Addendum: please look for another post of the “Lice of Wine Writing” coming early next week.
There are wine writers and then there are wine writers. Friday night found me at an undisclosed location dining with the lovely and immensely charming Leslie Sbrocco, whose entirely novel approach to wine writing and tasting has made her one of the most popular wine personalities in the U.S. today (not to mention the fact that she’s simply a lot of fun to be around).
Leslie launched her wine-writing career with a book written expressly for women, the aptly titled Wine for Women, and has written for countless newspapers, magazines, etc.
What I like about her approach to wine is that she avoids the canonical wine descriptors and encourages her readers and audience to draw from their own personal experiences to describe the wines that they are tasting.
The celebrated twentieth-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale once wrote famously — or at least this quote has been attributed to him — “i pronomi sono i pidocchi della poesia,” “pronouns are the lice of poetry.”
ERRATA CORRIGE: Montale did not write “pronouns are the lice of poetry.” (I realized my graduate-school-days memory was a little rusty so I did some snooping around until I found the correct attribution.) In fact, twentieth-century Italian novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda wrote: “Pronouns! They’re the lice of thought. When a thought has lice, it scratches, like everyone who has lice… and they get in the fingernails, then… you find pronouns, the personal pronouns.”*
To borrow [Gadda’s] phrase, affected tasting notes are the lice of wine writing and tasting.
Here’s a great example, drawn from the website of a restaurant in Boston:
“2003 (Oregon) Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Clos du Soleil, Domaine Serene ~ rich aromas of mineral, lime, toast, fig; rich and round palate of peach, pear, star anise, clove, long creamy finish 67.00”
Of all the wine made in the U.S., I find the Willamette Valley’s style among the most palatable and had some great Pinot Gris when I traveled through there with Nous Non Plus. But, for crying out loud, is it really possible for a wine to taste like all of those things? And while there are many wine professionals out there whose noses are so well trained that they can indeed perceive different levels of flavor and aroma (sometimes called secondary and tertiary), is there really someone out there who can taste all of those descriptors? I don’t want to taste wine that tastes like that (if it really does). Of all the affected wine descriptors, I think my favorite is “star anise.” I mean, when is the last time that anyone put star anise in their mouth?
I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen people turned off when they hear some would-be wine expert/snob rattle off a series of descriptors that most people would never have had any contact with let alone relate to. The best way to describe wine is to draw from your own personal experience and memory. That’s what is so great about tasting wine, especially when you taste it in the company of others. That’s the eureka moment of wine tasting: when two people find that they share a common sensation and sensorial memory in the act of tasting wine. (I do like this glossary of wine tasting terms, which eschews the affected terminology that you find among the ostentatious and the barkers.)
This summer when I was invited to a tasting of nine Barolos in the home of Jay McInerny (we also drank a Chablis Butteaux 1992 Raveneau and Hermitage Blanc L’Orée 1991 Chapoutier from his cellar for dinner), he complained to me about how the editors of his wine column insist that he provide tasting notes. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, we mused, if instead of writing tasting notes, wine writers wrote poems about the wine they taste?
As we enjoyed a Chambave Rosso 2004 Le Muraglie Ezio Voyat (from the Valle d’Aosta, one of my favorite wines), I told Leslie how much I admired her for making that break from the conventions of wine tasting and wine tasting notes and how I felt that it resonated with her readers and audience. It’s people like Leslie who are helping to make wine approachable and accessible to a whole new group of people, who would otherwise be intimidated and turned off by wine.
“One of my favorite examples,” she told me, “is how I help people to understand what acidity [in wine] is. ‘Acidity is like a bra,’ I tell them. ‘It holds everything up.'”
*Gadda, Carlo Emilio, Acquainted with Grief (original title: La cognizione del dolore), translated from the Italian by William Weaver, Braziller, New York, 1969, p. 86.