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Wine Language Descriptors Entice Action?

Is it me, or does Gary Vaynerchuk at Winelibrary TV taste an inordinate amount of pickle juice, beets and other “green” vegetal characteristics in the wines he tastes?  I do not find these in many wines that I taste and they do not appear in many (any?) wine descriptor guides. 

Curious.  However, researchers indicate from the world of food that descriptors that are even more complex might be on the way.

First, Dr. Debs at Good Wine Under $20 has a fascinating post (found here) on the different types of sets or words that wine writers use—words that frequently confound the perfectly normal, yet eventually make their way into our lexicon. 

She says in part:

It turns out that wine writers use three kinds of confusing words: jargon (technical terms about wine), dialects (terminology common to a group of wine writers), and idiolects (terms that a single wine writer comes up with; if sufficiently popular, idiolects can be shared and become dialects).

Dr. Debs goes on to define the three areas with some background, including:

Wine jargon can run from winemaking terms like malolactic fermentation to the technical words associated with tasting (such as attack, mid-palate, and finish) and with taste (extracted).

Wine dialects include terms like those on the tasting menu in the picture: lush, fruity, soft tannins, juicy. These are short-hand terms that wine writers use that they think have a consistent meaning, but which are sufficiently subjective that no one knows for sure.

As for idiolect (please note: no “t” after idio), one of the great recent examples can be found in the tasting notes of Gary Vaynerchuk on WLTV. His unique tasting vocabulary started off as an idiolect …

Again, it is a fascinating post and goes a long way in nicely explaining not just the differences in wine phraseology, but also the buckets into which each fall.

So, yes,  it does seem as if Gary’s idiolect with “pickle juice” is well on its way to moving from being an idiolect to a dialect.

Reading Dr. Debs post nicely coincides with an article I read in an industry journal (Sante) about descriptive menu labels influencing customer behavior in restaurants.  While the article isn’t online, its content is derived from a book called, “Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More Than We Think” by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. and at his website -with plenty of research material available-

The crux of the Wansink article is about the use of descriptive language on menus and the impact on the perception of the food by the customer.  Therefore, instead of having some wacky “Italian quesadilla” at TGI Friday’s, you have instead the, “Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadilla.”

Research indicates that more descriptive language increased sales 27 percent over plain-labeled menu items and that more description added other associational benefits like diners thinking the food was more appealing, tastier and the restaurant as being trendier and more contemporary.

According to the research and the author,

Descriptive labeling allows consumers to concentrate more on the feelings and taste aspects of the products instead of focusing only on the functional or utilitarian properties.  For instance, when asked to comment on their entrée or dessert, people who were given a descriptively labeled product directed 84.5 percent of their comments to factors related to the taste and sensory nature of the product.  In contrast, those who ate the less descriptively labeled products focused only 42.6 percent on these sensory aspects and reserved their remaining comments (…like filling) for the more utilitarian or functional characteristics of the foods.

In the article and on his web site, Wansink goes on to bracketize categories that can generate descriptive or suggestive language.

They include:

Geographic:  Labels that mentally tie or associate with a geographic area)

Nostalgic:  Using past time periods as a trigger for happy memories of family, tradition, and nationalism

Sensory: These are descriptors that describe the product in endowed and specific terms

Band: This is related to cross-promotion and not as readily found in the wine industry and example would be Kahlua flavored Seattle’s Best coffee, for example.

Taken together, Dr. Deb’s post and the Mindless Eating site and research offer some interesting food for thought (bad pun, I know) for the wine industry – both for wineries and consumers.

Simply, while even hardcore enthusiasts may find wine language frequently forbidding and enthusiasts find it impenetrable, the evolutionary answer may be that wine tasting notes will continue to get even more colorful and full of life, as opposed to less so.

Your “A classic California Zin—fruit forward and brambly with notes of stewed plums”  may soon turn into the even more flowery and prosaic note like, “A beautiful example of Dry Creek Valley, in Sonoma, CA, Zinfandel.  Its brambly notes that are redolent of earthy blackberries also call to mind stewed plums, dense and rich … “

Is this good for wine consumers?  I am not so sure that it is but I do know that it sure does not do anything to clarify the notion that tasting notes are already too complex to penetrate for many.  It would seem that wine knowledge is going to have to increase, not decrease.  Taken together, though, Dr. Debs astute analysis of our language patterns juxtaposed against independent research that can be translated from the food world point to this increasing complexity as an eventuality.


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (5) |


On 02/01, Dr. Debs wrote:

I love the way you pulled the restaurant descriptions into this. The ways in which food writing and wine writing are distinct always amazes me. And you are right: as someone who used to write menu descriptions for a friend who was a chef, the more evocative you were the more the dish sold. Maybe it’s th combination of jargon AND dialect in wine writing that makes people uneasy? You don’t tend to use jargon in menu descriptions? I don’t know, but you’ve given me lots to think about.

On 02/03, Taster A wrote:

It’s marketing.  The flowery prose helps distinguish the product from all the other “fruit forward an brambly with notes of stewed plums” Zinfandels out there.  On a label, the trick for the marketing department is to do it with aplomb.  Too much prose and I wonder why they have to spin it.  To little and it is not distinguishable.

For the blogger, I read too many posting that are to dry and mechanical.  Bloggers can take a little more liberty with their words to keep reader interest.  (A real struggle for a died-in-the-wool engineer such as myself!)

On the other hand, foodies and restaurateurs are not putting product on a shelf, they are providing a dining experience. They have the chef’s image, the restaurant’s theme and the expectations of the public thrown into the mix.

As far as the American vocabulary, it has been in decline since the late 50s.  We need to maintain our wine vocabulary so that we know what the heck we are talking about efficiently.  I now what flabby means because I cared enough to learn about it.  Pickle juice?  Now is that bread and butter, gherkin, dill?  Doesn’t matter.  I’m not finding it in my wine either.

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