Synæsthesia and wine writing (and Valentini 2004 Trebbiano)

Synæsthesia is “the use of metaphors in which terms relating to one kind of sense-impression are used to describe sense-impressions of other kinds; the production of synæsthetic effect in writing or an instance of this” (Oxford English Dictionary, online edition).

A famous example of synæsthesia is found in Dante, Inferno 33.9, where Count Ugolino says to Dante and Virgil:

parlare e lagrimar vedrai insieme (you will see me speak and weep together).

(This is also an example of zeugma, one of my favorite figures of rhetoric, if only for the term’s etymology.)

Synæsthesia is inherent to wine writing: when we describe wine, we use “one kind of sense-impression… to describe sense-impressions of other kinds.”

The wine descriptor velvety is a great example of this (Italian Wine Guy published this excellent post, The Allure of Velour, on its usage yesterday).

In our confabulationes, my comrade Howard and I often discuss synæsthesia in wine writing.

The other night he and I (he in the Hollywood Hills, I in Austin) exchanged messages on whether or not to decant a 2004 Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The next day, he sent me the following tasting notes, which he graciously has allowed me to share with you.

    We started with a Lambrusco rosé from Lini, which was subtler and more satisfying that I had expected. What I’d wanted was “amiable,” and it was that, to be sure, but there was also something come-hitherish which made all of us want to refill our glasses until it was gone.

    The Valentini was another story — one with a narrative arc. It was dull, cloudy in the glass, and at first seemed like a seaside breeze, seashells in the sun, but old, distant, as if we were trying to hear a conversation at the other end of a transAtlantic cable. Then it thickened, notes becoming chords, with sweet second-order harmonics, lush feedback. It could have stayed there and we would have been happy. But then, about an hour in, it went all psychedelic on us. Weird aromas, flavor notes, speaking to each of us in individual tongues. For me, it was witch hazel and Pinaud Lilac Vegetal, taking me all the way back to the Brooklyn days when my uncle would walk me to the barbershop — I’d get a haircut, he’d get a shave, as the Men Born Elsewhere chattered in their native languages. The memories came flooding back. Then the Valentini got even stranger, more ethereal — and was gone.

    To go with the cheese (a Manchego with membrillo, and a truly memorable Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery, a washed-rind triple cream, perfectly ripe, perhaps the best domestic cheese I’ve ever had) we opened another of the 1998 G. Conterno Barolos. The bottle we shared at Lou told a story (or many stories). This one never really lost its martial beat. It was stern, perhaps a bit disapproving. The cheese evolved before our eyes, but the wine simply looked on, aristocratic and unengaged. I look forward to seeing what it’s like this evening. It may not have been ready to yield up its pleasures, but time is on my side.

From this moment on, I hereby declare feedback to be a canonical wine descriptor!

Thanks for the tasting notes and photos, Howard.


The 2004 harvest was the penultimate vinified by Edoardo Valentini before his passing in April 2006.