of cops and robbers will specify who is a cop, who is a robber, which structure is the police station, and which kind of object serves as a pretend weapon, metaphors involve implicit rules about which properties are part of the game. It’s John’s goal-directed behavior, not his appearance or appetite that makes him a tiger.  It’s the tone of the fruit and the wine’s perceived weight that are the generative rules for describing a wine as brooding and that determine the truth conditions of the metaphor in the imaginative world. The game must be firmly rooted in the prop if the metaphor is to be straightforwardly intelligible.  A rich, tannic Petite Sirah will not license “pert and sweetly seductive” as metaphorically true.

However, as Walton points out, in most cases we do not use the principles of generation for guidance in participating in the game.  We often cannot say what the underlying features are that give rise to a metaphor and we needn’t formulate them to ourselves. The imagining comes first. We imagine a wine as brooding without specifying what it is about the wine that generates that description. As Walton notes, “To spell out the principles we would have to read them off from the practice noting which sorts of designs result in which imaginings and then generalizing”. This is not to say we cannot provide that analysis. Only that it isn’t necessary to grasp the metaphor. You can perceive a wine as brooding without providing the analysis.

Thus, Walton argues that one fundamental function of metaphor is to activate dispositions—they stimulate us to think or explore. The use of a metaphor stimulates the receiver’s knowledge and experience with objects in the source domain to make the target more intelligible within the context in which the metaphor is used.  But as Walton points out, although sometimes we have active dispositions to recognize games, we must often be prodded into it. One of the primary functions of metaphor is to make us implicitly aware of the game being played. “I might come across an instance of a “weighty” argument or a “writing style with punch” without the game of make believe occurring to me.  “I need someone to remind me of the game by using the metaphor“. Similarly, I might encounter a darkly fruited wine with depth, complexity and a slow, yet subtly forceful evolution on the palate, yet I might never tie those features together in a holistic experience of the wine without the “brooding” metaphor.

Thus, metaphors bring to mind features of an aesthetic object that we might otherwise miss. A taster might identify and enjoy the dark fruit, depth, concentration and subtly bridled turmoil of a Napa Valley Cabernet while never thinking of it as brooding. Does the identification of the metaphor “brooding” add anything to the experience? I think it does in just the way noticing how an arrangement of lines and colors in a painting give it a sense of motion or hearing a melodic passage in a musical piece as melancholic. In each case meaning is assigned to the underlying properties that in the absence of the metaphorical description the work would not appear to have.  Wine metaphors provide us with a way of interpreting what we are tasting that contribute to our experience of the wine and add to our understanding of the range of experiences that a wine is capable of generating. The point is not just to taste the likeness-makers, the elements of the wine that make it “brooding”, but to see that they acquire a particular meaning, as brooding. And because we are attributing to wine the likeness of a vibrant, changeable living organism, seeing the wine as “brooding” is experiencing its vitality.

However, a receiver may have various motivations that affect how a metaphor is received. Although the aim of a metaphor may be to convey precise information about an object, there are other dispositions that might be activated by its deployment. As noted, metaphors are often hard to interpret. They may not wear their interpretation on their sleeve. On the other hand, they often mean more than what they appear to mean. The target never picks up all the features of the source. In calling a wine “muscular” we don’t expect it to bench press 200 lbs. Which aspects of the source domain will be picked up by the metaphor is always up for grabs if the metaphor is innovative, and the destiny of a metaphor is itself uncertain. Thus, sometimes metaphors must be explored in order to reveal their meaning. In fact, we often use metaphor when we are trying figure out what we mean. Metaphors give us as new angle on something and thus help us to explore, improvise and experiment.

For example, the wine world is currently exploring the notion of minerality. It began as a term mistakenly used to describe the influence of soil on “flinty” wines such as Chablis or the “wet stone” aromas of Mosel Rieslings. Its use has burgeoned to describe a host of earth-like aromas in both white and red wines, most of which have little to do with minerals. The complaint, advanced by enologists, that the term is misleading because soil doesn’t transmit minerals to the wine is wholly beside the point—a failure to recognize the metaphorical use of “minerality.” Minerality is now emerging as a canonical category for classifying a plethora of aromas, all because the term was given free rein as a metaphor.

The next time you read a wine description that seems like gibberish you may be witnessing a metaphor taking flight.

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