Vino Endoxa

First I have to recycle that Marshall McLuhan quote: “I don’t explain—I explore”. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing but I hope by trying to explain it I might further my understanding of the project. I suspect I’ll have to do this over and over.

I’m trying to build a new wine description system that probably best compares to cantometrics, Alan Lomax’ specialist language for describing music. Lomax worked on it for decades while other musicologists just didn’t get it and ultimately was bailed out by the creators of the Human Genome project to create the Music Genome Project which is now Pandora.

I’m calling my project Vino Endoxa (name is negotiable) and I’m hoping to excite wine professionals, cognitive linguists, neuroscientists, et al. into participating with its development. Introduced to me by cognitive linguists, endoxa is a Greek term that is synonymous with consensus which is paramount to creating meaningful and perhaps data mineable descriptions of wine.

Many people have tried to do this in academic contexts, very notably at UC Davis, so what makes me think I can do any better? For starters, my effort is post Metaphors We Live By and also post Neurogastronomy. It is post hypertext, post crowd sourcing, and post iPhone. I’ve also learned that I can introduce people to new metaphors and ground them between known values. Between-ness is something I’ve explored for years now.

Take for example the gooseberry comparison. On its own gooseberry has irked a lot of the wine crowd because they have never experienced the fruit for themselves, but gooseberry can be grounded between other known values like tart tropical fruits and grapefruit. Crowd sourced scales can be created and refined similar to the G. Septimus Piesse’s Odophone:


The comparison of perfume aromas to musical notes in the odophone helps ground unfamiliar values between other values that are likely more familiar. With this technique its possible to create higher degrees of consensus, but the question remains; will it be enough?

One significant challenge of working with object comparisons when describing wines is that olfaction is subject to illusion and wine might be the greatest realm of olfactory illusion. We may say that perception is the meeting point of incoming sensation and outgoing recollection, so we are always completing a wine just like an optical illusion.

When we describe a wine with tasting descriptors, especially object comparisons, we aren’t exactly describing the wine, we are pretty much describing our own recollections. For some people this idea might be liberating and for others it will be another wino WTF.

Well knowing that, what the hell do we do? Before we move along we should probably make it even more complicated. The bounds of subjectivity are governed by a penchant for illusion, but they are also governed by significantly different contrast detection skills among drinkers. Some people are pretty much aroma blind just like some are color blind, so when they say it all tastes the same to them, for many facets it just might. This is not exactly a case of genetics, it is rather, in most cases, a lack of development due to a lack of categories.

Categories are how we tell blue from green and they have to be created, though that is easy to take for granted. Language helps create categories and that is a big part of the emphasis to turn wine into words. If a system of describing wines gives people more categories, and therefore a better chance of detecting contrast, it will somewhat level that playing field.

Another way to overcome the specific proprietary object comparisons that recollection can generate is to go beyond lofty symbolic language into the very much grounded territory of non linguist thought. This is where colors can be warm or cool, aromas can be sweet or angular, and to cross into yet another modality, aromas can even be umami. Neuroscientists and cognitive linguists are only starting to explore this territory but poets have been at it for ages. Many thinkers have confused non linguistic thought with synaesthesia but they are different phenomenons though likely related. Co-experience has a very significant impact on non-linguistic thought and just being raised human is enough to give strong consensus to non linguistic metaphors.

The non linguistic ways we detect contrast are where hyper text and the iPhone come in. Previous thinking on describing sensations was pretty much constrained by the printed page. Hyper text allows us to use pictures and moving controls to describe sensations. How angular or acute is the acidity of the wine? Previously, people have just said, its tart, sharp, zippy, or zinging, but that doesn’t allow for much of a sensitive data mineable scale and it also allows hedonic value judgments to creep in which compromises palate growth and the acceptance of acquired tastes, which is central to preserving the worlds wine styles. Instead of selecting words, a control could be moved to visually describe the perceived angle of the acidity. Will this seem intuitive and create higher degrees of consensus? There is only one way to find out! More significant consensus on tannin might be found by using pictures of possible shapes than by using words alone. These shapes of course can be grounded in parallel with words.

Many people have been known to taste shapes, some as full fledged synaesthetes and some not. An important shape taster to highlight might be Pamela Vandyke Price who wrote The Taste of Wine (1975) and was brought to my attention by Adrienne Lehrer in her boundary pushing text, Wine and Conversation.

Many people find it helpful to think of wines as having a shape. Some immature wines often seem to be angular, other seem straight up and down in slightly unripe vintages. A round wine has its skeleton (the alcohol) adequately and pleasantly covered with flesh (the fruit) and is enhanced by a good skin (the fragrance). Excess rotundity show a lack of proportion, but many young wines posses a type of puppy fat which they shed later. How round a wine ought to be depends on the quality it should ideally attain; a great wine at is peak should be only gracefully curved, a good youngish wine in the medium ranges can be rather more curvaceous. Roundness is sometimes felt as the wine passes over the palate and is held momentarily in the mouth. (p. 183)

If a wine can be round, it can also be angular, and it can also be other organic shapes. If poets can be quick to say aromas can be sweet, or sour, sometimes bitter, they can also be umami. We have bass notes and flatter notes and no one really questions any of these nor expands upon them. The pattern that runs through this all, in regards to what we have metaphors for and what is incomplete or very seldom used, is that sweetness leads the pack because it is reinforced by the highest nutritional reward. This is followed by acidity which is an acquired taste and likely part of a warning mechanism. Umami is the category that lags in usage and the problem may be in translating non language to language. Round shapes and angular shapes are basic but organic shapes are more complex. A shape for Umami escaped the ancient Greek Democritus:

“Sweet things”, according to Democritus, were “round and large in their atoms,” while “the astringently sour is that which is large in its atoms but rough, angular, and not spherical.” Saltiness was caused by isosceles atoms, while bitterness was “spherical, smooth, scalene and small.”

This might all seem like its going in a non scientific direction, but in Neurogastronomy, Gordon Shepherd, explains the spatial perception of smell. All these shapes and then winespeak, like linear, are the language and categories of space. I was once told of an adage that “so many failed architects go into the wine business.” These architects no doubt have exercised that spatial muscle and it gives them some sort of advantages in the trade. But can any of these ideas ground metaphors, facilitate contrast detection, and ultimately help us reach higher levels of endoxa?

I think I’ll take a break. Next time I’ll come back and explain what is possible once you have a new wine description system.

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