01 March 2011

eric asimov's unhelpful thought exercise

Eric Asimov of the NYTimes has published an editorial in that paper proposing, in what seems like partial seriousness, that the lexicon of wine writing be reduced to just two descriptors: sweet and savory.

Talk about career suicide.

Actually, the piece is a critique on the state of contemporary wine discourse, which Asimov quite rightly views as so muddled and obfuscatory as to be largely self-invalidating - it confuses even as it attempts to educate. Being a great fan of just about everything else Asimov has written, I'm inclined to judge his two-word proposal as generously as possible. Nevertheless it still strikes me as a fundamentally misguided, unhelpful idea - like, in trying to clear the air of wine journalism, he has proposed a deathly vacuum.

I am in agreement with him on the pointlessness of detailed tasting notes. I think wine writers offer them because they cast in a objective, professorial light what are often just chance encounters with variable bottles, the height of subjectivity. It's a pretty disingenuous way to earn a reader's trust, if you ask me. Moreover, they're just shoot-me-in-the-face boring. I keep a book of tasting notes myself, as a memory aid, and the fact that even I get bored when consulting it keeps me from ever making its contents public.

Having established the common evil of dull or confusing tasting notes, however, Asimov then proposes an argument notable for its readymade imperviousness to reductio ad absurdem attacks:
In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.
Put simply, this is like claiming that books or films could be helpfully classed as being either happy or sad. It's good starting information - you might avoid seeing In The Bedroom on a first date, for instance - but, being of no depth whatsoever (the information, not In The Bedroom), it leaves a consumer right where he or she began: lost, or worse, misled. Wines he classes as sweet include: Viognier, "modern Barolo," Grenache. Wines he classes as savory include: "serious Beaujolais," Rhone reds, "old-school Barolo," Muscadet. There's a vaguely visible logic at work here, but it's one that's synonymous with simple good taste. If someone served me a Barolo so modern it could be classified as sweet I would pour it in the nearest houseplant without apology.

There are limits to how literally one can take a purely hypothetical thought exercise. But to even entertain the idea of applying Asimov's terminology in the actual real wine market would be total folly. For one thing, the word "sweet" is just untouchable in contemporary Western drinking society, unless you wear glitter on your face. Even when describing to friends the Alsatian field blends I love, I am invariably obliged to preface any mention of sweetness with a complicating descriptor like "dancing" or "fleeting" or "dewy," in order to delineate what I'm about to serve from, say, Pixie Stix.

Asimov does deserve credit for avoiding the word "dry," which has been absolutely strip-mined of all meaning, moreso even than "sweet," since due to "sweet"'s total radioactivity "dry" is used with impunity to market all manner of sugary dreck. (When is the last time anyone has encountered a wine in a supermarket not tagged as dry?)

Meanwhile the perfectly fine, still-descriptive word "savory" is quivering in a corner at the prospect of being isolated opposite "sweet" for all time. The crucial thing is, as any undergrad linguistics major will tell you, words have meaning only in relation to each other. It follows that isolating any pair of words will only serve to impoverish both. 

Whereas: the way I originally learned about wines, the way I still do, is by internalizing, not individual words, but word-clusters: minor descriptive constellations of synonyms and related nouns. You do this by reading the descriptions of trusted critics - Asimov, among them - and seeing what words or images are common to them all. For example, Barolo profiles tend to contain some of the following words: 


Similarly, almost any mention of Aligoté includes the words "mineral" and "lemon." All but the most unknowably obscure regions or varietals have similar associative clouds around them. (Someone give me Nero di Troia! Chasselas!) They are stock descriptors, and, in a sense, clichés. A good wine writer will find ways to avoid leaning too hard on them, while still retaining whatever grains of truth caused them to become clichés in the first place. 

We are left, then, with the status quo - with wine writers over-describing the market unto distraction. But rather than taking industrial logging equipment to the word-forest that is contemporary wine writing, it seems more responsible just to promote, you know, basic weeding. For instance, tasting notes - we might simply retire them to databases for those who dig such things.

On this blog, whenever I launch into a flowery descriptive passage, I attempt to do it overtly, in the hopes that it provides a kind of semi-ironic subtextual throat-clearing effect. Beyond that, I try to limit myself to flowery description of no more than one or two wines per post - because I find that any more just wears out one's ears, like the glut of inconsequential sonic curlicues on a latter-day Radiohead album. Then, for every tenuous musical or literary simile I present (mostly for the sake of variety), I usually include some more grounded, informative diction plucked directly from the classic word-clusters associated with a given wine. A recent example, chosen at random: 

(In reference to a 2008 Domaine de la Grand'Cour Fleurie "Climat Champagne." Stock descriptors in bold.)
Bright and saber-like, despite the cool hailstrewn vintage, with a long, mesmerizing cinnamon-raspberry-chewable vitamin palate. Thrillingly intense - like a distillate of all that is beautiful about cru Beaujolais. If the 2007 Descombes Régnié was like an early Walkmen composition - rangey, catchy, full of atmosphere but slightly lacking in direction - then the 2008 Grand'Cour "Climat Champagne" was new album standout "Woe Is Me": classic, understated, and instantly memorable.
It's not Shakespeare, admittedly. But it beats "sweet."

Related Links:

Eric Asimov: Wine In Two Words @ NYTimes
Eric Asimov's follow up blog post @ Diner'sJournal

More NYTimes Commentary: iPad Wine Lists


  1. Woof! Did read it to the end.

  2. I would reduce it even more: good or bad; I like it, I dont....

  3. While the primary purpose of a wine review is to educate the reader so they can make an informed choice, an important secondary purpose is to entertain. Sweet and savory are far from entertaining as descriptors. Unhelpful is right. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  4. @tai-ran: thanks! i knew one of you would.

    @anonymous: part of me feels that is what asimov was doing, only in a coded fashion. how else can one explain lumping modern barolo and commercial beaujolais under the sweet banner?

    @matt: thanks for reading! and yes, entertainment is kind of what it's all about in the end. if we wanted information, we'd read the surgeon general's warning, or something.