I’m having a hard time telling you what is in my mouth

August 13, 2008 at 7:07 pm (What we're drinking) (, , , )

It’s a red wine, and it’s a really interesting one. It looks different in the glass, an odd shade of red that makes me think “nuclear” even though that doesn’t make any sense. It smells, well, it smells a LOT; the kind of smell that gets stuck in the back of your mouth where your nasal cavity meets your throat. When I put the glass to my lips, I imagine a lit Molotov cocktail wrapped in velvet and landing in a vat of raspberries. I like it, even though it’s not really my preferred style. It’s a spectacle, like the TMZ show or when my upstairs neighbors fight. It’s the Brochelle Syrah, and I’m trying to tell you what I experience when I drink it.

Writing reviews, criticism or tasting notes on wines is easy to do and difficult to do well. The strategies on relating the experience of drinking a wine are as varied as the results. The newest issue of the Wine Advocate newsletter arrived at the store last week, and Robert Parker (arguably the world’s most influential wine critic) had this to say about the 2005 Brochelle Syrah:

A deep ruby/purple color is followed by notes of creamy black currant fruit intermixed with spring flowers, tar, and earth. Full-bodied, broad, and savory, with a seamless integration of acidity, tannin, wood and alcohol, this seriously-endowed, pure, textured beauty can be enjoyed over the next 7-8 years. 91 points.

This is now a somewhat standard approach to wine writing, especially amongst retailers trying to sell bottles. Identify the main flavors and some auxillary ones (to the best of your ability), convey to the reader a sense of what it is like to drink that bottle, and then slap a score on that bad boy. Hopefully your readers happen to be chewing on some tar and hyacinth while reading so they can get the idea.

Increasingly, however, wine critics, customers and advocates are experimenting with different ways to relate the experience one has when drinking a certain bottle. I, for example, created the following “tasting note” for the Brochelle Syrah back in May (notice how Parker and I both emphasized the “well-endowed” nature of the wine. Now paging Dr. Freud!). The idea of pairing wine reviews with visual art is taken even further by ChateauPetrogasm.com, a site whose reviews consist entirely of a five-star rating system and a picture to match.

Undoubtedly, the crown prince of wine rakishness of the moment has to be Gary Vaynerchuk, the host of the popular video blog winelibrary.tv. Vaynerchuk is the poster child of the much ballyhooed “Millenials,” the group of wine consumers under the age of 35 who tend to approach wine and it’s appreciation in an unconventional manner. Vaynerchuk has likely ascended to his level of popularity due to his blending of older and more avant garde styles of wine criticism–he focuses on typical fruit/chemical/wood flavors in wines and punctuates reviews with a numerical score, but he’ll also point out which wines bring the thunder and which don’t.  It’s hard to say which method wins him more fans, but the combination has been successful to say the least.

My interest in this topic stems directly from personal experience.  Day after day, I find myself in the store helping customers, trying every method I can dream up to help people have the best wine experience possible.  I’m much more prone to storytelling than taste micro-analysis, hence the difference in tasting notes between myself and ol’ Bob Parker listed above.  What I wonder is, how can I get better?  What additional questions do I need to ask, what information can I provide to give a fuller impression of what the next 750ml have in store for you?

Mitch, the resident philosopher (and proprietor!) of Lush is a staunch advocate of the belief that taste is subjective and that any attempt to create a universal, unflinching lexicon referencing it is a waste of time.  This is easy an easy theory to accept, a harder one to practice.  How can you accurately recommend a wine if you’ve embraced the philosophy that it will taste totally different to everyone that consumes it?  Lush was created with the intention of removing some of the snobby pretension that surrounds the wine industry, and abandoning obtuse language is certainly a part of that process.  There is no dictionary of wine flavors or reference chart for taste, and behaving as if one exists alienates and discourages wine drinkers of all levels of experience.  We can have a wine summarized for us, but never hear its transcript read.

How hard is it for me to tell you what is in my mouth?  Not nearly as hard, apparently, as it is for me to tell you what is on my mind.  I started this blog post over a month ago, and I haven’t yet figured out a way to finish it.  No universal truth discovered.  No absolute solution developed.  So, in the interest of putting this post out of it’s misery, I’ll finish with this; Thank you, wine, for your subtlety.  In a world where things are so often easily measured, explained, and categorized by experts, you have the ability to trip up even the best of us.  I have a lifetime of loving, selling, and celebrating wine ahead of me, and apparently I’ll have to do it with only the rough and unremarkable vocabulary available to me.  All the better to remind me that the only thing that matters is what you have in your glass.





  1. Julianne said,

    Thank you, Lance. I still struggle to describe what I’m smelling and tasting all the time. Usually I feel like I’m describing it wrongly. I don’t always smell or taste what others do–I still don’t know what cassis is like–and I’m deathly afraid to volunteer my opinion for fear of being laughed at. Chocolate? Ha! No one but an idiot would smell chocolate in that wine.

    I do know that I love to smell wine. I love its heady aroma, and I love to try to detect, for myself, what might be there. I also like to imagine the place it came from, maybe near a clear stream with lots of gray rocks at the bottom. Or near a barn with wet, mucky earth. And I compare it to other wines I’ve smelled and liked or disliked. I love then to taste it, to see whether the smells match the taste, change it, inform it, surprise me entirely. A few bites of dinner, and it’s different again. A few glasses later, and it’s different again.

    I like the idea of art to describe wine. I think in colors and fabrics. Is it light and airy and white? Is it smooth, like a crisp silk sheet? Scratchy and dry, like burlap? Is it rich and squishy and purple, like velvet? Warm and complex, like an old quilt? So I’m a geek. At least I’m not alone in thinking the lexicon doesn’t have to be so narrow.

  2. Ben said,

    Hey Lance,

    Great article! I wanted to clarify something though. At Chateau Petrogasm, we only use images! The stars represent the quality of the review, not the wine.

    We’re glad to see that you enjoyed it nonetheless.



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