Dibbern on Wine

When is a Toasted Buttered Apple Not an Apple?
Or, I Hope You Score My Column a "98+"

Donald Dibbern

Strap in, dear reader. This month's column is a wild ride through philosophy, symbolism, linguistics, semantics, and surrealism. Oh, yeah, and how these relate to wine. The inspiration came from a wine website, a wineblog really, that recently started.

Its novel concept is that the wine reviews posted there are not composed of words or numbers, but of visual media like pictures, or drawings, or paintings. For example, their review of the 2004 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Echezeaux Grand Cru Burgundy was a simple stark photograph of an overripe moldy strawberry, while others are much less literal, like the photo of a distinguished-looking heavyset Orson Welles staring sternly ahead, intensely glowering at the viewer, to represent the 2004 Darioush Cabernet Sauvignon. Normally, here is where I would give you the link to the website, but they have chosen to call it Chateau Petrogasm of all things. This being the Web, for any intrepid readers who choose to search it out on their own, I suggest typing and spelling very carefully ... and hope that six months from now someone else hasn't purchased their domain name, I suppose.

It is hard to know how serious that website really might be, since it could certainly be read as tongue-in-cheek criticism of the fanciful descriptions so common to wine writing today. Not to single out Northern California's Pax Wine Cellars, as I do enjoy their beautiful wines, but I just can't resist giving an example from their website. It describes the Pax 2004 Richards Family Vineyard Syrah as, "Intense aromas of blackberries, mineral, spiced black plums, chocolate covered rose petals, bee pollen, and lavender ... Wet stones, tobacco, really ripe black-raspberries and dried flowers expand in your mouth into a velvety mixture of sweet chocolaty fruit ... Supple, velvety red fruit, mineral, and Turkish Delight flavors ... The ultra fine chocolaty tannins and spiced madurro tobacco leave your mouth watering for another sip ... "

Wow, I thought bee pollen had little taste (let alone smell!) ... and I just love snacking on chocolate covered rose petals. Is it really so ridiculous to use a picture instead, to comment upon a wine? I think not. Words are simply symbols too, representations of ideas, no less than a photo or drawing. Although the intent and meaning of a visual review may be more abstract, compared with the relatively concrete idea of something tasting of blackberry or plum, it may be no less valid.

These ideas remind me of a particular flavored soda that one of my college roommates enjoyed. We nicknamed it "Grape-er Than Grape" because the (presumably) artificial flavoring tasted nothing at all like real grapes, or grape juice, or any earthly fruit for that matter. Yet, somehow, it still tasted "grape." Actually, more precisely, I would say that it tasted "purple," if purple were somehow a flavor. The food chemists and flavor scientists apparently had managed to isolate a molecule representing an ideal Platonic grape-ness for most people.

In another example, as a child, I loved banana-flavored candy. Although I was never a picky eater, this particular fact drove my mother batty, since one of the few foods that I absolutely refused to eat was real bananas. Even if there happened to be one slice of a banana in a fruit salad, I would skip the whole dish. If pressed, I might reluctantly eat the slices of fruit that hadn't actually touched the banana, but only with much complaint. Yet, in a bowl of jelly beans, or sugar candies, I would pick out and eat all of the banana-flavored ones first.

Now, how does this relate to wine? Well, one almost universal descriptor applied to many of the Beaujolais Nouveau, particularly those using a specific yeast that imparts this flavor, is "banana." I contend, however, that if you actually smell this wine, then smell and eat a real, ripe (not overripe), banana, you'll find the aromas and flavors are really quite different.

So, does that make this descriptor "wrong," or confusing, or misleading? Not at all, since we all agree upon what we mean by this word, in this context. It represents an essence or universal "banana" archetype of sorts. In fact, according to Harold McGee in his wonderful and fascinating book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, this familiar scent is probably due to a particular group of certain aromatic chemicals known as acetate esters.

So, here's another thought experiment. Let's consider the description of the 2005 Ashley's Chardonnay from the website of another wine producer I enjoy, Brewer-Clifton. They describe this lovely wine as having, "Aromas of lemongrass, yuzu, and roasted corn followed by flavors of passionfruit, ginger, and wheat."

I had tasted this wine recently, before reading this description, and I would agree. Oh, I might have said something like, "grilled corn, lightly topped with unsalted butter, and a hint of citrus salsa of kumquat and Key lime" instead. I did pick up a spicy note that I couldn't quite place and, in retrospect, ginger seems right on. The passionfruit I didn't get, but although the particular words chosen differ, the idea and perception of the wine was communicated pretty accurately. In fact, for something with such complex flavors and aromas as wine, I think this is remarkable.

Now, let's say you go to the store, roast up some corn, find an Asian market for the lemongrass and yuzu, toss them into a blender, grate in some ginger, squeeze in a passionfruit and, what, pour in some flour? Give that a good spin, and taste. Guess what? I don't think that will smell or taste like the wine described above, even though we can agree that the description was valid and quite informative.

So really what this is all about is creating another language, one where wine enthusiasts generally agree on the meanings of certain words. Or, in the words of Humpty Dumpty, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less."

This brings to mind the practice of referring to wines as feminine or masculine. Of course, that would be nonsense in reference to fermented fruit juice, except for the fact that we all know what is meant. If only I had a dollar for every time I heard a wine described as a Pamela Anderson wine. How long can it be before someone uses the term Barry Bonds for a wine? Let's see, a hulking giant that knocks it out of the park with oak and sets high scoring records ... Are we talking about (A), a cult California Cab, or (B), a floral German Riesling? As comedian Bill Hicks might say, if you guessed A, "The-one-and-only-correct-answer-tell-them-what-they've-won-Johnny."

The idea of applying abstract concepts or symbols can be extended beyond wine to food as art, as well. When I previously lived in Denver, there was an amazing restaurant on top of a bookstore called Fourth Story Restaurant & Bar. Sadly, it has apparently closed, but in its time it was known for creative cuisine, as well as an outstanding wine list.

One of their signature events took place each week on an evening that was usually relatively slow, Tuesdays if memory serves. On those nights, there was no menu. Instead, you ordered by analogy to that so American of passions, a car make and model. The server would then discuss it with the chef and return with a proposed price and number of courses, but you had no idea exactly what you would be served. If you ordered a "VW Bus," you might get a tabbouleh salad and a vegan eggplant stew for $10, but ordering a "Ferrari Testarossa" could set you back $500 for a nine-course meal using ingredients like caviar, foie gras, truffles, and edible gold-leaf, with each course matched by a glass of fine Italian wine. Needless to say, this was great fun.

Reading the flowery language of wine reviews, I sometimes think of a painting by the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, The Treachery of Images. You might recognize it by its plain iconic image of a pipe placed just above the words, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("this is not a pipe"). At first glance, we think that the painter is playing a joke on us, at our expense. Of course it's a pipe, it is obviously a pipe. Well, a picture of one anyway ... Oh, wait, actually it isn't a pipe, it's a painting.

In a very real sense, this physical object is much less a pipe than say a cigar or cigarette would be. It is flat, two-dimensional, contains no tobacco, you can't smoke it, and so forth. It only represents a pipe in your mind, by means of colored paint arranged in certain shapes and patterns.

I think that descriptions applied to wines are just words, symbols that trigger associated sense memories for smells and tastes, a reverse-Proust if you will. They do have meaning, they communicate information in a relatively concise and arguably accurate manner. No matter how concrete they try to be, though, ultimately they are not literal or objective. They are evocative, poetic in a sense, and should not feel the need to apologize in being so.

Which of the following is a more real, or "true," representation of the 1994 Vin de Constance, both quoted from the Klein Constantia website? "Burnished gold ... Complex honeyed nose of marmalade and spice with fresh lime, apricot and peach ... Warm and mouthfilling, with caramel and citrus flavors; lingering fruitiness ... ," or "14.5% alcohol, 168 grams/liter residual sugar, 3.79 pH, 8.8 grams/liter total acid"?

Having been fortunate enough to taste this luscious wine, I vote for the former as more informative.

This brings me to my final point, my take on the controversy of wine scores. Perhaps there is little else as polarizing in the world of wine criticism. Proponents claim that scores are no more than a systematic way of expressing a preference, while opponents abhor the reduction of the art of wine to a crass numerical rating. Both have a point, of course, else this issue would not remain so controversial.

In keeping with the points I have made above, I view numbers used to score wines as simply a symbol, almost abstract in nature. Like a word, or an image, it has a meaning with reference to wine only in context. It is indeed much more reductive than words (a couple of hundred thousand in the English language) or images (infinite), being limited in most cases to 100 total (of which only about 20 are actually used).

This conciseness is both its strength and its weakness. There are generally consistent, predictable, reproducible differences between wines rated by a particular rater as 85-90 versus 95-100, despite whatever one might think personally about the relative merits of each group, or indeed your own preference between wines of these groups. Yet much information is also lost in this compression, since of course no two "89-point" wines are identical.

The key, and confusing, point is that these symbols are both specific to the taster (they cannot be generalized to others, and are in no way comparable with the same numerical score from another taster), and they have a ranking or ordinal meaning only for that taster. Bear with me here, an example will make this a lot clearer.

Whether you like it or not, a Parker-85 is a symbol with a definite meaning, as is a Parker-100. What it does not mean is that the (Parker-)85 necessarily has anything in common with a (Tanzer-)85, or a (Laube-)85. It also does not mean that you or I will invariably prefer the Parker-100. In fact, of the two wines, I will probably prefer the former.

If you taste a lot of wines, and read a lot of tasting notes, it becomes almost second nature to calibrate your own palate against published experts. My own sweet spot right now is probably Parker-89 - perhaps fortunate given the usual effect of that particular symbol on wine prices. The renowned critic himself says that his scores are no substitute for your own palate, and that they do not reveal the important facts about a wine. This is right on the front page of every issue of The Wine Advocate, although in the fine print (he is a lawyer, after all).

The other common complaint is in the application of ratings or scores to art. The argument goes that somehow it would be ridiculous to score the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's Starry Night, so it would also be inappropriate to apply numbers to something similarly subjective like wine. But in fact, critics rate works of art all of the time, albeit usually not with numbers.

Books, movies, plays, anything about which one can have an opinion can be rated. The major objection, as I see it, is the illusion of precision and universality implied by the use of numbers as ratings. Throughout our life, and especially during our formal education, the concept of numbers as absolute and objective is drilled into us. If there are 88 apples in a crate, then there are not 77, nor 99, and it doesn't depend upon whom you ask. But if you asked for a rating of a Merchant Ivory film, like A Room With a View, you will get a very different number whether you ask me, or my wife. I'll let you guess who would rate it 77 and who 99.

© copyright 2007 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

To contact Donald A. Dibbern Jr., write him at re.wine@verizon.net

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