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What we talk about

For years I’ve been longing to write a column using the title “What we talk about when we talk about wine.”

I apologize up front for co-opting a line from Raymond Carver, noted American writer of short fiction whose story, “What we talk about when we talk about love,” appeared in a collection of the same name in 1981.

My purpose in alluding to the story — an excellent read — is to suggest that, like love, the experience of a wine is something we talk about, perhaps with the feeling that it’s something words fail to capture.

Tasting wine is a personal, inherently subjective sensory experience. Even if two palates were identical in how they perceived the flavors and textures of a wine, there comes a difficulty in conveying the sensation in words. It’s easy to apply a judgment such as “it’s delicious” or “it’s terrible” or, to borrow a bit from John Cleese’s short film on wine appreciation, “Wine for the Confused,” “This wine should be put back in the horse.”

What’s hard is to describe the how and the why, for which most wine writers must rely on metaphorical terms. Consider the descriptive effort of the late, great British wine writer Auberon Waugh (“Waugh on Wine,” Fourth Estate Ltd., 1986), who wrote of a wine his cousin served: “The foul beverage itself tasted of vinegar, blue ink and curry powder, but such a bald description gave no hint of the shock or disappointment, even the sadness of such a discovery. After playing with the idea of comparing it to a collapsed marquee fallen into a rotting silage pit, I eventually decided that it reminded me of a bunch of dead chrysanthemums on the grave of a stillborn West Indian baby.” Why a West Indian baby? This question will probably go forever unanswered.

Other wine writers strive for some measure of objectivity by using a set of descriptors associated with an established tasting protocol. The protocol suggested by “The New Wine Lover’s Companion” (Barron’s, 2010) in its tasting appendix involves evaluation of appearance (clarity, color depth, color hue), followed by smell (intensity, quality and character) and then taste (sweetness or dryness, acidity, bitterness, body, tannins, alcohol, finish, balance). There is an accompanying glossary of terms to cover the qualities of appearance, smell and taste — 22 pages of useful suggestions to keep on the tip of your tongue, ranging from acescence (a sharp tang) to young (fresh, light, generally fruity). Surely the compilers overlooked zesty or zingy, being too exhausted by the time they got to “z” to strive for completeness.

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov takes on the task of describing wines in his weekly column “The Pour,” including, from time to time, a feature called Wine School in which he suggests readers try a few bottles of a specific varietal or blend and then evaluate using suggested parameters. This is useful in creating a community of wine consumers who at least use a common tasting approach and speak the same language. Last summer Asimov published a descriptive guide, “15 Helpful Words for Talking About Wine” (nytimes.com/2019/07/15/dining/drinks/wine-terms.html). His approach eschews any attempt to break down a wine into flavor and aroma components in favor of taking a composite view, assessing the wine in terms such as energetic, tense, plush, sweet, savory, to name a few. The guide is worth a read, and while the descriptors are figurative there is also an attempt to relate them to the chemistry that contributes to our perception of the wine in the glass.

Two items of local wine news: Readers may recall that Weisinger Family Winery and Goldback Wines have pledged 10% of their sales to ACCESS. As of May 1, their combined contribution was sufficient to fund 3,800 meals.

Simple Machine Winery has also come up with a plan to contribute to ACCESS. Email confirmation of your ACCESS donation to simplemachinewine@gmail.com to be entered into a lottery to win five bottles of wine, a $153 dollar value. Ten winners will be chosen in a drawing to be held June 1. Simple Machine manager and owner Clea Arthur reports that through May 7 over $2,000 has been raised.

Wine Wednesday will be on hiatus for an indefinite time. It’s my hope that in the coming months it may be possible to get back out to wineries to report on what’s new and interesting in the Rogue Valley wine world. Fingers crossed.